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It was very difficult not to look at the Seattle Storm's halftime deficit against the Atlanta Dream tonight as just one more set up for a great finish.
Bear in mind, that's no slight to the Dream. But we've seen it happen so many times this season that standing 20 minutes from a title, it just seemed like the logical outcome for a magical season.
"All season long we've been in situations where, you know, we've been down and people start to put a gap on us, and we've had players step up and hit big shots," said 2010 WNBA Finals MVP Lauren Jackson. "That's been the magic of our team really all year."
What ultimately seemed to happen over and over again this season is teams would be able to stay with the Storm for some period of time and then the Storm would just eventually overwhelm them with options.
I contrast that - and not at all as a slight - to something Phoenix Mercury coach Corey Gaines said during the season. He described a strategy in which the goal was to force opponents away from their strengths in order to force them to collapse under the weight of their own weaknesses.
The Storm often accomplished the exact opposite: stack their strengths up against the strengths of any team in the league and the Storm would win almost any time.
It was never exactly the same players stepping or the same path to victory and not even always the result of what one might identify as a letdown. They were simply the most efficient, talented, and versatile team in the league and eventually something would end up resulting in the Storm's success.
Yet one of the things the 2010 Storm might be remembered for is their balance and tonight's game was no different - none of the top seven players in their rotation used lower than 17.46% of their plays when on the court (Svetlana Abrosimova) and none used higher than 23.01% of the plays when on the court (Tanisha Wright). That's not terribly uncommon for the Storm but speaks highly of their balance even in a situation when stars usually dominate.
"I did not expect, like I said, to have this sort of season, but it was my teammates," said Jackson. "I wouldn't have achieved any of it without the great players that we have on our team. You know, I don't think individually I had the best season I've ever had, but the reason I got the awards was because of my teammates and the people around me and the fact that we were winning games."
Nevertheless, despite the Storm‘s strength as a unit that has garnered so much attention this season due to the depth they added in the off-season, when it came down to winning a championship, it was their three All-Stars that they leaned on to bring them back in the third quarter. And they did it in exactly the ways we've come to expect this season.
Game Three Storm statistical MVP: Swin Cash
All season, those who have watched the Storm closely have noted that Cash has been the emotional sparkplug that seems to ignite the team when they get down. Tonight's performance was a perfect representation of that.
Cash hit the big three that ignited the Storm in the third quarter when they were down in the third and finished with a team-high true shooting percentage of 65.40%. She also rebounded well with a defensive rebounding percentage of 17.52%.
But most importantly in a season in which she had close to a career-high in turnovers per game is that Cash had a very efficient game as a ball handler tonight with an assist ratio of 20.24% to a turnover percentage of 10.12% that contributed to a solid pure point rating of 1.90 for a small forward.
But something that won't show up statistically in Cash's game is her defense. Cash was often responsible for guarding Dream guard Angel McCoughtry and her defense on her in the third quarter was a significant reason for the Storm's turnaround.
"Swin and Tanisha did a great job on her when they were matched up and we were trying to switch a lot -- we
were trying to keep people in front of her and a big part of her offense is getting to the free throw line and we didn't want to foul her," said Storm coach Brian Agler referring to the Storm's defense of McCoughtry. "We wanted to contain her and make as tough a shot as possible."
That defense on McCoughtry - and the fact that she sat out for the end of the third - has to be considered a significant reason why the Dream shot an effective field goal percentage of 33.33% after shooting 55.56% eFg% in the first half.
Key contributor: Sue Bird
After Cash hit her big shots, Bird chipped in a three as well and if you hadn't already assumed that the tide was turning before that point, that shot might have been your final warning.
But as usual, Bird's biggest contribution to the Storm is as the player who manages the offense. During the third quarter, the Storm's offense was as fluid as it was all game with an assisted field goal percentage of 87.50% and Bird was unquestionably the player who got the team into their offense despite pressure and smoothly conducted their sets.
She finished with an assist ratio of 29.31% and a turnover percentage of 8.37% that led to a pure point rating of 7.40 although she didn't have a strong shooting night.
Finals statistical MVP: Lauren Jackson
Although Jackson wasn't the top player statistically in all three wins, she was never far behind and tonight was no different.
After scoring four points in the first half, Jackson came up big in the second half and really getting going in the third quarter. The Storm began moving Jackson around more and although she didn't hit a three pointer tonight, it resulted in Jackson earning points from the free throw line and finishing with a strong 77.77% free throw rate.
"Once Swin started hitting those three's, they couldn't guard me as closely, and it made it easy for me to get looks," said Jackson.
Scoring performance aside, Jackson's biggest contribution might have been her defensive rebounding as she finished with a team-high defensive rebounding percentage of 34.07% that helped keep the Dream off the offensive boards.
"I thought rebounding was the reason we didn't get very many breaks," said Dream coach Marynell Meadors. "We didn't rebound like we normally do, and I think Seattle had a lot to do with that."
Key statistic: effective field goal percentage
The combination of Cash hitting from the outside, Bird running the offense with precision, and Jackson coming up big with shots in the paint as well as the Storm playing stronger defense as shots fell led to a huge shooting differential in the third quarter, which was ultimately the most significant factor in the game. Hitting shots in the second half of the quarter allowed the Storm to overcome a sloppy start that led to a 30% turnover percentage.
Dream statistical MVP: Angel McCoughtry
A large reason why the Dream shot so well in the other three quarters was McCoughtry, who needed no statistics to describe her impact.
"She carried them tonight, even in those last couple of minutes, even when that 3 went up," said Bird, referring to the three McCoughtry took in the waning moments of the game. "I really thought it was going to go in based on how
she was playing the whole game. She is a tremendous player and she was very difficult to guard tonight."
After struggling to find efficiency in the first two games, McCoughtry was far more efficient in Game Three with a true shooting percentage of 65.98% as well as a free throw rate of 34.78%. What made her more valuable than Iziane Castro Marques is not only that she finished with more points, but that she was more efficient despite using a game-high 34% of the team's plays.
Although it's a given that the Dream are not satisfied with the loss, there is nothing for them to be ashamed of about this remarkable turnaround in the playoffs after limping in losing six of their seven final regular season games and being the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. That is especially true for second-year star McCoughtry.
"This is definitely a great learning experience for me being my second year as a professional," said McCoughtry. "I just learned, you know, it's a different ball game in the playoffs, it's a new season, it's very physical and you really got
to every possession matters, and that showed in the Seattle series."
Even though it was the Storm's night in the spotlight, McCoughtry was arguably the statistical MVP for the game despite the Dream's loss. It's both impressive and perhaps a sign that we can expect to see her back in this position in the future.
"You know, we showed a lot of heart," said McCoughtry. "We’re still champions. You know, that’s it with sports, you never give up. Sometimes things don’t go the way you want them to. We wanted to win the championship, but you can’t knock the effort that we gave tonight."