WNBA Today, 09/09/2011: Taurasi terrific, but Smith helps Storm survive

The battle for playoff positioning in the WNBA’s Eastern Conference is heading to the final day of the season (see all potential scenarios here), so tonight’s Indiana-New York contest is relegated to tomorrow’s column along with the Tulsa-LA game that only a mother could love. Tonight, we look at the crunch matchup between Phoenix and Seattle out West, the game that would likely decide who had home court advantage for their impending playoff series.

After Phoenix beat Tulsa last night, nearly everything was sorted in the Western Conference. We knew the matchups, we had dates for every game, we even had tip-off times and TV channels. The only thing we didn’t know was who would have Games 1 and 3 at home, and who would be left with just Game 2. The Mercury pulled level with Seattle in the standings after last night, and a win tonight would’ve evened the season series, but the Storm held a far superior conference record. That meant that a Phoenix win tonight wouldn’t have completely sealed matters – they’d still need either a win over Minnesota on Sunday or a Seattle loss to Chicago the same night. For the Storm it was simpler – win tonight, and home court in the first round was theirs.

Bad news for the Mercury before the tip, as Penny Taylor remained on the sidelines due to back spasms. She was warming up before the game, but presumably didn’t feel ready to go. It’s the smart play if she was still hurting. Considering Seattle were 13-2 at home coming into this game, 6-11 on the road, it obviously would’ve been huge to take home court away from the Storm for the playoffs. But far bigger than that is having Taylor in one piece. At some point, the Mercury were going to have to win in Seattle, either tonight or in the playoffs. If Taylor wasn’t ready, you leave her on the bench and try to pull a game out in the postseason if the rest of the squad can’t manage it without her. DeWanna Bonner continued to start in Taylor’s place, while Seattle went with their established starting five.

The early stages of the game were ugly for everyone, as practically nothing would drop through the hoop. Still, the signs seemed reasonably positive for Seattle because they were working to produce offense in the paint, not just firing up jump shots. Phoenix, on the other hand, were almost exclusively jacking up shots from outside. Eventually, that scenario will usually work out in favour of the team who plays inside. Of course, in most basketball games, you’re not facing Diana Taurasi. She opened the scoring with a pretty fadeaway from midrange, then drilled a pair of threes midway through the quarter (the second from beyond NBA range). Fortunately for Seattle, by that point they’d picked up a little steam themselves, Katie Smith and Le’coe Willingham coming off the bench to hit their own threes and tie the game at 10.

The rest of the first quarter was all about Katie Smith. She had a slow start to her Seattle career this season, barely able to make a shot for her first month or so as a member of the Storm. She’s been vastly improved since snapping out of that slump, but nothing in the realm of what we saw tonight. Smith’s always willing to do the grunt work defensively, fighting with anyone for possession or battling to shut an opponent down. But offensively, she’s essentially become a jump shooter, and little else. Tonight was different. Four times in the first quarter, Smith drove into the paint and either converted the layup, drew a whistle, or both. With Phoenix’s offense disappearing as soon as Taurasi went to the bench with a couple of minutes left in the period, Smith’s offensive burst created a Storm lead, 21-15 at the end of the first quarter.

Taurasi returned for the start of the second quarter, and the Mercury’s offense returned with her. Unsurprising really, seeing as she was the Mercury’s offense. The second quarter was one of the most extraordinary, ridiculous, outlandish displays of offensive ability you’re likely to see from one player on a basketball court. Taurasi just kept scoring. The majority of her points came on threes, with an occasional free throw sprinkled in here or there for variety when a Storm player got close enough to touch her. Seattle weren’t exactly playing terrible defense on her – sometimes she’s just unstoppable with that quick release and extended range – but they weren’t showing hard enough on ball screens and she was left with a little too much room to fire. And if you give Diana an inch, she’ll take a mile. With Seattle still struggling to find anyone who could make a shot besides Smith and occasionally Tanisha Wright, Taurasi took over the game.

It was Smith who eventually halted the barrage with barely two minutes left in the half, driving to the basket with Taurasi draped all over her (and already on two fouls from earlier in the game). The officials had been consistent all half, refusing to call touch fouls or even a fair amount of bodily contact on drives or post moves. As a result, Smith didn’t get the call she thought she deserved on the drive, but as she was in the process of complaining realised that the rebound was still available. Smith grabbed it, was then fouled by Taurasi, but picked up a technical foul when Taurasi was sent sprawling to the deck by a wave of Smith’s arm (there wasn’t much in it, to be honest, but referee Roy Gulbeyan does love a technical foul). Taurasi converted the technical free throw for her 28th point of the half, and then took a seat (after Bonner smartly fouled intentionally to let Taurasi sit before she had any chance to pick up her fourth foul).

By that point, the damage had been done, and all Seattle managed to accomplish in the final minutes of the half was missing another couple of layups. That had been a regular sight throughout the first half. Phoenix went in at the break ahead 41-35, with Taurasi providing 28 of that 41 on 9-13 from the floor (6-8 from outside). It was phenomenal display, but having pulled that off and only being ahead by six, you had to wonder if she could repeat anything like it in the second half. Seattle’s stars had been invisible. Lauren Jackson looked slow and barely interested, hurting from the hip injury that cost her most of the season, and was 0-4 for zero points and just one rebound in over 12 minutes of action. Smith’s 15 points and Wright’s nine were really all that had kept Seattle in touch, while the rest of the team shot 5-24 from the floor. The defense on Taurasi wasn’t the only thing Seattle needed to improve in the second half.

The opening to the third quarter remained poor for the Storm. Camille Little missed yet another layup in the paint on the first possession, and with the officials letting a lot of contact go underneath, she wasn’t being bailed out with foul calls. Wright made a nice play off a long rebound, driving the length of the court and going straight at Taurasi (who backed off to avoid her fourth foul) for a layup, but then Little made another error in fouling Taurasi on a three-point attempt. Undoubtedly Brian Agler had told his troops to get tighter on her at halftime, but that isn’t quite what he meant. Then Wright picked up her own fourth foul on a very cheap call, and Cash lost Bonner on a baseline cut that led to an open three for the Mercury player. Barely two minutes into the second half, Phoenix had pushed their lead to nine at 46-37, and Agler needed a timeout.

The game turned out of that little pause in the action. Smith entered the game for Wright, and we were quickly back in the Taurasi vs. Smith show from the first half – only DT wasn’t hitting any more. After Little finally converted a shot in the lane, Bonner jacked a three from Andrea Riley-esque range, and Taurasi followed suit when the long rebound bounced out to her. Taurasi missed as well, and even when you’re smoking hot neither of those were good shots. Smith responded with another driving layup, and minutes later back-to-back threes. This was the Katie Smith of old, the scoring machine that used to take over games. She had 23 points already, and Seattle had the lead back at 47-46. It was less than two minutes since Smith had re-entered the game.

Mercury coach Corey Gaines took a timeout himself to try to cool Smith down, but just to prove it hadn’t worked, the first Seattle shot after the stoppage was another Smith triple. She’d started the night 28 points away from 6,000 in her WNBA career, with people wondering if she could exceed her average to sneak over the milestone in the final two games of the season. Instead, with 15 minutes still to play, she only needed two more to break the line in one night. Also, while it was a team effort in the second half, it was Smith who was providing much of the defense on Taurasi, who’d conspicuously only scored two points since halftime. Inspired by Smith’s production, Sue Bird finally got involved in the offense, sinking a midrange jumper before nailing a three to take Seattle’s lead to 57-52. The Storm lost their momentum late in the third quarter when Agler tried to rest Smith briefly, before quickly realising that his team needed her on the floor. A few Mercury free throws and some stilted and unproductive Seattle offense to close the period left the Storm just 58-56 in front heading to the fourth.

It looked like the infamous basketball gods might be on Seattle’s side early in the fourth quarter. With Taurasi on the bench grabbing a breather to start the period, a Mercury offensive possession went nowhere and Ketia Swanier forced up an effort to beat the shot clock, which bounced off. When the succeeding Seattle possession was similarly aimless, Wright threw up a prayer to beat the buzzer, and it banked in off the glass for three. That gave the Storm a 64-58 lead, and a sign that it might be their night.

There were no stoppages for several minutes early in the fourth quarter, leaving key personnel on the sidelines while their backups visibly tired. Eventually, Swanier committed what was practically an intentional foul just to stop the clock and get off the floor. With 6:18 to play and the Storm still holding that six-point lead, Taurasi, Candice Dupree, Temeka Johnson, Bird and Jackson all returned to the game. It was Seattle who pushed on from there. Bird drained another three seconds after coming back into the game, then sank a pair of free throws despite ploughing into the basket stanchion after a hard foul by Johnson. Taurasi responded by leaning into Little for another foul on a three-point attempt, but Jackson scored her first points of the game on a midrange jumper on the next possession, and Bird followed up with another three. The Storm lead had ballooned to 74-60 with under five minutes to play, and while the Mercury are always a threat to score points in a hurry, it didn’t look likely. The only way it was going to happen was if Taurasi pulled another amazing scoring streak out of her derrière.

It wasn’t to be, although Taurasi did finally sink her first field goal of the second half with 3:33 left in the game. Seattle dropped into their excruciatingly passive offense for the final three minutes, which tends to produce absolutely nothing, but got away with it thanks to a Wright fadeaway that crawled in and Phoenix missing shots. Seattle do that way too frequently and way too early in a lot of games, but tonight it didn’t matter. The final score of 85-70 made it appear far easier than it really was, but it was a Storm win whichever way you looked at it. Home court advantage for the first round series had been decided.

Seattle will be delighted to secure home court, but there were one or two worrying signs. Lauren Jackson doesn’t look healthy. She wasn’t moving well, she wasn’t demanding the ball in the post, and as a result she was simply having very little impact on the game. She played over 23 minutes, and for a 6’6” blonde she was remarkably invisible. Smith was the undoubted star, finishing 9-13 from the floor (5-7 from three-point range) for 26 points, still short of that 6,000-point milestone by two. But they can’t expect that every night. Neither can they expect to shoot 13-24 from three-point range as a team. Even beyond Jackson, the finishing inside was deplorable. With players like Sanford and Bonner, the Mercury do have a little size and length inside, but they’re one of the weaker post defending teams in the WNBA. The likes of Little and Cash have to be able to make layups and turn opportunities into points in the paint, because the number of efforts at the rim that missed tonight would’ve cost them in a lot of games. Jackson has nearly a full week to rest, assuming they don’t even bother to play her in the meaningless game against Chicago on Sunday. If we see something more closely resembling the true LJ in the first round, Seattle have to be favourites to progress, now that they’ll be playing two of three in Key Arena. But if the healthy Aussie star is the one in a Mercury vest, Phoenix still have every chance to cause an upset.

For Phoenix, this was a stark illustration that Diana Taurasi can’t do it all on her own. 28 points in the first half, 36 by the end, it was a remarkable display but it was without much assistance. She started forcing shots despite the extra defensive pressure in the second half, trying to take it all on her back, and the game drifted away. The only other Mercury player in double-digits was Dupree, 4-8 from the floor for 12 points; no one got going besides Taurasi all night. That’s the problem without Penny Taylor. She balances the offense, gives them another threat, and helps the ball movement and distribution as well. Plus it simply removes the feeling from Taurasi that she needs to take over the game. If Taylor recovers for the first round, advancing without home court advantage certainly isn’t beyond this team. They don’t like facing Seattle’s defense, but this isn’t last year’s Storm. This year’s incarnation is far more inclined to allow the Mercury to hang around, due to their own offensive issues, especially if Jackson is struggling. Phoenix will go away from this game disappointed, but not disconsolate about their chances in the upcoming series.


In other news…

For those who naughtily skipped the introduction to this piece, the Eastern Conference Playoff Scenarios are here. Thank goodness they’re still playing for position in the East – the five remaining games involving Western Conference teams this weekend are completely meaningless.

The newly updated Western Conference playoff schedule – now with venues for the Phoenix-Seattle series – can be found here.

Australia took care of New Zealand 92-73 in Game 2 of their best-of-three series for the Oceania Championship today, completing their expected series victory. So Lauren Jackson, Penny Taylor et al (assuming they’re healthy) will be joining me at the London Olympics next year. New Zealand join Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Turkey, Japan and Korea in the additional Olympic Qualifying Tournament that will decide the final five spots. Both the FIBA Africa and FIBA Americas tournaments get underway in a couple of weeks, the winners earning direct entry to London 2012 while five more teams are added to the qualifying tournament.


Today’s Games (already completed):

Indiana @ New York, 7pm ET

Phoenix @ Seattle, 10pm ET

Tulsa @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET


Tomorrow’s Games:

Washington @ San Antonio, 8pm ET

Chicago @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET

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