For the second game in a row, the Seattle Storm beat an opponent that openly admitted they didn't show up.
So it's tempting to look at the Seattle Storm's 83-77 win over the Phoenix Mercury last night in exactly the same way as last week's home win against the San Antonio Silver Stars: a win that holds little insight about the Storm's progress this season.
"It's energy, it's the moon," said Mercury guard Diana Taurasi, who had a game-high 26 points last night. "Sometimes you have more energy than others, you try and its not there. But, you keep plugging away at it and good things will happen. We're fine."
But just for the sake of argument, if quality opponents having sub-par games against the Storm becomes a pattern, at what point do we start wondering if it's something the Storm are doing rather than random chance?
"We didn't turn the ball over," said Storm coach Brian Agler. "We started running a little bit of pick-and-roll and got them out of sorts for a while. They do that to us, so it's just back-and-forth. Our defense was a lot better in the last three quarters of the game too."
After a first half in which the Storm turned the ball over on about 20% of their possessions, they cut that in half in the second half. But the more significant factor in the game was definitely the Mercury's poor shooting over the final three quarters.
Key statistic: Mercury shot 36.17% over the final three quarters
While the Mercury's turnover problems throughout the game were probably more a result of their own mental lapses (or quite possibly the moon given how bad some of them were), their poor shooting might have been more a result of the Storm's defense.
After shooting 50% in the first quarter to take what seemed like a commanding 27-18 lead, the Mercury didn't shoot above 37.5% in any of the final three quarters.
"We did some minor adjustments throughout the game, but Brian really challenged us to play better defense," said Storm point guard Sue Bird, who had a team-high 18 points. "To get, not get more physical, but just get more in their way...If someone wants to pop out to the wing and catch the ball, deny it - don't let them do what they want all the time."
And it was the third quarter that ended up having the biggest impact on the game as the Storm outscored the Mercury 27-14: the Mercury only shot 35.3%, didn't make a free throw, and only got one offensive rebound.
"At stretches I think we played really well," said Taurasi. "There was a lull in that third quarter where they raised intensity a little bit and we didn't match it. Then in the fourth quarter again you saw that when we play with that intensity we looked pretty good again. We just have to find a balance throughout a 40 minute game."
But while poor three point shooting was the problem in the second and fourth quarters, it was their two point percentage that plummeted in the third quarter.
Mercury shooting over the final three quarters vs the Storm on 7/26.
Certainly part of that was poor shot selection on the Mercury's part, but another factor was the Storm's defense in forcing long jumpers, contesting shots, and - as Bird said - not allowing them to do what they wanted to do.
Mercury statistical MVP: Diana Taurasi keeps the Mercury in the game
Without Diana Taurasi's 3-for-4 shooting in the third quarter, the rest of the Mercury roster was 23.07% (3-for-14). It was Taurasi whose scoring and free throw shooting down the stretch helped the Mercury stay within striking distance. When the Mercury's trapping defense on the wings forced the Storm into turnovers on nearly 20% of their possessions, Taurasi came up with two steals.
Meanwhile the Storm got a much more well-rounded effort, which was another major factor in this game and a developing trend even in their 1-3 stretch just before the All-Star break.
The Storm's bench stepped up to score 16 of their 28 points in the third quarter as the Storm used a balanced attack to shoot 47.4% in that decisive period. And although neither Ashley Robinson nor Tanisha Wright played as well as they have been lately, it was Camille Little who did step up.
Key player: Camille Little steps up in the fourth quarter
Little is among the best defenders in the league at her position and her steal and layup with 26.2 seconds left ended up giving the Storm enough cushion to hang on and win the game.
"I just tried to jump in her path and distort her movement and make her go in a different direction," said Little. "I
happened to get my hand on the ball and it didn't go out of bounds, so I just tried to keep patting it and keep
going the other way and I got a tough layup and made a tough finish."
Little scored six of her 15 points in the fourth moving well without the ball as usual.
Storm statistical MVP: Sue Bird alternates between distributor and scorer
But once again, it was Bird who led the way despite a poor shooting night. While the Storm struggled with the Mercury's defense in the first quarter, Bird found openings to score 8 of her team-high 18 points, including 2-for-3 from beyond the arc.
After the Storm got settled defensively and got easier scoring opportunities, Bird went back to her role as distritbutor and finished with a game high 7 assists (26.17% assist ratio) to only 3 turnovers (10.59% turnover ratio) for a pure point rating of 4.90.
Most importantly, Bird's shift during the game illustrates that the Storm got a far more well-rounded effort than they had been when they normally get big performances from her - nobody accounted for more than Bird's 21.5% of the Storm's statistical production but five players - including reserves Katie Smith and Le'coe Willingham were above 10% making for one of their most balanced efforts of the season.
In the search for positive patterns, the defensive effort over the last three quarters, their balance, and getting a strong effort from the bench all qualify as things that might lead one to believe the Storm are ready to turn a corner this season.
Just the fact that they showed some resilience that has been absent this season was encouraging.
"We had a great third quarter where we got some stops and got the ball back," said Little. "We were down 10 or 11 at one point and we continued to play and we pressed and kept pressing and kept digging. We didn't give up. A lot of teams give up on them. They're hard to defend and they hit tough shots."
Yet it's hard still hard to ignore that as hard as the Mercury can be to defend, they played a below average game. On top of that, this is a team they've beat nine straight times and is seemingly without answer for the Storm.
Perhaps hat the Storm can hope for is that these last two games against the two teams ahead of them in the Western Conference will carryover and help them against the Minnesota Lynx at the Target Center on Friday night.
Otherwise, it doesn't quite look like the Storm are entirely off the home-road rollercoaster yet.