Corey Gaines knew all along this was coming. When his Phoenix Mercury was getting blown out at KeyArena on June 6, Gaines participated in some good-natured trash talk with a fan sitting behind the scorers' table. His message? We'll see you in the playoffs.
A clash between the Mercury and the Seattle Storm in the Western Conference Finals seems almost preordained. Depending on perspective, the road to the conference championship could be said to go through either team. The Storm had the league's best record in the regular season, earning home-court advantage throughout its postseason run and ensuring a team will have to win in Seattle to knock the Storm out. Meanwhile, Phoenix is still the reigning WNBA champions until further notice, having won two of the league's last three titles.
"It obviously goes through them," said Storm guard Tanisha Wright. "They hold it. For the past two out of three years they've been champions, and right now they're playing some of their best basketball."
"Phoenix, they're going to be a really tough opponent," added Lauren Jackson. "We knew right from the beginning of the year we were going to have to go through L.A. and Phoenix to get to the championship."
The thinking in the Valley of the Sun is similar.
"This is kind of what we've been waiting for all year," Mercury star Diana Taurasi told reporters in Phoenix. "Hopefully we go out and play well."
The Mercury believes reserve center Kara Braxton could be a difference-maker in this series. Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images
DISCOUNT THE SEASON SERIES
Phoenix and Seattle played five times during the regular season, and the Storm emerged victorious all five times. Having been reminded of that fact, now forget it, because the statute of limitations has expired on its relevance.
"You'd like to think if you beat a team however many times in the regular season it will count for something," said center Ashley Robinson, "but it counts for nothing in this series. We've really got to be focused."
As dominant as the 5-0 record sounds, the games were anything but lopsided with the notable exception of the Storm's June blowout at KeyArena. Two of the three meetings in Phoenix went to overtime, and the third saw the Mercury play entirely reserves down the stretch. As for the last meeting? It featured one of the most stunning turnarounds in Storm history, as the team erased an 18-point deficit to win going away.
The only person who seems to think the season series matters is Gaines, who half-seriously indicated after the July 27 game that his team was due for a win.
"Its going to be good because, percentage-wise, its hard to beat somebody seven, eight times in a row," he said. "Id hate for it to be the other way around."
Only one of the five games featured the Phoenix roster the Storm will face in this series. The Mercury added physical 6-6 center Kara Braxton in a deal just before the trade deadline, and Braxton made her Phoenix debut in the July matchup at KeyArena. She had eight points, five rebounds and three assists in that game, then scored 15 points in 24 minutes on Aug. 20 at the US Airways Center. The Mercury sees Braxton as a possible difference-maker in this series.
"They really do have to double her, because their fours are too small," Gaines told the Arizona Republic. "If they put Lauren on her, that means Lauren will take a couple of (body) shots down low, because it's not like Braxton is going to ease up."
The Storm was able to slow down and frustrate the Mercury offense during the regular season. Aaron Last/Storm Photos
Add to the classic nature of the matchup that the two teams feature opposite styles of play. Phoenix is one of the league's fastest teams, ranking second in pace of play this season after regularly leading the league under Gaines and predecessor and Paul Westhead. The Storm prefers a more controlled game, and has played at the league's slowest pace all three years since Head Coach Brian Agler arrived in Seattle. The Mercury perennially tops the league in scoring and Offensive Rating, while the Storm prides itself on defense and led the WNBA in opponent field-goal percentage.
The mantra from Storm players has been the importance of imposing their will on Phoenix.
"With us, definitely, when our defense is on, we're on," said Robinson. "When their offense is on, they're on. Either we're going to play good offense or they're going to play good defense. It's whoever is best at what you do. So it is important to impose your will."
The five regular-season games were played at a pace of 77.9 possessions per 40 minutes, slightly closer to the Storm's season average than the Mercury's. Perhaps as important as the overall speed of the game is the Storm's ability to control Phoenix's dangerous fast-break offense. The Storm allowed fewer fast-break points than any other team in the league (6.9 points per game), while the Mercury led the league in fast-break scoring (15.6 points per game). Phoenix was limited to an average of 12.0 fast-break points in the five head-to-head meetings.
By keeping the Mercury in the half court, the Storm was able to contain its offense. Phoenix averaged less than a point per possession in the five head-to-head matchups, down from a season-long Offensive Rating of 111.3 points per 100 possessions.
Again, that success in the regular season will not necessarily carry over into the playoffs. Phoenix was impressive in its opening-round sweep of the San Antonio Silver Stars, demonstrating renewed focus at the defensive end of the floor. The Mercury also has the confidence that comes with two championship runs in three years. Phoenix last lost a playoff series in 2000, when only one member of the Mercury's current roster was even in the WNBA, and is riding a seven-series winning streak. But the Storm is hoping to continue some history of its own.
"Every time we get out of the first round, we win," noted Sue Bird. "Every time they make the playoffs, they win. Someone's going to have to break their streak in this series."