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Shock and Awe

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Seattle Storm center Lauren Jackson pretty much summed up the way I felt after their heartbreaking 77-75 loss to the Phoenix Mercury in Game 3 of the Western Conference Semifinals last night.

"It's numb, like the rest of me right now," Jackson said referring to the hip she injured earlier in the season. "My hip is nothing in comparison to how I feel emotionally. I think the same could be said of every one of my teammates."

Thankfully my hip is fine, but numb pretty much captures what I felt otherwise.

Normally after a game that exciting - Storm or otherwise - I have no problem typing something beyond the basic recap. If the words don't come to mind, I've developed all kinds of random tricks and mindgames to start typing. If typing doesn't work, I go old school and pull out a pen and pad of paper. When all else fails, I hope that the numbers might bring some order to my thoughts.

But responding to a game like that is no time for statistics*.

After going through my progressions, I ultimately sat there staring at a sheet of yellow legal paper searching for a reaction - any reaction (Misery? Living Death by ref? The collapse of civilization as Storm fans know it!) - to what I just saw.

Where do you even begin?

Mercury statistical MVP: Penny Taylor grabs a career-high 17 rebounds

I am in awe of Penny Taylor's basketball ability.

I think I've made that point clear before and reiterated it after the Mercury's win in Game 2, but last night's performance was an almost perfect example of why I think Taylor is among the most underappreciated players in the league.

And that's probably the best place to start.

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(Yes.)

The game-winning sequence seems to encapsulate what Taylor is all about. Taylor neither got the game-winning shot nor an assist - Dupree will justifiably take most of the credit for this win. But everything leading up to that moment was Taylor - creating the missed shot that ended up bouncing to Dupree, the drive that led to the shot, 11 of the Mercury's final 17 points in the 6:38 minutes after Diana Taurasi fouled out in a blaze of F-bombs to even set up a game-winning situation.

When Taurasi fouled out, the Mercury needed someone to pick up the scoring slack and Taylor didn't just fill the gap but went from filling in the blanks for her team as usual as a complementary player to completely taking over the game in a way that we don't have the pleasure of witnessing that often.

Taylor put up numbers that some players would be happy with for a game in the fourth quarter alone.

Period(s) FG FGA 3p 3pa Rebs Assists Turnovers Points
1st-3rd 2 5 0 2 12 1 3 8
4th 4 8 1 1 5 0 0 11

Comparison of Penny Taylor's production in quarters 1-3 vs. 4 in the Mercury's Game 3 win.

What always stands out about Taylor - and that dominant fourth quarter performance as well - is her ability to do so much at once so efficiency while her team makes it obvious that they're going to go to her on every play. She finished with a game-high 69.64% true shooting percentage at a 21.46% usage rate, which is above her average primarily because of all the possessions she used in that fourth quarter performance. Even in getting 17 rebounds last night as a small forward, it's not exactly like 15 defensive boards are going to make anyone's highlight reel; a 38.75% defensive rebounding percentage might impress statheads, but otherwise, eh.

But even Taylor's own scoring overshadowed a significant contribution she made to the team when they started to gain momentum in the second quarter. When the Mercury went big and sat in a zone that stifled the Storm's offense, Taurasi was tasked with playing point guard, something the Mercury have been reluctant to do.

"We had worked on it maybe two weeks before the season was over," said Gaines. "I said, 'Let's try the big lineup.' Because what happens is it is hard for Diana because I'm asking her to bring the ball up the court, guard the best player, run the team, and score. Some of the other coaches were saying that it was a little bit much for her to do, but I said if we play a zone she should be capable of doing it and that's what we did.

"We went to a big lineup and made them take outside shots. It plays into our style if you shoot outside shots because usually there are long rebounds and we can just go."

While it's certainly true that Taurasi takes on more ball handling responsibility with a lineup of Dupree-Taurasi-Taylor-DeWanna Bonner-Candice Dupree on the floor, it's also worth noting Taylor's role in making that work: Taylor is the most efficient playmaker in the league at small forward and having her on the wing - whether it's Taurasi, Temeka Johnson, or Ketia Swanier running point - puts one more player on the floor who can share that burden of running the team (in fact, if you watch the Mercury closely, most of their plays in a halfcourt set begin with Taylor curling around a down screen to receive the ball at the top of the key and assume the responsibility of running the offense from the "point").

Taylor didn't pick up as many assists in Game Three as she did in Game 2, but a large part of that is that her teammates didn't make shots when she passed to them. But whether she picked up assists for us to measure isn't really the point.

"I tried to be a creator," said Taylor. "Seattle has such a solid defense; it's sometimes tough to crack it off the first play. My thought process was just to draw as much attention as I could. It sort of worked."

Over the course of eight quarters against the same opponent in Games 2 & 3, we've seen Taylor go from pure distributor to rebounder to flat out dominant one-woman wrecking crew. So perhaps I - and others - should stop acting so bewildered about why it's so difficult to appreciate what Taylor does. She truly defies neat categorization; there's no pinning down exactly what Taylor will give her team from game to game or even what the Mercury might need from her game to game.

Taylor is far more defined by the situation instead of her position and most basketball players that grace the court don't have anywhere near the combination of game awareness and skill to do that - that's adaptive expertise beyond what most of us imagine when we speak of "versatility".

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I'm sayin' though: Why can't we bring back Lil' Penny for a playoff intro featuring Penny Taylor?

Her fourth quarter performance wasn't the best ever, the Mercury's best ever, or necessarily her individual best ever; it was just a winning fourth quarter.

"I tried to be a creator," she said. "Seattle has such a solid defense; it's sometimes tough to crack it off the first play. My thought process was just to draw as much attention as I could. It sort of worked."

You neither stop Taylor nor do you "hope to contain her"; you "sort of" live with whatever Taylor decides to do. And players that can decide to take over games and do so are special - that's the pinnacle of basketball mastery, regardless of whether she's the marquee player of every broadcast.

Key player: Candice Dupree leads the Mercury with 19 points per game in the series

Obviously, Dupree hit the big game-winner and so she's no small part of the narrative of this game. Similar to Taylor, Dupree is skilled enough to get points in a number of ways within the flow of the game wherever she gets the ball. It's what makes her among the most efficient post players in the game (66.66% true shooting percentage last night) and (again) a player that's easy to forget in the shadow of Taurasi.

So as an "objective" ** basketball fan, I can look back on this game and appreciate the fact that two players who rarely get any attention from media and fans - Dupree didn't even make the All-Star game - stepped up to win a game and force those that slept to pay attention. I can sit back in awe of Taylor displaying all she's capable of in one 40 minute span rather than cobbling together a collection of mental images.

Storm statistical MVP: Sue Bird's heroics fall short

But as a Storm fan, that numbness comes from shock - I'm still stunned the Storm lost that game.

It wasn't so much the blow 18-point first half lead - if you are under the impression that kind of lead is safe in this series, you just haven't been paying attention. The Mercury got the Storm earlier this season and the Storm got the Mercury last season.

What left me so stunned is that I honestly didn't expect a loss going into that game. Maybe that was naive, maybe it was the overconfidence that you develop as a homer fan of a team that has only lost twice in two years at home and beaten the next opponent on the schedule in 11 of the 13 last games, but I'm not sure I ever really entertained losing to the Mercury at home in a physical game as a possibility.

The Storm are supposed to win close games in KeyArena. The Mercury haven't really won anywhere in two years against the Storm until this past weekend (beating the Storm without Lauren Jackson and Tanisha Wright doesn't count, of course).

"Not that we disrespect Phoenix or anybody else in this league, but we didn't expect to be in this situation right now," said Storm coach Brian Agler. "We thought we could win and we did a lot of good things tonight, but sometimes things aren't meant to be. That's sort of how this game was. It wasn't meant to be tonight."

And a lot did go right.

Bird was once again more of a scorer with 22 points and a true shooting percentage of 63.07% with an assist ratio of 14.67%, well below average for a point guard. But to compensate with Bird as more of a scorer, the Storm found someone else to be a distributor. Last night that distributor was Katie Smith from the wing, who had four assists (28.81% assist ratio) and no turnovers for a pure point rating of 8.88 to help offset her 0-for-9 shooting performance. They got a lot of the shots they like to get and they missed.

Key statistic: The Mercury got to the line more than twice as often as the Storm

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Photo by Kailas Images.

When the final buzzer sounded, part of me was waiting for someone to blow a whistle, review a play, have a defensive do-over. Something. It wasn't just supposed to end with the Mercury celebrating at center court of KeyArena after a mess of a play in the paint.

When further taken in the context of pre-season expectations, the home court advantage, Bird having a game-high 22 points - including more clutch shots to add to her 2011 highlight reel - it was an absolutely devastating loss to take for a fan.

But I hesitate to focus on the officiating, despite the fact that the Mercury's free throw rate (36.1%) was more than twice that of the Storm's (15.7%).

The Storm had multiple opportunities to make up the two point margin that determined the final result. Aside from the missed layups and inconsistent rebounding effort, they missed nine free throws (55% free throw percentage). It's difficult to win an elimination game like that.

"It wasn't like we were inconsistent, but we dropped off and lost our rhythm - although I will say we made plays down the stretch," said Storm coach Brian Agler. "We had opportunities down the stretch. We had people hit big shots. There were a lot of things tonight that were just uncharacteristic of our team - missing free throws. We'd make plays and we wouldn't convert, whether it be to get back in the offense or whatever it might be."

And I think that's where I have to leave this season, personally - not to diminish the adversity throughout the season that was out of their control, but there were a lot of things throughout the season that were in the Storm's control that they uncharacteristically failed to perform to their own standard. Turnovers, missed layups, settling for jumpers, poor rebounding in stretches during this series and missed free throws last night.

A large part of that is Jackson's health - statistically, 2011 was the least productive season of Jackson's career. She was never really "right" for more than a few games and that visibly hurt the rhythm of the team and what they were able to do. She clearly was laboring throughout this series even after sitting out the last game of the series. Part of it might've been teams getting up a little bit more this season to knock off the champs. Surely someone will pin the blame on Smith given her performance this series, but that's a larger discussion that is either more complicated or less significant.

In the end though, I haven't been a Storm fan long, but I've been a Golden State Warriors fan for a few decades now and I can tell you with some measure of certainty that there is a massive difference in rooting for a team that puts themselves in position to win and loses and a team that loses because they had no business winning, even when the stars align briefly to make You Believe. The latter hurts a lot less game to game because you adjust your expectations accordingly once you start nearing two decades of futility that was only disturbed by a brief glimmer of hope from a post-season mirage. After near two decades of futility though, it becomes agonizing.

In other words, although I can't say exactly what it feels like to stick with a team that either wins a couple of titles or gets ousted in the first round for eight straight years, I can say it's better than the alternative - doing neither.

The Storm had their opportunities to win, for whatever reason they didn't capitalize when it counted, their opponent was literally in the right place at the right time, the better team had to move on and that was the Mercury this week.

And once I started to put aside the shock of it all, it really wasn't hard to just appreciate what a ride that was and sit in awe of what was an absolutely phenomenal performance by one the greatest talents to ever play in the league.

Feats of humanity like that fourth quarter performance are a large part of why we even bother watching sports and if you like the twist of an unsung hero getting a share of the spotlight with the season on the line there's not much more you can ask for from a single game, regardless of the numbness of loss and the lingering question of what might've been had a star player's hip not felt similarly.

Notes:

* I got over that.

** We need not have a discussion of objectivity and the fact that it doesn't exist in sports and probably shouldn't if you're a sentient being watching a sporting event.