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Silver Stars protect home court to take 1-0 series lead

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Phoenix Mercury rookie DeWanna Bonner scored 12 of her 15 points in the first half as the Mercury lose to the Silver Stars in game 1 on the their first round playoff match up. <em>Photo by Max Simbron</em>
Phoenix Mercury rookie DeWanna Bonner scored 12 of her 15 points in the first half as the Mercury lose to the Silver Stars in game 1 on the their first round playoff match up. Photo by Max Simbron

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

A more talented Phoenix basketball team -- with the best record in the league and a smoking hot offense -- goes into San Antonio for a playoff game only to get out-worked, out-coached, out-clutched and out-played by a more disciplined team that didn't make mental mistakes during the crucial end of game stretch.

That's about the size of it.

On nights like these it is difficult to be a fan of Phoenix basketball which sucks you in with its beauty but leaves you hanging when it's time to deliver.

The Phoenix Suns and Mercury both pride themselves on being upbeat and positive organizations. They are not going to get in your face and yell. They are not going to get down and lose the faith. Many fans will go along with that and more power to them -- faith is a good thing to have

But I am not a fan of faith. I am a fan of fact.

And the fact is in the playoffs you have to be able to play defense because there are going to be nights, especially on the road, when your shots aren't falling. You have to be able to get stops. You have to be able to get crucial rebounds. You have to do more than rely on your skill to beat their effort and determination

Of course, the Mercury could come back and win two games at home.

They certainly can point to horrible shooting nights by their two stars who were a combined 9-26 (34.6%) from the field. They are going to shoot better at home and the Silver Stars aren't likely to continue to shoot that well on the road.

This is a confident and prideful team. They can bounce back and win this series. But that doesn't change the fact that you can't have mental breakdowns, bad decisions and get out worked in a playoff game. That is almost always going to come back to haunt you.

The final score was 92-91 but the game really wasn't that close.

The Silver Stars led almost the entire game and had a four point lead in the final seconds when it counted most. Only a great shot by Penny Taylor, the only Mercury player to really step up big in this game, with .9 seconds left turned a 4 point loss into a 1 point loss.

Taylor's shot was small consolation and one made even more ridiculous when Cappie Pondexter, not realizing the situation, celebrated the buzzer-beater by running to hug Taylor only to be told that they still lost the game. How do you not know the game score in that situation?

That shot comes on the heals of Coach Gaines inexplicably letting the Silver Stars run down 24 seconds on the clock when his team is 4 points down with 32 seconds to go in the game. I've been struggling to find any reasonable basketball explanation for not either pressuring the ball hard to try and force a turnover or fouling immediately to extend the game. We'll have to wait and see what Corey says about this decision.

As for the rest of the game, the stats weren't that bad.

Both teams shot about 45%. The Mercury held a slight 2 rebound advantage. Free throw attempts were about equal. The Mercury did their thing by getting more fast break points (23 to 11) and the Silver Stars did theirs by getting more second chance points (25 to 15).

The biggest statistical differential came from behind the arc where the home team was 8 of 20 (40%) while the Mercury were 5 or 18 (28%). It was a difference but certainly one that could have been over come with just a little more late game savvy.

One of those crucial late game plays came in the fourth quarter when the Stars Sophia Young missed a straight on shot which bounced off to the side of the rim over the head of Tangela Smith. Temeka Johnson was boxing out Lawson-Wade in front of the rim but stood and watched as the ball went wide while Lawson-Wade ran 8 feet to get it and keep the possession alive for her team leading to basket at a crucial time. In playoff basketball those little things matter.

MVP candidate Diana Taurasi wasn't much better when it mattered most. In the fourth quarter she had no points and a crucial turnover with 50 seconds left in the game. Only Penny Taylor stepped it up late for the Mercury scoring 12 of her team high 18 points in the final 10 minutes. She was simply amazing and the floor leader for her team.

All the props in the world go to Sophia Young who was brilliant again in this game with 24 points and 4 rebounds on 10 of 19 shooting. She hit a clutch shot with 1:48 in the game to give the Stars a 3 point lead. I love watching Sophia play basketball. She's is so smooth and smart on the floor.

Edwige Lawson-Wade was also money with a big three with 50 seconds left that sealed the win for her team and veteran Vicky Johnson chipped in 8 assists and no turnovers.

The Mercury defense did a respectable job on Becky Hammon and Ann Wauters with Tangela Smith playing better post defense than we've seen most of the season but over all there were too many missed rotations leading to too many wide open baskets. Especially in the first half.

It remains to be seen what adjustments Coach Gaines will make before game 2, which is in Phoenix on Saturday at 7pm. Benching Le'Coe Willingham who was fairly ineffectually in this game in favor of Taylor is one option. DeWanna Bonner can still bring the spark off the bench but probably needs more then 18 minutes as well.

The Mercury will have to show how resilient they are in game 2 and come out with more determination and urgency in the first of two elimination games.

Or they can do what the last Phoenix team to lose the first playoff game of a series in San Antonio did: fold.

[Note by Phoenix Stan, 09/18/09 6:46 AM MST ]

Thinking a bit more about this game, it's important to note that the game wasn't lost at the 32 second mark when the Mercury let the Stars run down the clock while holding a four point lead. If you are down four with 32 second you are generally going to lose regardless.

The Silver Stars won this game by making big plays, hitting big shots and getting big stops.

  • With a 85-84 SASS lead and 1:48 to play Sophia Young came to set a screen for Hammon on the wing but slipped the screen and rolled baseline. Penny Taylor didn't bit on the fake and stayed with Young. Becky hits Sophia with a high pass and Young rises up while still fading to her right and hit a great shot in Taylor's face. Clutch.
  • On the next possession the Stars read a Mercury play perfectly and force a turnover and on the other end the Merc switch a set of screens so Taylor ends up on Hammon who drives right but Penny stays with her and gets a finger on her shot.
  • The Mercury then come back and Cappie nails a step back jumper at about the free throw line after driving left
  • Now it's 87-86 SASS lead with 1:12. Hammon and Young go to work on the left side. Becky shakes Cappie and uses a little screen so Taylor has to help off and deny the baseline. Taylor and Cappie trap Hammon hard on the baseline but Becky makes a Steve Nash-like wrap around pass to Young. The Mercury actually rotated perfectly on this play. Text book. But any time you start double teaming and rotating someone, somewhere is open. The Stars moved the ball perfectly and found Lawson-Wade in the corner. If your the Mercury that's the shot you have to give up. Temeka recovered as fast as she could to contest the shot but Lawson-Wade nailed the corner three to give the Stars the four point lead and the game.
  • I watched it again this morning with the emotions of the game having worn off. It was a beautiful sequence with both teams playing very well. Both teams hit big shots. Both teams got big stops. But the Stars were working with a margin and most importantly had held the lead the entire game. Even though the Mercury closed, if they had won the game in those final minutes the story would have been how they "stole" the game. You have to go into those situation with a lead or you can't expect to win against an experienced and confident team with the caliber of players San Antonio has.
  • As a Mercury fan, it was tough to watch. As a basketball fan it was beautiful playoff basketball

[Note by Phoenix Stan, 09/18/09 9:16 AM MST ]

Another quick thought. While Cappie and Diana were only 9 for 26, Hammon and Wauters also were only 8 for 27 (29%). Those two aren't likely to miss as many shots in the next game either.