By Matthew Roberson
The eighth-seeded Seattle Storm (15-19) heads to the southwest yet again to battle its old nemesis, the fifth-seeded Phoenix Mercury (18-16). This first-round playoff game will jump on Wednesday, Sept. 6 at 7 p.m. PDT at Wells Fargo Arena on the campus of Arizona State University. ESPN2 has the television broadcast of the game.
This marks the second year in a row that the Storm is playing in a single-elimination playoff game. Last season, after earning the seventh seed, Seattle was knocked out by the Atlanta Dream. Familiarity will certainly play a role on the outcome of Wednesday’s game. Seattle and Phoenix duked it out three times in the 2017 regular season and twice in the preseason. While the Mercury took the season series 2-1, the Storm was able to pick up a win in Phoenix. That victory proved to be monumental for Seattle, as the 98-89 takedown on Aug. 12 served as the first win in a string of four straight that solidified the team’s place in the top eight of the league. The Mercury enters the playoffs with a 5-5 record in its last 10 games. Seattle also closed its regular season schedule by going 5-5, but did win its final game on the road at Chicago.
Each of the three games between the teams this year was settled by less than 10 points. On June 23, Phoenix eked out an 85-82 win at KeyArena thanks to 50 combined points from Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner, with the latter throwing down her ninth career dunk in the process. The game ended with the ball in the hands of Sami Whitcomb, whose three-pointer to tie the game went begging as the final buzzer sounded. In the next meeting, Seattle’s shooters sunk 10 three-pointers and shot 56.3 percent (36-for-64) on field goals. Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd matched each other with 20-point games on that Saturday night in the desert. The last installment of the rivalry in the 2017 regular season was a thriller. Behind 29 points from Griner and three clutch treys from Leilani Mitchell, Phoenix won 75-71 in a game that featured 16 lead changes.
Seattle’s big three of Stewart, Loyd, and Sue Bird have all played very well against their first-round opponent this year. Loyd averaged 23.7 points on 52 percent shooting in the three games with Phoenix, getting her career-high in points with a 33-point outing on Aug. 27. Stewart collected at least eight rebounds in every game and finished the three-game series with an average of 18 points per game. Bird dished 5.3 assists per contest with the Mercury and drained 40 percent of her three-point attempts. As always, getting scoring from outside the marquee trio is a recipe for winning in Seattle. Look for Crystal Langhorne to be a difference maker in Wednesday night’s clash. In the two losses to Phoenix this year Langhorne averaged four rebounds and shot 50 percent from the field, while she shot 8-for-9 (88 percent) for 19 points and clawed six rebounds in the lone win over the Mercury.
AT A GLANCE: MERCURY
Simply put, Phoenix has two of the most unstoppable offensive players in today’s WNBA. Griner led the league with 21.9 points per game, while Taurasi has scored the most points in the history of the league. Seattle was unable to hold Griner under 19 points in any of the three 2017 showdowns. Twice she went off for more than 25, including a 29-point, 12-for-20 performance on Aug. 27, with the 12 makes serving as her third-most of the season. Taurasi went 13-for-32 from behind the arc against Seattle, netting 18 points or more in each go round.
Phoenix’s ancillary players could provide the difference as the calendar turns to September and the intensity is ratcheted up. Camille Little, a key piece of the Storm’s 2010 championship squad, started every game for the Mercury and shot 41.9 percent from the floor, her highest shooting percentage since leaving Seattle. Monique Currie only appeared in 22 of Phoenix’s 34 games in 2017, but still managed to average double-digit scoring numbers and hit 42.4 percent from deep. Storm fans will remember Mitchell, one of Phoenix’s best bench players, for her dagger three in the team’s Aug. 27 war. Mitchell is good for eight points and nearly four assists in 21.4 minutes per game.
Despite heavily featuring Griner and Taurasi in its attack, Phoenix ranked in the middle of the pack offensively this year. The team was seventh in the league in points per game (81.9), finishing two slots behind Seattle’s 82.6. Both teams love to shoot the three ball, with the Mercury’s 19.1 attempts per game ticking in just short of Seattle’s 20. The Storm was top three in the WNBA in field goal percentage (47.3), three pointers made per game (7.3), and assists per game (20.2). Its opponent failed to rank in the top three of any of those categories. In terms of defense, the teams are roughly even. Phoenix allowed opponents to score 81.9 points per game on 43.8 percent shooting. Seattle’s opponents scored at an 82.6 per game clip and canned 44.3 percent of their shots.
The Mercury owns the advantage in both the 2017 series and the all-time playoff series. As mentioned before, Phoenix went 2-1 against the Storm this year. Both wins were incredibly close, as Sandy Brondello’s team won by three points in June and four points in August.
After going 0-9 against its Western Conference foe in 2014 and 2015, Seattle is 3-3 against the Mercury since. Seattle is 39-29 over 18 years of regular season skirmishes with Phoenix. The teams have met three times before in the playoffs, but never in a single-elimination format. In seven postseason games with the green and gold, Phoenix has a slight 4-3 lead. In 2010, the Storm swept the Mercury in the Western Conference Finals on its way to a WNBA title. Of course, it is worth noting that all of these previous playoff games took place before Stewart or Loyd were part of the Storm’s roster.
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