After the Seattle Storm's 19-point comeback to win the Western Conference Finals 91-88, more than one person was left wondering, "Wait - what happened?"
In fact, nobody seemed to have more than a vaguer-than-usual recollection of what happened -- in an interview with local television station King 5, forward Swin Cash indicated that she didn't even know how they managed to cut the lead to two. The Mercury just seemed to be in complete control.
"We did everything we wanted to do except win," said Phoenix Mercury guard Temeka Johnson. "But I think it just came down to getting stops and we didn't get em when we needed to and Seattle came out on top."
If there was any moment that seemed to be a lightening rod for the general sentiment during the game, it was Diana Taurasi's ridiculous shot with 3:21 left in the game that put the Phoenix Mercury up 12 points. The shot seemed to capture not only the character of the game to that point but also the increasingly insurmountable confidence of one of the WNBA's most confident players.
The play began when Storm guard Tanisha Wright made an errant pass that was collected by Mercury forward Candice Dupree. Taurasi got the ball in transition with eventual Game Two hero Sue Bird blocking her path to the basket. With Bird covering her tightly as she approached the three point line, Taurasi leaned in to initiate contact and chucked the ball toward the basket off one foot clearly anticipating a foul.
That the ball actually went in seemed to be a final sign that it was the Mercury's day -- particularly Taurasi's expected revival after struggling in Game One -- and that there was really nothing the Storm could do to turn it around. There was a unique Taurasi audacity to turning toward the ref and with her arms up and palms faced upwards to ask where the foul was; while certainly not akin to a Michael Jordan shrug, the playful swagger associated with the shot seemed to cement the fact that it was unquestionably her moment as a superstar playing a notch above the competition.
"We just tried to stay in the moment," said Storm coach Brian Agler when asked about how the team responded when down in the fourth quarter. "Sue was talking about we got a lot of time left just hang in there. And being in this league for a long time and especially with this team in Seattle, we've seen both happen."
So as Taurasi continued smiling and sopping up the emotion of the moment, the Storm had a trademark moment of their own.
On the very next possession off a baseline inbounds play, Storm forward Swin Cash made what has become routine for her this season: with a drive to the middle of the key, she drew contact from DeWanna Bonner and banked a shot off the glass. As Cash walked to the free throw line to convert a three point play that essentially erased the spectacular three point shot from less than 30 seconds before, the cameras once again focused on Taurasi who was still smiling and seemingly starting to smell victory despite Cash's rather mundane play.
Ironically, after Taurasi's moment in the spotlight that seemed to represent so much about the way the game had gone and how it would end, things went south: she went scoreless the rest of the game due to the unfortunate combination of playing the role of lead ballhandler while continuing to force shots. In forcing shots, the Mercury sacrificed the execution that helped them mount such a big lead to begin with. Meanwhile, the rather mundane tenacity of Cash's play was part of what developed into an extended run for the Storm that was eventually channelled into a 9-0 run to finish the game.
"That’s been the storyline of our season, really," said Taurasi. "When we’re tuned in, we’re really good and little by little, we lose focus. They’re a good team, they played really well this year and they showed it."
Although that's not necessarily untrue to say that the Mercury experienced a meltdown while the Storm stayed poised, there's a bit more to this particular moment that speaks volumes about this Storm team. Not only did the Storm maintain the poise they're known for in a critical moment, but there was something unique -- perhaps even for the Storm -- about the way the Storm seemed get increase their focus over the last three minutes of the game.
As the cameras, fans, and possibly even Taurasi herself got caught up in the magnitude of what had been an extraordinary performance by one of the league's most recognizable stars, the Storm's focus seemed to intensify almost as a means to counterbalance the emotion of the moment around them. Even down 12 points with the game apparently moving further from their grasp, it seemed like the heightened emotion of their surroundings forced them into a mode of calm, determined, and focused aggression that they managed to channel into a heightened awareness of their advantages and improved execution. In other words, when the moment provided the option of losing themselves in the moment or perhaps rising above the emotion of the moment, the Storm chose the latter.
The culmination of this building focus came was what could end up being one of the biggest moments of Sue Bird's career -- the game-winning three point shot. However, what made the last play particularly remarkable was that they executed on the court almost exactly how a mic'd up Brian Agler described it to the team in the huddle, down to the second. Before dismissing that as routine for professional athletes, think back to the number of times you hear about teams drawing up plays in the huddle and then facing confusion or simply failing to carry out the plan, either due to a desire to improvise or misreading the situation in real-time. It's not that the final play was a complex play, it's that the Storm executed it as precisely as they possibly could have. The results of that execution speak for themselves.
"They did a good job of executing at the end," said Taurasi. "Getting to the free throw line a lot. Things like that kind of get you back into the game and they did a good job of that."
If you happen to be one of those people who would prefer to prolong the emotion of that big moment, then it doesn't really matter what exactly happened to allow the Storm to win: they won and it was good. But if you're still searching for an explanation for the comeback, the reality is that you're not going to find a neatly packaged answer complete with a specific moment that shifted the momentum of the game. Yet that 30 second sequence in which Taurasi's performance effectively came to an end while the Storm's brand of calm aggression began to intensify speaks volumes about why the game ended as it did.
What we saw yesterday in Phoenix was a concrete example of what sustains the Storm as the league's most resilient team.
"Fortunately for us we just hung in there," said Storm coach Brian Agler. "And we talked about before the game how resilient we were going to need to be and persistent and just determined if we were going to come out on top. Obviously there was some question down the stretch there but we made some plays defensively and hit some shots."
Among the most impressive things about the Seattle Storm all season long has been that they have been almost completely unflappable to the point where they have seemed almost oblivious to the emotion of the moment, no matter how many records they broke or milestones they approached. Even when all about them people assumed that the moment demanded some sort of emotional response, the Storm's focus on improving to earn the opportunity to play for a championship seemed to intensify rather than decline. As the Storm would remind media often, none of those regular season milestones and records that everyone was making a big fuss over really mattered to them -- the ebb and flow of the regular season was put in perspective by the bigger vision of winning a championship. Simultaneously, as the magnitude of their season increased and the excitement grew, they found a way to look within and become more focused.
"We've had a lot of games against the Mercury like that," said Agler. "Not only this year, but also the past three years since I've been in Seattle. And I think we have the ability to do two things with each other -- we have the ability to bring out the best of each other and I believe we have the ability to bring out the worst. But today's game you saw a lot of good on both teams. We knew that with them being defending champs they weren't going to go down easy."
To say this sort of phenomenon is unique to the Storm is probably untrue -- it's not terribly uncommon to hear sports teams talk about how the surrounding excitement about a growing legacy managed to force them into a foxhole where they don't necessarily stand in opposition to the world but become increasingly inwardly focused. That said, what made this game particularly representative of the Storm's personality was exactly that tension between spectator excitement and professional discipline: for that few minutes where spectators were so caught up in the excitement of the moment that it seemed difficult to even realize what happened, the Storm continued about their business of executing their offense as precisely as possible and playing defense as cohesively possible.
"We're very resilient," said Jackson. "And I think a lot of those games we played here against Phoenix came right down to the wire -- that triple overtime game, there was another overtime game. They know that we're able to come back at the end of games...Fortunately, as a team, we play really well together -- we played good defense. And thankfully in the fourth quarter, when it really mattered, we did. And I think that's just a testament to our team and how we've played all season."
There has been a lot of evidence for the Storm's resilience this season from facing fourth quarter deficits to overcoming a huge halftime deficit against the Mercury in KeyArena. Yet simply little better evidence than yesterday's game to explain the Storm's resilience in terms of their ability to remain impervious to the ebbs and flows of an enormous moment while maintaining a steady holding to what's important. Their ability to do that -- and perhaps the growing expectation of fans that they will do that, even away from the cozy confines of KeyArena -- is what makes this team particularly fascinating to watch.
As it turned out that Cash-Taurasi moment -- with Taurasi getting the spotlight while Cash went through the same struggle and recovery -- also played a significant role in this series.
For the statistical breakdown of how the Storm won the game and key contributors, check out the storystream at SBN Seattle.