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Seattle vs Phoenix Preview: Can the Mercury Mount A Challenge Against the Storm?

As a basketball fan, I confess to being unreasonably excited about tonight's Phoenix Mercury - Seattle Storm game.

In fact -- albeit easily pleased by basketball -- I haven't been quite as excited about a Storm game since the then-6-0 Atlanta Dream came to town.

The prospect of finding a legit challenger -- no matter how remote it might seem -- is actually exciting after witnessing the Storm steamroll through the WNBA in general and Western Conference in particular at 20-2 and on the verge of setting the record for the best start in WNBA history.

At the very least, what makes tonight's game exciting is that we get to see if the Phoenix Mercury really can challenge the Seattle Storm after acquiring center Kara Braxton from the Tulsa Shock.

It almost seems like the last chance for anyone in the Western Conference to convince us that Seattle won't just coast uncontested to the WNBA Finals.

Of course, it was Mercury guard Diana Taurasi that might have hyped up the Storm moreso than any self-respecting local media outlet could have with a rather bold prediction after losing to the Storm 97-74 back on June 6.

Storm vs. Mercury: Statistical Summary...of Three Quarters - Swish Appeal
"I don't see them losing another game the rest of the season really," said Mercury wing Diana Taurasi. "They're really good right now. They've got a lot of people doing a lot of good things and they look really good."

While that sounds completely absurd, the Storm have remained undefeated at home this season and although they've since lost a game to the Indiana Fever and played a few games that were tight into the fourth quarter (or in the case of the last meeting against Phoenix, triple overtime) there's a strong possibility that Taurasi's prediction will only end up being off by one game and quite true at home.

But that of course is probably more thought than the comment even deserves -- Storm forward Swin Cash wondered aloud why anybody would take her former UConn teammate seriously anyway.

"She gives you good lines, but I know how competitive she is and if you're trying to tell me that Diana Taurasi doesn't think she can beat us tomorrow night, that she can be in the Finals, I would say you're crazy," said Cash. "I'm looking around and saying, 'Who is believing what Dee says?' But you guys read it so obviously it's getting somebody. But she's great, she gives you guys some great tag lines, so it's good."

Regardless of whether Taurasi is being completely forthright with us, with the move to acquire Kara Braxton it's quite clear that Phoenix wants to challenge Seattle for the title, as described by Seth Pollack of SBN Arizona.

Mercury Shake Up Roster For Playoff Run, Ohlde Traded For Braxton - SB Nation Arizona
That threat of Taurasi taking a summer off to give herself a break in what has otherwise been a year-round basketball career since turning pro in 2004 certainly could be motivating the Mercury to act now and sacrifice a draft pick to try and make another run at the title this summer.

"They're using her and obviously they're trying to play to her strengths, keeping her around the basket," said Storm coach Brian Agler. "Gives 'em more size, although (Nicole) Ohlde's got great size too. She'll probably play more minutes against some people than Ohlde was playing. I think Ohlde, as time went on against us, her minutes were limited.

"But they've also made some other tweaks -- they play with a big alignment where they put Taurasi at the point. They've put Bonner on Sue. So, they're tweaking things and they're experimenting."

That Phoenix has made a move to improve and directly challenge the Storm is only part of what makes this game potentially exciting: with the exception of their last meeting at KeyArena, excitement always seems to sneak its way into these matchups, no matter what the circumstances.

"I think the game here was just sort of not a typical Seattle-Phoenix game," said Agler, when asked about how that blowout figures into his thinking of tonight's game. "Last year, we went overtime twice with them here and lost. So we have a tradition of playing extra minutes against Phoenix. So I would just sort of disregard the one game here."

As Agler suggested, 4 out of the last 5 games between these two have gone to overtime, dating back to 2009. Their last meeting -- a 111 - 107 win in Phoenix -- went to triple overtime. Although that might be exciting for fans, it's certainly not the outcome Cash would prefer.

"We don't wanna see that triple overtime again," said Storm forward Swin Cash. "I don't want it to happen again."

Perhaps the closely contested triple overtime was sign of Phoenix coming together. In the last 6 games, which included the triple overtime loss, the Mercury are 5-1. They have won 3 games on the road in that time, including a record-breaking demolition of the Tulsa Shock on the road.

Records aside, it sets up a potentially exciting match with the Storm.

"It's always something new when we play Phoenix," said Storm forward Swin Cash. "Seriously, it's becoming that kind of rivalry...It's gonna be a nationally televised game so it's going to be fun for everybody. For us, we just have to play our game. And whatever Brian draws up, we'll have to go in and we'll have to execute it, but it's really going to come down to people making plays, to be honest with you. If you look across the board, the rebounding, the three point shots, all that -- we all do kind of similar things, but the execution and making plays down the stretch is what it's going to come down."

With a new post player to integrate, it would make sense if the Mercury didn't execute so well today -- sometimes that adjustment process can take awhile. But with Phoenix starting to find a rhythm of their own as they fight for playoff position, it wouldn't be entirely surprising to see a closer outcome at KeyArena tonight.