Who: #2 Seattle Storm vs. #3 Phoenix Mercury
What: WNBA playoffs, Western Conference, first round
When: First game - Thursday, September 15 at 10 p.m. EDT (ESPN2) in Seattle (full schedule)
Season series: 3-1 Storm (click here for summary)
#2 Seattle Storm
Strength: Rising shooting efficiency
Remember way back in early July when the Storm couldn't throw a pebble into the Puget Sound, shooting threes 11% worse than they did in 2010? As should have been expected, that's a thing of the past and it's not just because star center Lauren Jackson is back.
While the Storm have continued to shoot threes at the second highest rate in the league (29.22% of their total field goal attempts are threes) since the All-Star break, they're simply making more, shooting 37.9% over their last 19 games, which puts them back to where they were last season.
To be sure, Jackson returning forces the defense to concentrate more attention in the post, which in turn opens up more rhythm threes for everyone else. But the most notable difference is the impact of veteran guard Katie Smith - after shooting just 4-for-19 from three point range in 6 games in June, Smith shot 12-for-18 through 4 games in September. Limited math tells you that she shot about three times better in September as she crossed the 6000 milestone. A bit more math says that she shot 66.7% from three point range in September. Does anybody still have questions about the value of that trade?
Weakness: Mid-season turnovers
After they came out of that early-season shooting slump, they transitioned to a puzzling turnover problem in which balls seemed to go from one player's hands to anywhere but a teammate's hands, highlighted by two disastrous games against the Atlanta Dream.
The turnovers have been less of a consistent problem since Jackson returned to action, again because of the way she balances the court and helps them maintain good spacing. But there are still stretches where the problem crops up again and they end up with 5-8 turnover quarters. Part of the answer is to keep the ball moving and make sure that players remain in motion off the ball to find high percentage shots cutting to the basket. But part of it has just been a matter of getting more comfortable with one another and not forcing things as much as the entire team has shot better from the field.
X-factor: Lauren Jackson
After the Storm got over their shooting woes and started to take better care of the ball, they stopped rebounding when Jackson came back, struggling to rebound against some of the league's worst rebounding teams. And perhaps most representative of that is Jackson's performance.
Jackson has had 3 offensive rebounds in 8 games since returning from injury and went 6 of those 8 without an offensive rebound. The reason for that is clear in watching her play: she's spending a lot of time - more than usual - around the perimeter looking to score by facing up with the basket instead of mixing it up inside post-injury. And she's been about average on the defensive end. But if she starts getting offensive rebounds, the Storm will be an even more potent offense because she can both score second chance points around the basket more effectively than anyone on the roster due to her size and hit free throws to convert three point plays.
Regular season statistical MVP: Sue Bird carrying the team less with Jackson back
Regardless of how Jackson has been rebounding, having her in the post to draw attention has put much less pressure on her to do everything while others like Smith, Camille Little, and Tanisha Wright have stepped up to lead the Storm in various ways lately.
The Storm, like so many other teams, are simply a better team when the burden of winning is more evenly distributed, even if Bird has singlehandedly kept them in games this season. The Storm clearly have an advantage at the point guard position, so Bird - and how the Mercury defend her - will be one to watch.
#3 Phoenix Mercury
Strength: Three point shooting makes them league's most efficient team
All that three point shooting pays off for the Mercury in making them the league's most efficient shooting team and, by extension, the league's top offense (107.16 points per 100 possessions).
Obviously a large part of that scoring prowess is due to the efficiency of guard Diana Taurasi, the league's leading scorer who shoots 39.5% from three point land and is not afraid to pull the trigger in any circumstance as demonstrated by her 28-point outburst in Seattle on Friday.
That combined with their pace of play makes the Mercury an extremely dangerous opponent for anyone.
Weakness: Forcing turnovers is not something they do too often
The challenge for the Mercury will always be on the defensive end and that's embodied most strongly by the low rate of turnovers that their opponents commit, especially when considering their pace of play that should bait opponents into some bad decision making.
As committing turnovers is a Storm weakness, that puts the Mercury at a disadvantage if they can't force them out of their rhythm. That does work as a partial explanation for what happened in the fourth quarter on Friday when the Storm pulled away in a battle of reserves.
X-factor: Temeka Johnson's scoring efficiency
Staying on the topic of turnovers, Johnson's ability to control the ball and run the offense smoothly does have an impact on the Mercury's play despite the presence of their other stars. But so does her shooting: in the Mercury's 16 wins that she played in, she shoots 48.1% from the field; in their 14 losses for which she was present, 39.6%. In those losses she shoots more often less efficiently, and turns the ball over more.
Whereas the Storm have options if Bird isn't playing well in both Smith and Wright, the Mercury have a more difficult time replacing that more efficient version of Johnson and matching up with Bird regardless of how well Johnson is playing - even if someone else (DeWanna Bonner) guards Bird, that leaves Johnson guarding Smith or Wright in which case it's right to the post they go.
Regular season statistical MVP: Penny Taylor "can appear everywhere and nowhere at once"
Taylor is probably the most perpetually underappreciated player in the WNBA when you consider how good she is. By any reasonable standard this season, she's a top 5 player this season and a solid MVP candidate. But the reason she gets overlooked might be obvious: she's so busy doing everything that there are times when no one thing stands out.
Taylor is exceptionally good at playing within the flow of a game, neither making showstopping spectacular plays nor disastrous flow-stopping mistakes. As dangerous as she's been in finishing the season ranking in the top 10 in assists, field goal percentage, points, rebounds, and steals this season, she could easily have a 15 point, 5 rebound, 5 assist game with no turnovers - she is the most efficient ball handler at the forward position this season - that would go almost unnoticed.
Taylor was out on Friday against the Storm and when you think about how that unfolded - Taurasi no longer lighting the Storm up and the Mercury sputtering - there's no doubt that she'll influence the outcome of this one.
Key statistical battleground: Shooting efficiency and who can manage to stop it
This doesn't take much elaboration: the Storm have actually shot better (50.04% eFG%) than the Mercury (49.64% eFG%) in the second half of their season. The difference is that Mercury opponents are shooting 49.52% in that time, almost equivalent. Storm opponents, meanwhile, are shooting 46.10% in the second half, lowest in the conference.
Their ability to defend the Mercury's shooters - not to mention Candice Dupree in transition - will make the difference in this series.
Simulated winner: Storm in best 2 of 3 (60-66 out of 100 games)
Are the Storm in the Mercury's heads? Maybe. But even if we question the validity of the simulation, it does leave that out.
And setting aside the whole 10 out of last 11 thing or not winning in KeyArena since 2009, these two teams are extremely evenly matched on face value. Even if the Storm win the series it should be a good one.
However, it's likely that the Storm's defense and the matchup problems they present in Bird and Jackson will be enough to overcome the high-scoring Mercury.