There are many different ways to play the game of basketball. Many different ways to win a game of basketball. Some of them are more pleasing on the eye than others, but when you look back at the record books in future years, all it tells you is who won or lost. Both of the WNBA’s Western Conference semi-finals went to deciding games, and the spectacles they produced were very different. But when it came down to it, two teams were delighted, two were disconsolate, and the rest was just details.
However, those were some pretty exciting details. Phoenix went up to Seattle on Monday night buoyed by their reasonably comfortable victory in Game 2. They might’ve had a horrible record against the Storm over the last couple of years, and they hadn’t won in Seattle since 2009, but they had the momentum after largely dominating the game in Arizona. The Key Arena crowd would inevitably help, and the Storm had been a vastly superior team on their own floor this season, but Game 2 had left them looking vulnerable. They’d need to perform far better than they had on Saturday to close out the series.
Both starting fives remained the same, DeWanna Bonner keeping her spot in the lineup for Phoenix despite Nakia Sanford now being fit enough to take part. It made sense, considering how effective they’d been in the previous game. Before we even get into the game action, let’s get the most obvious element of the discussion out the way first – this was a physical game. From the opening tip, it was just a war. Not in the way that I said, for example, Erika de Souza and Tina Charles would be going to war under the basket in their series (which was derailed slightly by Charles prancing around the perimeter for the entire series anyway). These teams had been fighting it out in the paint since Game 1, and Game 3 took it at least a couple of levels further. Arms flying, constant bumping and barging inside, everyone throwing themselves into every collision – it was more MMA than basketball at times. The officials did their best. Some would say that best wasn’t good enough, but if you’re one of those people I invite you to take on the challenge of becoming a professional basketball referee – it ain’t easy. They didn’t do a perfect job, but officiating this game was a thoroughly impossible task. How do you keep control of a game with ten fouls on every possession, and both players typically fouling each other on every collision?
It looked like it was going to all be so simple early on. Phoenix were committing way too many turnovers in the first quarter, cheaply handing over the ball to the Storm, and Seattle were hitting enough shots to capitalise. The Mercury’s ninth turnover of the opening quarter gave Tanisha Wright a breakaway layup to close the period, and Seattle a 20-9 lead. It looked like several of the previous Storm-Mercury encounters – Phoenix can’t handle the Seattle defense, can’t ignite their running game, and Seattle create enough points against the porous Phoenix defense to win the game.
Three minutes into the second quarter, with his team behind 26-11, Phoenix coach Corey Gaines finally decided to try something different. For the first time in the entire series – in fact, the first time all season against Seattle, as far as I can remember – he went big. No more Temeka Johnson or Ketia Swanier at the point, just Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor as the de facto guards, Bonner as the tough matchup for Swin Cash at small forward, and Candice Dupree in the post with Sanford. Simultaneously, he went back to the ‘Rover’ zone which used to be a mainstay of the Mercury defense, but has fallen by the wayside for most of this season. I’ve always hated the Rover, because it was always a crutch that the Mercury dropped back into to save themselves from having to play any proper defense. And it typically left gaping holes for opponents to score against them. But one thing it does enable is quick and easy double-teams, and lots of clogging the lane. In a game as intensely physical as this was already proving to be, the extra size on the floor was a good idea, and anything that increased the pounding on the Storm was equally positive. Also, he just had to try something at that stage. The game was starting to slip away, even early in the second quarter.
It worked, although it took a while. Zones can lull teams into trying to beat them over the top, and when you’re Seattle that’s rarely a good idea. They took five threes in the remaining minutes of the first half, only hit one – made by the impressive Wright, once again looking Seattle’s best player in the series – and the Mercury got a grip on the game again. Their offense wasn’t working too smoothly either, but they’d stabilised the deficit, and given themselves a chance. A Bonner triple – the only shot she’d make all night – pulled the gap back into single digits just before halftime at 39-30.
The problem with basketball games that are on the edge of being brawls, is that the officials can’t call everything. It’s just not possible. But someone inevitably gets affected more negatively than the rest. The Storm were hurt in the first half by foul trouble for Camille Little, who alongside Wright had been their most effective player in the first two games of this series. Little played barely six minutes in the first half due to picking up three fouls, although by the break she’d been joined by Taurasi, Dupree and Le’coe Willingham on three. Lauren Jackson was doing her best, and clearly fighting through pain to continue battling it out in the paint against Bonner, Dupree and Sanford, but losing Little for long stretches hurt the Storm in the first half. It was like fighting a battle without one of your key warriors.
The third quarter left everyone watching the foul counts as much as the score. It’s not like there was a great deal of basketball being played to keep your eyes trained on anyway. Little did a nice job of selling a charge by Taurasi early in the third to add her fourth, before Wright quickly added her third and fourth fouls on a charge and an unnecessary challenge for a high ball with Bonner. Midway through the period, Little added her fourth as well in the fight for an offensive rebound. Typically, all these fouls would work in Seattle’s favour. The Mercury don’t want the game bogged down by endless whistles, because it completely destroys the flow of their offense. But Seattle usually do that to them anyway. In the third quarter, it was working to Phoenix’s benefit, because the officials were seeing far more offenses committed by the Storm, and the Mercury are the best free throw shooting team in the WNBA. With Seattle’s offense stagnant and clogged, their ball movement nowhere near as good as it had been to open the game – partly because of that Rover defense that Phoenix were still throwing out – the Mercury got back into the game at the line. The foul count was 11-3 against the Storm in the third quarter, and Phoenix went to the line ten times (making all ten). On a broken play, Dupree grabbed the loose ball and made a layup to tie the game at 48 with over three minutes left in the third period – a game which Seattle had led by 18 midway through the second. It was a hell of a turnaround, and we were in for a barnstorming fourth.
The key moment towards the end of the third quarter was when Sanford stepped in front of Wright on a drive and drew her fifth foul of the night. Given how the period had been going for the Storm, it was a silly mistake for Wright to make – leaving your feet in the lane is never a good idea, especially when the refs are in ‘call everything’ mode. At least Sue Bird drilled a three on the final shot of the quarter to send the crowd wild and take a 57-54 Storm lead into the fourth.
Sanford drew Jackson’s fourth foul on another charge to open the fourth quarter, before Little added her fifth when she held Taurasi on a cut seconds later. The foul trouble was starting to look dire for Seattle. However, with Taurasi growing increasingly agitated after two quick fouls were called on Sanford (taking her to four), she took her frustrations out on Jackson when the Aussie received a lob pass under the basket. Taurasi practically mugging Jackson on that play took her to five fouls with eight minutes left to play, and the inevitable arrived barely 90 seconds later.
A Dupree jumper over Willingham – only playing this many minutes due to Little’s foul trouble – had just given Phoenix their first lead of the night at 60-59, forcing Storm coach Brian Agler into a quick timeout to gather his troops. Right out of the timeout, Katie Smith was dribbling out beyond the three-point line looking for someone to enter the ball to, when Taurasi reached in to try to steal the ball. And she caught her. It was incredibly cheap, and if it had happened in the first minute of the game it would’ve been whistled and passed practically without incident, but it was Taurasi’s sixth foul. Credit to the ref for calling it, frankly, because no one likes to foul out a superstar – but that was a foul. Sorry, Mercury fans (not that any of you will care at this point). Taurasi went predictably nuts at fouling out of such a crucial game with well over six minutes remaining, and drew a technical thanks to the profanity-laden tirade she screamed on her way to the bench. The crowd loved it, of course, although they’d have liked it more if Bird hadn’t missed the technical free throw.
Seconds later, it was Sanford once again moving into position to take a charge that had a huge impact, taking Little’s sixth foul and removing her from the game. Taurasi might be the guiding light for Phoenix, but in this series losing Little was just as big for Seattle. She’d played less than 13 minutes in the deciding game due to all those fouls – at least Taurasi managed nearly 30 before she was removed. For the record, Little quietly walked to her team’s bench without saying a word to any official. Y’know, just for the sake of comparison.
Now that both teams had lost a key player, everyone seemed to remember that we still had a basketball game to finish. And oh what a finish it was. Even with Taurasi sat down, Phoenix still had all the momentum from their impressive comeback, and Penny Taylor took up the challenge of leading them forward. Only for Sue Bird to remind everyone of exactly how clutch she is. A three from Bird tied the game at 65, and then another gave the Storm a 70-69 lead with under four minutes remaining.
Taylor drove and created contact – something she’s always been very good at – and put the Mercury back ahead at the line. Katie Smith missed a three at the other end – her eighth straight miss on a horrible offensive night for her – before a possession that summed up a lot of Seattle’s night. Taylor missed a midrange jumper, but Bonner grabbed the rebound. Her putback attempt rolled off, but with Jackson sliding over to challenge that effort Taylor was open behind her to grab another offensive board and complete the play at the third attempt. If Little had been on the floor, or if Jackson had been fully healthy and mobile enough to recover – that play probably doesn’t happen. Playing 35 minutes on the night, Jackson was still giving it everything she had, but there wasn’t much left in the tank. However, after empty possessions for both teams, the next score of the game came when Jackson popped out behind the three-point line, saving herself from another pounding inside, and nailed a three to tie the contest. 1:38 remaining, and still anyone’s game.
On the next possession, after yet another tussle inside and bodies scattered on the floor chasing after a loose ball, the normally mild-mannered Dupree picked up a technical for something she said to one of the refs. Only for Wright to miss the free throw anyway. After Temeka Johnson jacked and missed a three, Smith missed her ninth attempt out of nine for the evening and Cash failed with the putback effort, Phoenix had the ball with 40 seconds left to play in a tied game. Taylor took charge again, drove past Wright – still conscious of being on five fouls – and finished under pressure from Jackson and Cash at the rim (Jackson looking a little tentative either due to exhaustion or being on five fouls herself). But once again, Bird stepped up. Wright tried to drive and get a call on Dupree at the basket but by now the refs had swallowed their whistles and were going to let the players decide matters. Decapitation probably would’ve been necessary to earn free throws. The rebound got tipped out to Smith, who quickly rotated the ball to Bird, who hit a midrange pullup to tie the game with 14 seconds on the clock. The girl has ice water in her veins. There might even be some ice cubes in there, she’s just that good in the clutch.
Still, after calling timeout the Mercury had 10 seconds left to end the game without overtime. The play was drawn up for Taylor, inevitably, who drove the right side but missed the finish at the basket under pressure from Smith. But Taylor was quickest with her second jump, and kept the rebound alive and available. It dropped out to Dupree, who flipped the ball back up and in with a soft touch from five feet. With just 1.9 seconds left on the clock and no timeouts left thanks to all the runs Agler had tried to stop in the second half, Seattle inbounded as quickly as they could. But Bird was caught in traffic and Wright couldn’t collect her pass and get a shot off before time ran out. The Storm and the Key Arena crowd were utterly stunned – Phoenix had won 77-75.
It was a gripping contest, even if it was more a war of attrition than a basketball game. While unfortunate things like Little’s foul trouble and Smith’s awful shooting night hurt, the most obvious discrepancy in the box score was at the free throw line. Phoenix shot 22-23, while Seattle were 11-20, including those two technical misses. When the game becomes a foul-fiesta, you have to take advantage at the line, and the Storm were well beaten in that area. They got great games from their backcourt, Bird 9-17 for 22 points (including all those huge buckets down the stretch) and Wright 7-13 for 17. Jackson played her heart out despite obviously not being healthy enough to play 35 minutes of physically exhausting basketball, producing 6-13 for 18 points, and playing far more in the post than she had in several recent games. She went to war, and was unlucky to come out on the losing side. The Storm didn’t get quite enough from their other pieces. Smith shot 0-9, Little was 3-4 in her brief appearances, and Swin Cash once again was poor at 3-11 for nine points. I don’t know what’s happened to Cash in the second half of this season, and especially in the last few weeks, but essentially losing what used to be their third option has made things much tougher for Seattle. Wright, Little and Smith have stepped up on different occasions, but in the end it came back to bite them. Once again, a Storm team dealing with injuries exits in the first round of the playoffs.
It was a remarkable performance by the Mercury. After the way they started the game, you could’ve understood them feeling like it was going to be another one of those days against the Storm and drifting to defeat. But they’ve got more heart than that, and they were willing to play a different kind of game to get the victory. They may like to run, but this team has never been afraid of a fight and they proved that again. Taurasi was 6-16 before her exit for 19 points, Dupree 10-15 for 20, but the real star was Taylor. Stepping up in Taurasi’s absence – as she did early in the regular season when Taurasi wasn’t playing particularly well – Taylor was 6-11 for 19 points and 17 rebounds. The fact that the Mercury ended the game with just seven assists illustrates that this wasn’t their typical free-flowing basketball. It was more about individual effort and the defensive struggle, but they got the job done. I said in my preview of this series that I felt the Mercury could win this series, but didn’t have the guts to predict that they would. All credit to them for pulling it out, even if the series ended in more of a brawl than a basketball game.
So the next night, Minnesota and San Antonio played for the right to face the Mercury in the Western Finals. After running the Lynx close in Game 1 and turning them over reasonably comfortably in Game 2, everyone was jumping on the Silver Stars bandwagon before Game 3. Suddenly it looked like they had a chance to topple the team that had run away with the regular season crown at the top of the West. San Antonio coach Dan Hughes had largely outfoxed Minnesota’s Cheryl Reeve in the series so far, enabling his team to bridge the gap in talent between the squads, and negating the huge advantages that Minnesota were supposed to have on the glass and in the paint. Could the Lynx win their first ever playoff series, or would the Silver Stars pull off the big upset on the road after finishing nine games behind Minnesota in the regular season?
Again, the same starting fives, and for the third game in a row the same defensive matchups to start the game. Danielle Robinson chasing Seimone Augustus, Jia Perkins on Lindsay Whalen, and Becky Hammon on Maya Moore. I know I keep going on about this, but it’s a really interesting quirk to this matchup. The Lynx start three big, strong perimeter players. Whalen’s always been a powerful, physical point guard; Augustus has played most of her WNBA career as a small forward but has moved over to the 2 this year; and Moore’s got a great pro body for a wing after spending much of her college career as an athletic 4. San Antonio, on the other hand, start a little rookie speedster at point guard, an undersized combo guard in Hammon alongside her, and essentially a third guard in Perkins (who’s no one’s idea of a true small forward). It should be a mismatch, but the Silver Stars have made it work in this series, and actually used it to confuse the Lynx at times. The likes of Hammon and Tully Bevilaqua shouldn’t be able to guard Moore, but they’ve pulled it off.
The opening couple of minutes of the game were scary for Minnesota because it looked just like Game 2 – and they were lucky to only lose that one by nine. Whalen turned the ball over on a baseline drive, Taj McWilliams-Franklin, Rebekkah Brunson and Moore all missed perimeter jumpers, while Hammon and Perkins were firing and hitting from outside. With three minutes gone, the Silver Stars led 10-2 and Reeve needed a timeout to remind her team of the stakes. They certainly hadn’t been saying “play just like that again” for the last two days, so they needed that timeout simply for a metaphorical clip round the ear. It was time to snap out of it and play more like the team that had gone 27-7 in the regular season.
Leading the way in their most important game of the season was their most experienced player. McWilliams-Franklin, already on the side of 40 I dread, hit a couple of baseline jumpers and had a finish in the paint after that timeout, before Brunson joined in. This was where the Lynx were supposed to have such an edge in this series, and it was the beginning of something they did far, far better in Game 3 than they’d managed in either of the previous games. They got their post players in motion. Instead of having them static in the post waiting for entry passes, or setting screens and waiting for something to happen out top, Brunson, McWilliams-Franklin and Jessica Adair (when she replaced either) were receiving passes on the move. On pick and rolls that got them going to the hoop, on cuts, on simple rotations – everything had more freedom and mobility to it. After that early timeout there was more energy to the Lynx defense as well, and as the vast majority of coaches will tell you, good defense ignites good offense (Corey Gaines in Phoenix is one of the rare exceptions, although the game the previous night might’ve swung him back the other way). A little offense from Danielle Adams off the San Antonio bench allowed the Silver Stars to respond to the Minnesota barrage, and cling to a 19-18 lead at the end of the first quarter – but the Lynx had taken over control of the game.
Minnesota pressed home that advantage in the second quarter. Bevilaqua opened it with a three for San Antonio, but the Lynx proceeded to score the next 17 points of the game. Moore had been replaced in the opening period by Reeve after continuing her ineffectiveness in this series. She hadn’t been able to take advantage of her matchup with the smaller guards at the offensive end, and Perkins was largely her responsibility when she exploded for 24 points in Game 2. With Perkins off to a quick start in this game as well, Reeve had been quick with the hook and sent in Candice Wiggins to cover Perkins instead. But Moore was back to start the second quarter, and instantly looked more alive. She had a three when San Antonio’s defense didn’t switch quickly enough to cover her; a layup over Bevilaqua when she showed the determination to set up in the post for once; a nice offensive rebound before kicking out to Augustus for three; and another layup on the break after Whalen made a completely illegal move to steal a jump ball from Sophia Young (you’re not allowed to leave your half of the jump circle before the ball is tipped – not that our three officials knew that, apparently). This was starting to turn into the worst case scenario for San Antonio. Active defense from the Lynx forcing them into nothing but jump shots, speedy and mobile Lynx offense keying from those defensive stops, the crowd loud and into the game, and the Minnesota wings starting to fire. They had no chance if that state of affairs continued – and it was already 35-22.
Hughes reached into his bag of tricks to try to keep his team alive. The Silver Stars went to their 2-3 zone for a couple of possessions, just to mix things up and keep the Lynx on their toes. He used Roneeka Hodges for the first time in the entire series, and she promptly hit a three from the corner. Plus he got a little help from his star, with Hammon hitting a three and finding Young streaking down the lane with a gorgeous pass that led her in for a layup. She also found Perkins under the hoop on the final play of the period, only to watch her blow the wide open finish. But at least San Antonio were within range, 44-37 when the half came to a close (44-36 after they reviewed a San Antonio three and turned it into a two during the break).
However, the warning signs were mounting for San Antonio even then. Minnesota had held them to eight points in the paint in the first half, doing a far better job of denying to opportunities to make the high-low pass that had led to layup chances for the Silver Stars in the first two games. The Lynx also had six offensive rebounds – although it felt like more with the way Minnesota had been crashing the glass – and Danielle Robinson still couldn’t hit that little baseline 15-footer that she’d been bricking throughout the series. Sophia Young was yet to miss a shot, but when you only find the chances to make four attempts, that doesn’t mean all that much.
Even with Augustus’s jumper flowing like the smoothest of silk, San Antonio did a good job of hanging around just about within range in the third quarter. Young was the focus for the Silver Stars early in the period, finishing inside and then stepping out to hit from 17 feet. She was up to 16 points by the midway point of the third, and still hadn’t missed all night. But Augustus really was lighting it up. Danielle Robinson had done everything she could, but it wasn’t enough any more, and Augustus was just elevating over her and shooting from wherever she wanted to on the floor. After her total for the game reached 20, eight of them in the first five minutes of the second half, Hughes even sent Scholanda Robinson into the game (her only previous appearance in the series being three minutes in Game 1). It was the defensive equivalent of when he got desperate enough to send Hodges in during the first half. It quieted Augustus for a while, but with the Minnesota offense continuing to flow they found points from elsewhere. San Antonio were within 10 at 66-56 to end the third quarter, but a late forced three from Scholanda Robinson illustrated how frustrated and difficult their offense had become. It seemed like a big ten-point gap.
When Monica Wright drilled a three and McWilliams-Franklin hit yet another jumper from midrange to open the fourth, it was a big 15-point gap instead. With the Minnesota crowd desperate to see their first ever playoff series win, and San Antonio’s interior offense completely nonexistent, the only way they were getting back into this game was if someone got insanely hot from outside – and it never happened. The improved defense from the Lynx, showing far more speed and activity for 37 minutes of this game than they had in the previous two, wasn’t going to let the San Antonio gunners fire them back into the game. Never closer than 12 the rest of the way, the lead reached as high 22 at one point and the benches were cleared for the final few minutes. Minnesota defended their home court and advanced to the Western Finals, winning 85-67.
While I’m sure they’re disappointed to see their season end, San Antonio emerge from this series with a lot of credit. They still have the same issues we’ve known existed all season – lack of post offense, lack of rebounding – but they almost overcame them against easily the best regular season team in the WNBA in 2011. Young led the Silver Stars’ scoring in Game 3 with 17 on 7-8 from the floor, and Hammon was next with 15 on 5-14, but after those opening few minutes they could never find any flow. The defense from Minnesota was too big and too quick, and their dominance on the glass really began to wear down the Silver Stars. I’ve been saying it all season, and San Antonio have been proving me wrong quite a bit, but it really is hard to win games when you can’t score inside and you can’t clean the glass. After losing 46-20 in points in the paint, and 36-21 on the boards, maybe this game was just a step too far. But with exciting young additions to his team, this was a nice first year in a rebuilding process for Hughes and San Antonio. Now if they can just find some help inside, they could be a threat to anyone next year.
It would have been a horrible waste of such an outstanding regular season if Minnesota had failed to take this series, so good for them for finally imposing themselves in Game 3. Reeve drew a much better performance from her team, and helped them close up the holes that Hughes and San Antonio were exploiting in the first couple of games. Of course, making shots always makes things seem easier. Augustus finished 10-16 for 22 points, and that jumper continues to be one of the prettiest sights in the women’s game when she’s in full flow. McWilliams-Franklin was 6-10 for 16, Brunson 4-9 for 15, in a far, far better performance from the starting frontcourt than we’d seen in Games 1 and 2. Again, putting them in motion made everything easier, and created far greater fluidity to the offense. Neither has a huge array of post moves, but they can both finish if you create the opportunities, and they’re both smart about using their bodies on the block. Adair was 3-7 in 16 minutes backing up both of them, and continues to be a useful find for the Lynx. It’s saved them from relying on Amber Harris or Charde Houston this year, and she’ll continue to receive minutes against Phoenix. Moore had a much better outing in Game 3 as well, even if her line of 5-12 for 14 points still didn’t exactly jump off the page. She responded after being pulled early in the first quarter, and came out much better for the rest of the game. There was no early hook to send in Wiggins instead in the second half.
So the Lynx go on the face the Mercury, and unless Phoenix have been forever altered by their series with Seattle – which seems unlikely – it’s liable to be a festival of scoring. As with this series, Minnesota’s opponents have far more experience in these situations, but the Lynx have produced the superior performances over the course of the season. If the Lynx play like we know they can, the series is theirs for the taking, because they can run with the Mercury but they play significantly better defense. However, if they show the same nerves that raised their heads in the opening games of this series, Phoenix will be more than happy to capitalise. It should be a lot of fun to watch.
Check back here tomorrow before the games for previews of both Conference Finals series. I’ll try to keep them a little briefer than usual, to save you having to block off four hours before the tip to finish reading.
In other news…
ESPN are apparently hosting a chat with the WNBA MVP tomorrow, so it would seem the announcement is coming tomorrow afternoon. The most likely reason to choose that date would seem to be that it’s the last guaranteed home game for the winner’s team, which would mean Minnesota or Indiana. Which still leaves us with Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Tamika Catchings as reasonable possibilities. My money’s on Catchings, for what that’s worth.
Sue Bird has apparently played the entire season with torn labrums in both hips, according to news emerging from the Seattle exit interviews this afternoon. Nothing as severe as the tear that led Lauren Jackson to have surgery during the season, but it still means she’s been playing through pain all year. It makes her performances this season leading the team in Jackson’s absence even more impressive. She’ll be deciding on surgery in the upcoming weeks, especially as she’s not scheduled to start her European season in Russia until January.
Atlanta @ Indiana, Game 1, 7pm ET (live on ESPN2)
Phoenix @ Minnesota, Game 1, 9pm ET (live on ESPN2)