There were enough significant irregularities in Saturday's nationally televised season opener between the Seattle Storm and Phoenix Mercury that it almost defied analysis.
Both teams fought through first game jitters early on after the Storm's 2010 WNBA championship ring ceremony. An entire half of basketball elapsed without Storm forward Lauren Jackson even hitting a field goal. Yet the Storm led at halftime and ultimately won 78-71 because, as Seth Pollack of SBN Arizona described, the Mercury's offense was MIA.
"We didn't shoot the ball well or play well, but I can't take anything away from them - they played well enough to win," said Mercury coach Corey Gaines after the team's loss. "They're the champions. It's tough on the road, first game against the champions ... it's tough."
So although a friend who hadn't watched the league since its inception noted that it was definitely better basketball than 15 years ago, it's also fair to say that the sloppy contest was neither the best representation of the league nor where these teams will be come August.
In a battle between the teams who have finished 1-2 in the Western Conference regular season standings in the past two years, one thing that was quite evident - or perhaps reinforced - is that being the only team in the league to be returning all five starters for a third consecutive year makes a difference for the Storm.
The Storm overcame a sloppy first quarter more quickly, came together in the second quarter a bit more easily, and showed the poise (and depth) to maintain and extend their lead in the third quarter.
It's not that the Mercury will never achieve the rhythm, cohesion, and poise that the Storm showed on Saturday - but they clearly don't yet have it.
Key statistic: Storm's synergy helped them shoot more efficiently
While the Mercury made a late-game run to level things a bit statistically, through three quarters the biggest difference in the game was the Storm's shooting efficiency - the Storm outshot the Mercury 43.1% to 34.6% through three quarters, which helped them mount a 13 point lead that would balloon to 19 mid-way through the fourth. The Storm's 4-for-8 three point shooting through three - noticeably more efficient than the Mercury's 3-for-11 shooting from deep - gave them an even more significant effective field goal percentage advantage.
|Team||First three quarters||Fourth quarter|
Yet possibly the most impressive quarter for the Storm was the one in which they shot the worst - while they only had a game-low 38.64% effective field goal percentage in the third quarter, they held the Mercury to a 23.68% effective field goal percentage in that quarter. That was in large part due to the Storm's defense, as described already on SBN Seattle. But the Mercury's spacing was also no small part of their struggles.
While the Mercury might be stronger inside this season, Tangela Smith's absence on the court in terms of spreading the defense was noticeable, particularly as she was busy shooting 4-for-7 from deep in an Indiana Fever uniform on the same day. Even if Smith wasn't quite as efficient last season, she is still clearly a shooter that has to be respected. Instead, the Mercury focused much more on their interior game, chewing up clock to set up Kara Braxton in the post. At some point in the season that inside game will probably end up working well for the Mercury, but a) early in the season with a different rotation and b) against a Storm team with one of the strongest interior rotations in the league it simply wasn't working - Braxton 3-for-12 for the game, including 0-for-6 with 2 turnovers in the pivotal third quarter.
Where that lack of spacing shows up most clearly is in their synergy ratings: the Storm's 1.15 synergy rating was on par with their league-high synergy from last season, whereas the Mercury's .85 was indicative of poor ball movement. For the Storm, part of what helped them out was the addition of Katie Smith, whose ability to not only handle the ball but move well without it to find gaps in the Mercury's defense for scoring opportunities helped the offense flow.
"Any time you add a veteran like Katie Smith, that's a luxury," said Storm guard Tanisha Wright after the game, who was second on the team with three assists. "That's an advantage that a lot of teams don't have."
However, the more significant reason for the Storm's synergy was rather familiar.
Key player: Sue Bird records her 19th career double-double with 13 points & 10 assists.
While the Storm's defense might have been on display in the third quarter, their offense was hot in the second. The Storm had an effective field goal percentage of 77.27%, highlighted by Smith's contributions off the ball as a shooter. But Bird put up the biggest numbers.
Bird posted 8 points on 3-for-4 shooting to go with 3 assists, which led the team in both categories during the quarter and showed how dangerous she is as a distributing and scoring threat. Bird finished the game with an assist ratio of 36.02% and turnover ratio of 14.40%, which contributed to an outstanding pure point rating of 7.40. Bird might have been the most glaring difference in this first meeting between the conference's established elite, thoroughly out-producing Mercury point guard Temeka Johnson statistically.
Yet the Storm's biggest star was definitely Camille Little.
Storm statistical MVP: Little dominates the paint with 18 points & 5 offensive rebounds
Little has had a knack for just flat out making plays - while Bird was big in the second quarter, Little was big in the pivotal third quarter. When both teams were struggling to score, the Storm outscored the Mercury in the paint 12 - 6 and Little's 3 offensive rebounds and 4 points were critical to that effort.
Little finished the game with a game-highs of 5 offensive rebounds and a 26.6% offensive rebounding percentage and a team-high 18 points. As usual, they were subtle points, constantly being in the right spot and to make plays on both ends of the floor. But it was also another source of frustration for the Mercury - she's so mobile and versatile, that the Mercury struggled to matchup with her.
Agler pointed out what made this aspect of the Storm's performance so impressive: even while Jackson was relatively quiet (by her own absurdly lofty standards), the Mercury's focus on her left opportunities for others and an active player like Little was the type of player able to take advantage.
Mercury statistical MVP: Diana Taurasi was Diana Taurasi
While the Storm got contributions up and down the roster - especially the bench which outscored the Mercury's 19 to 4, with Belinda Snell yet to show what she can contribute due to injury - the Mercury relied on Diana Taurasi, once again.
Taurasi and Braxton both had usage percentages over 35%, but Taurasi was significantly more efficient, scoring 31 points on 11-for-20 shooting (a true shooting percentage of 69.81%). Her hitting shots from all over the court was probably among the most typical aspects of the game and the reason you can never count the Mercury out - at any moment she's the type of individual capable of carrying a team to a win.
But on Saturday, the Storm showed that the continuity and balance on their roster affords them the type of early-season chemistry that most teams simply cannot accomplish without more game experience together. Does that mean the Storm are headed to another record-breaking season? That's so atypical that it's impossible to predict.
But If last season is any indication, the Mercury will eventually come together, whether that means less emphasis on their interior game, a more efficient shot distribution, or just more consistent effort. And once they do, the Storm won't quite survive fourth quarter lapses as easily.
"There are a lot of things we still need to work on, which is good because you don't want to peak too early in the season," said Taurasi. "We're going to go back to Phoenix and work on some things that hopefully will put us in a better position throughout the game."
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