As I said before last night's game, although I'm easily pleased by basketball, I was extremely excited for last night's game.
I'd say that as a basketball fan, last night's game far exceeded my expectations -- I just wanted a good game, perhaps on par with what I saw against the Indiana Fever; last night, we got the best game since "The Play" in the first round of the 2009 WNBA Playoffs.
That's neither an exaggeration, nor saying the game was as good. But it legitimately felt like a playoff game or some sort of playoff tune-up (I won't state my preferences for what the game might forecast for fear of jinxing people).
But similar to what someone said after the game while waiting for coach Brian Agler to speak to the media, if you didn't enjoy that game it's possible that you don't enjoy basketball.
No hard feelings, just stop hating and move on.
Anyway, the game was so good that it was a game that I came home, babbled about it to a close friend until I got tired, and didn't even bother to look at the stats until this afternoon. That's a big deal -- I normally like looking at the stats to temper my emotional responses to the game and make sure that I identify the top players or plays in whatever I write. But as I discussed it with my friend, it became clear that I was more taken with the feeling of the game than anything else. So the boxscore really doesn't tell the story of last night's game because there were just so many other interesting angles that the fact that Lauren Jackson had a season-high 33 points was almost secondary.
The most interesting angle was probably best articulated in the following reconstruction of a conversation I had with a media member at halftime about our pre-game talk with Mercury coach Corey Gaines:
"Well, Gaines pretty much called this one, huh," he said while heading to the media room to grab some water.
"Pretty much," I replied. "I might not even write a game summary -- I'll just transcribe his pre-game talk!"
Well the game obviously turned around, but his point still stands: not one team this year has come into KeyArena and executed their game plan as well as the Phoenix Mercury did last night.
It wasn't just that the Storm were down at halftime -- that's happened before. They'd faced halftime deficits at home four times this season against the Indiana Fever, Minnesota Lynx, New York Liberty and Washington Mystics. However, the difference is that in those four games, it seemed like the deficit could be attributed to poor shooting from the Storm or physicality from the opponent that led to sloppy play rather than a matter of X's and O's. Last night might have been the first time a team established exactly what they wanted to do and maintained it for an entire half of play.
"I wouldn't mind playing anybody now," said Gaines before the game. "It's a fun game for us. We have nothing to lose."
That's pretty much summarizes the way the Mercury played in the first half before the Storm's poise caught up to them.
So in between the statistical notes, a look at what Gaines' approach was and why it worked so well.
Storm statistical MVP: Lauren Jackson
In the ongoing effort to illustrate how good Jackson in roundabout ways without telling you she's good on Swish Appeal, Candice Dupree summarized the experience of playing Jackson in her season-high 33 point performance.
"She’s one of the best players in the world so it’s kind of hard," said Dupree, with a why-are-you-even-bothering-to-ask-about-her type of grin. "She’s going to get her points so you just have to try and contain everybody else. But she had 33 points … you just have to play her early and not let her sit on you on the block. She’s a great player and she’s going to score."
Most impressive last night is that Jackson finished with an offensive rebounding rate of 23.08% with 8 offensive rebounds, in addition to a free throw rate of nearly 40% and not one turnover. Not a bad night. But before you suggest that her big performance was because of the Mercury's poor defense, Gaines articulated a more sophisticated philosophy that both explains how defense helped them win their championships while simultaneously explaining why it didn't work against the Storm.
"What's funny is the championships we did win was because of the defense," said Gaines when asked about his team's defense. "Because see the defense keys in because what happens is we play a Rover defense, which is a matchup kinda amoeba old UNLV defense without the (Stacey) Augmons...but it depends because each team is different. Some teams, you don't have to get them to shoot the ball quick -- they fall into your trap. Seattle doesn't fall into your trap. So you have to get them to take shots you don't want them to take. That's the whole thing.
"It's not that we're just out there making this stuff up. No, there's a reason for everything we do...The person who you want to shoot the ball doesn't get a shot."
So against a balanced, calm, poised team like Seattle who isn't going to fall into the trap, you just hope to disrupt them enough to win the game. The problem is that a) they have a player like Jackson, who really did her thing in all four quarters even when the rest of the team was struggling and b) the Storm are poised enough to regroup and respond when things aren't going well.
Key player: Sue Bird
There is little doubt that Bird keeps this team poised when on the floor -- it's why the Storm have gotten through stretches near the end of the past two seasons without Jackson. Bird has the ability to alternate between taking over and blending into the background as a facilitator.
She had an outstanding pure point rating of 7.01 supported by her assist rate of 35.42% and turnover percentage of 10.12. She was more aggressive getting into the lane and had all six of her assists in the fourth quarter when her team needed it the most. Which brings up a point that can't be forgotten about this game -- despite the fan fervor, the Storm were only up 1 point with after a DeWanna Bonner free throw with 2:38 left. The Storm just kept their heads when the fans were (rightly) losing theirs.
"We've been close a couple of times, but every team is different," said Gaines. "Some teams break first quarter, some teams break in the second quarter. Some great teams like Seattle, great teams. It may be the last three minutes of the game. Somebody may say, 'Hey, it's my time to shine, I'll take this shot' and get you into that wrong [mindset]. We practice it so it's nothing for us, we practice it. We don't practice coming down poised, taking your time."
In last night's game, the Storm actually "broke" in the second quarter -- the Storm had no assists, went 0-7 from the three point line, and shot 33.33% from the field, in addition to have a higher turnover percentage. Nothing went right for the Storm and they lost the quarter 31-18. Meanwhile, the Mercury were off to the races, beating the Storm 8-2 on fast break points in the quarter and 18-10 in points in the paint, not to mention beating the Storm on the offensive boards.
Then the Storm responded and came out of the locker room more poised in the second half to come back and Bird was no small part of that.
Mercury statistical MVP: Candice Dupree
In the first half, Bonner was huge for the Mercury driving to the basket, scoring off cuts, defending and rebounding. Taurasi had 16 of her 27 in the first half to go along with 4 assists and 1 turnover. In the second half, Bonner went 2-9 and Taurasi 2-7, but similar to Jackson it was Dupree who remained efficient throughout the game despite foul trouble, finishing with 12 points and 5 rebounds.
Before the game, Gaines spoke a bit about Dupree's acclimation to the team.
"She's gotten used to playing with us," said Gaines. "We don't play regular ball. So it's kinda hard for somebody to come in and say, 'Oh yeah, I'm gonna do it right away.' It took us a year to learn it. The first year we were horrible. The next year we won it. You just gotta get the right players."
When a media member asked to describe further what it takes to learn the system, Gaines made an analogy to writing.
"It's just that you're taught a certain way," said Gaines. "Like you're a writer. Let's say I make you write everything backwards -- how fast could you pick that up? Write something backwards right now and see how long it takes you. But when you get it, you got it. Same thing. That's the closest thing I can say to what you do. We do everything backwards. Backwards: shoot the ball quick, gamble on defense, we attack from different spots, don't call timeouts, run the floor, take quick shots."
While the Storm struggled to adjust to a team doing everything backwards in the first half, it's sort of interesting to think that their more "conventional" forward ended up being the most efficient. The bigger issue though is it's almost as though the Storm figured out how to stop the Mercury from writing backwards and forced them into the poised style that they don't want to play.
"When you get used to writing backwards you'll be good at it," said Gaines prior to the game.
In the third quarter, the Storm won the field goal percentage battle by a whopping 66.7% to 9.1% for the Mercury, meaning there were less defensive rebounds to run off of. In the fourth quarter, the Storm both won the turnover battle -- meaning less fast break opportunities -- and the offensive rebounding battle.
Key stat: Offensive rebounding
This stands out as a bit of a surprise because the Mercury beat the Storm on the offensive glass for the first three quarters before living on the offensive glass, 60%-20% in the fourth. Jackson was predictably a part of that, but Camille Little, Le'coe WIllingham, and Tanisha Wright contributed as well. Although it didn't show up strongly in terms of second chance points -- each team had 5 apiece in the 4th -- it did show up in the Storm having 7 2nd chance attempts to the Mercury's 3. Surely, the Storm are not happy with their conversion rate, but they're tenacity on the boards was definitely helpful.
Overall, Gaines said he's not disappointed and as his team continues to peak as they remain healthy and continue to integrate Kara Braxton into the lineup, he's looking ahead a bit rather than dwelling on a loss against a good team.
"It's a game good for TV," said Gaines before the game. "Money time comes later, true money time. Money time is going to come eventually. Hopefully we're good enough to make that money time special."
The confidence this team exudes coached by Gaines and led by Taurasi is felt the moment you step into the locker room. Perhaps it's the security that comes from having won a championship 2 out the last 3 years and knowing that there is more at stake than just one game.
"If I remember correctly, every time we've won it, they've swept us in the regular season," said Gaines after the game. "Hmmmm. Not that I was trying to lose on purpose or anything...percentage-wise, it's hard to beat someone 7, 8 times in a row. I would hate to be the other way around."