After the Seattle Storm's dominant 49-35 rebounding performance in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals, it seemed highly unlikely that the Phoenix Mercury would fare any better in Game 2 unless center Nakia Sanford returned from injury.
Apparently, Mercury forward DeWanna Bonner agreed, as she essentially told Sanford exactly that before Game 2 and then identified the veteran as the MVP of the Mercury's 92-83 win last night on NBA TV's post game show.
"Man, MVP of the game tonight," said Bonner. "When we got back [from Seattle], I told Kia, 'For us to win, you've got to play. I feel like in Seattle Lauren got inside and outside. And she played tough, man, she's a tough player. She brings the defense - she's the muscle of our defense. And I think she did a great job on Lauren tonight; she hit some threes, but she just couldn't get her inside game going. She can't have both going in order for us to win."
Key statistic: Mercury held the Storm to 0 offensive rebounds through first 3 quarters
Although Sanford only played 19 minutes last night, Bonner is absolutely right that she was important, as also noted by Mercury coach Corey Gaines and guard Diana Taurasi. But Sanford was also one part of an impressive effort on the interior that included containing Jackson on the post and a complete reversal of roles on the boards.
In contrast to Game 1 in which the Storm essentially did whatever they wanted inside - doubling them up in points in the paint (40-20) and beating them on the boards 49-35 - the Mercury brought it on defense last night, swarming to contest shots and simply outworking the Storm on the boards. The most immediately significant indicator of the strength of their defensive performance was holding the Storm without an offensive board for the first three quarters and then only allowing four for the game, two of which were the result of guards Sue Bird and Tanisha Wright chasing down loose balls. But winning the points in the paint battle 58-12 is significant as well for the Mercury against the Storm.
You can't really attribute that to any one player, but what we've seen from the Mercury repeatedly against the Storm is a team that wears down after strong first quarter efforts. Even as well as aggressively as they played, it's hard to imagine them getting that done without Sanford in the rotation; her most impressive contribution might have been simply playing quality minutes so that the Mercury could sustain that effort for 40 minutes, something they have struggled to do against the Storm in their previous 12 meetings.
The Mercury ultimately beat the Storm 37-24 on the boards last night, in large part because of Bonner's game-high 13 rebounds - one short of a Mercury post-season record - as well as Candice Dupree's 7 rebounds. Bonner was simply outstanding on the night she received her Sixth Woman of the Year award - she had a dominant defensive rebounding percentage of 36.36% and her length inside was crucial to their ability to limit what the Storm could do in the paint. But neither she nor Sanford were the MVP of this game, if we go by the numbers.
Mercury statistical MVP: Candice Dupree well-rounded performance includes team-high 29 points
Seeing as how Dupree's 2011 regular season-high was 27 points, her 29-point performance obviously ranks among the best of her season.
She had a true shooting percentage of 87.13% due to the added value of her 5-for-6 free throw shooting, had the best offensive rebounding percentage of any player that played more than 10 minutes last night (game-high 3 offensive boards for a 12.24% offensive rebounding percentage), and her 3 blocks were one short of tying a career-high.
But embodied in those blocks is what made her performance so outstanding - Dupree was more active defensively last night than we've seen in a long time, aggressively looking to block shots, rebound, and bring the type of help defense that scares a team from even bothering to think about having thoughts* about trying to score inside.
When you think about what has beat the Storm at KeyArena, Dupree's play last night probably best embodies it: aggressively, athletic defense that forces the Storm to scramble and make more one-on-one plays than they'd like instead of patiently executing their offense.
But this is the Mercury, so we can't just ignore offense altogether.
Key player: Penny Taylor quietly facilitates the scoring of others with 6 assists
Penny Taylor is always overlooked and so it's fitting that on a night in which the team kept their season alive her contributions sort of fail to stand out.
Bonner and Dupree were outstanding in the paint, Sanford returned to have a big defensive impact in under 20 minutes, Taurasi bounced back as we might expect with 26 points, and Temeka Johnson led the team with 9 assists and only 2 turnovers. Penny Taylor just had 12 points and 6 assists, while still visibly laboring due to the wear and tear of a season.
But that type of performance is exactly why Taylor is such a valuable player on this team. A usage rate of 13.26% makes her almost seem like a non-factor, but a true shooting percentage of 81.96% to get her 12 points and a 2-point percentage of 100% show that she made every play count.
Yet what has been consistently most impressive about Taylor as a small forward is her ability to make plays for others so efficiently - more efficiently than any small forward in the league and at a rate that is not only competitive with, but exceeds most point guards in the league. With Johnson and Ketia Swanier distributing the ball as well as they did, Taylor wasn't necessarily relied upon as a distributor, though that's not entirely the point.
|Name/Team||Assists||Turnovers||Assist ratio||Turnover ratio||Pure point rating|
|Temeka Johnson, Mercury||9||2||42.87%||9.52%||13.33|
|Ketia Swanier, Mercury||2||0||50%||0%||13.33|
|Penny Taylor, Mercury||6||2||39.16%||13.05%||6.25|
|Swin Cash, Storm||3||1||42.85%||14.28%||3.03|
|Sue Bird, Storm||4||2||18.38%||9.19%||1.90|
The top five distributors in the Mercury's 92-83 win in Game 2 of the first round.
"I think it came from Penny (Taylor) driving," said Mercury coach Corey Gaines, referring to why Dupree did so well. "Penny had six assists. She calls out and has the defense come and converge on her, and then she just gave her a nice little dime, nice little easy pass, and Pre (Dupree) finished. But Pre did other things too - she hit jump shots, she ran the court, defensive down low, fought to get good position. So just a combination of everything."
I actually wondered to myself during this game if Taylor's value is inflated by racking up numbers on a fast-paced team - there are stretches when even though I'm waiting for her to do something she doesn't seem to stand out.
However, if there was a way to measure how well Taylor took identified and took advantage of opportunities, independent of pace - as in, capitalizing on the opportunities to make plays for herself and others as they revealed themselves to her in the flow of the game rather than forcing the issue - she almost certainly would have led the team. There's an efficiency to her game that's unmatched.
I've said this many times before about Taylor, but in bears repeating given her performances thus far in this series (playing at less than 100%): Taylor is one of the best in the league at playing within the flow of the game, with a game awareness that allows her to adapt to the circumstances and what her team needs from her unlike any other perimeter player in the league. She's one of those players that epitomizes the best of WNBA basketball in that her skillset isn't necessarily limited by position as much as what's best for the team: she can alternate between distributor, scorer, and rebounder almost seamlessly and although she isn't necessarily the player that enables their system, we've seen time and time again that she enhances it unlike any other player.
There aren't many players in the league like that.
Storm statistical MVP: Sue Bird takes on more of a scorer's mentality
Of course, Bird is another player who can alternate between distributor and scorer. As below average assist ratio for a point guard shows, Bird was a scorer last night, particularly in the first quarter when she had 10 of the Storm's 18 points. That's not a bad thing at all, but normally when the Storm are successful with Bird as a scorer, backcourt mate Tanisha Wright becomes a more efficient distributor - last night that unfortunately didn't happen as Wright's 3 turnover, no assist performance resulted in a -13.04 pure point rating (which, as you see above, is about as opposite as one could be to what Johnson and Swanier did for the Mercury).
Normally the Storm have at least two advantages on the Mercury: mismatches in the post to get points in the paint and superior play from their lead ball handlers. Last night the Storm got neither of those and in something of a shocker were also the team that lacked the defensive intensity to win.
"They really just had a little bit more of an aggressive mindset," said Bird. "They really set the tone early on. Obviously we are a defensively minded team, and we were not helping ourselves. That is something that our coach (Brian Agler) always talks about. We kind of were reacting to them as opposed to dictating things. With a team like Phoenix, you can't do that, you really can't."
Mercury finally beat the Storm at full strength
In a way, juxtaposing Bird's performances in the first two games - 8 points in a Game 1 win, 18 in a Game 2 loss - sort of highlights her point and a pattern throughout the season when Jackson has been out or so effectively contained: when the Storm struggled to score inside, they relied on perimeter scoring almost exclusively. And even if Bird has a big game, becoming so perimeter-oriented takes the pressure off of the defense to rotate and defend the paint.
While their shooting kept them in the game - 13-for-22 three point shooting is impressive - it has not been a winning strategy this season and when the shots stopped falling (33.33% in the fourth quarter) they suddenly became a much less potent team.
Of course, all credit should go to the Mercury for that - it was their aggression that set the tone and the Storm never responded in a way that would help them overcome the early 11-2 deficit. But the things that really determined the outcome of this game - defense and rebounding - are about effort.
No matter what the Storm's record in KeyArena or the Mercury's record against the Storm are, we've seen that the team who is willing to do more of the dirty work will win.
* Eminem, in listing specific circumstances that might lead him to inflict harm upon someone who who disrespects him or any of his acquaintances: "That's for even thinking of having that thought thought up." (Deep.)