Storm vs. Phoenix
Sunday, July 8, 6:00 p.m.
KeyArena Radio: 1090 AM Live Access: Available with subscription Buy Tickets: Promotion: Sue Bird Bobblehead giveaway (first 4,000 fans)
Kevin Pelton, StormBasketball.com
The Phoenix Mercury team that takes the court Sunday at KeyArena will look very different than the team that ended the Storm's 2011 season on Candice Dupree's late game-winning shot during Game 3 of the teams' first-round series. Since then, Phoenix has been devastated by injuries to key players.
The problems started overseas. During the EuroLeague Final Eight competition, forward Penny Taylor injured her left knee playing for Fenerbahce. Initially, Taylor hoped to avoid surgery, but doctors ultimately found a rupture of her ACL that required surgery, ending her WNBA season and her chance of playing in the 2012 Olympics.
Taylor's value to the Mercury was obvious during the playoffs. With Diana Taurasi sidelined after fouling out, Taylor carried Phoenix late in Game 3, finishing with 19 points and 17 rebounds. That's nothing out of the ordinary for one of the league's most underrated contributors. Yet the Mercury has survived without Taylor before. That meant relying even more heavily on Taurasi, which made it problematic when the 2009 MVP suffered her own injury, a strained left hip flexor. After missing the season opener, Taurasi returned to see limited action in Phoenix's next two games before doctors shut her down indefinitely. Taurasi has yet to return to the lineup.
As if that wasn't enough, the Mercury lost two more veterans when Dupree suffered a left knee contusion and Nakia Sanford. Sanford returned to the lineup as a reserve on July 1, while Dupree played limited minutes last night. Still, for an extended period the Mercury was without four starters who combined to average 57.1 points and 20.5 rebounds in 2011.
Given the injuries, it's understandable that Phoenix has struggled at times this season. The Mercury has been able to take care of business against lesser foes, keeping the Mercury in playoff contention. As the Olympic Break nears, Phoenix sits three games behind the Storm for the fourth and final spot in the Western Conference. The Mercury was competitive during a recent four-game road trip. Phoenix won 84-81 at Chicago, and nearly pulled off a massive upset at San Antonio. The Mercury led the surging Silver Stars throughout the first three quarters and would have had a chance to tie in the closing seconds had they been able to secure a defensive rebound after forcing a San Antonio miss.
With so much firepower out of the lineup, Phoenix has relied heavily on DeWanna Bonner, who is in the starting lineup after winning the Sixth Woman Award each of her first three seasons. The Mercury is force-feeding Bonner minutes and shot attempts. She leads the league in minutes per game and ranks third in scoring at 21.5 points per game - more than twice the 10.7 shots she averaged in 2011. Understandably, Bonner's efficiency has dropped - her shooting percentage has gone from 43.0 percent to 39.8 percent - but she still ranks among the league's 10 most valuable players by wins above replacement. Earlier this week, Bonner enjoyed the best game of her career when she poured in 38 points on just 23 shot attempts at Sna Antonio.
The Mercury has also gotten strong production from rookie Samantha Prahalis, the No. 6 overall pick out of Ohio State. A creative point guard, Prahalis has stepped into the starting lineup since day one, replacing veteran Temeka Johnson (traded to Tulsa during the offseason). Prahalis was named the WNBA's Rookie of the Month for June after averaging 13.8 points, 5.1 assists and 1.8 steals during the month. Overall, she ranks third in the league in assists per game, an indication of her promise.
The last major contributor for Phoenix is another newcomer, forward Charde Houston. An All-Star in 2009, Houston saw her role in Minnesota shrink as the Lynx added more talent. A tweener who swings between the forward positions, Houston has a tough time finding good matchups on defense, but her scoring prowess cannot be questioned. She's averaging a career-high 14.1 points per game and has developed into a dangerous outside threat, making 42.6 percent of her three-pointers.
Center Krystal Thomas, originally drafted by the Storm with the final pick of the 2011 Draft, rounds out the starting lineup. Thomas was waived by the Mercury at the end of training camp, but has found a major role since returning to the team. As a starter, she's averaging 7.2 points and 8.3 rebounds, displaying newfound scoring prowess to go with her consistent presence on the glass and in the paint defensively.
Remarkably, the last game of the first half of both teams' seasons is also the first time the Storm and Mercury have met in 2012. They will play each other a total of five times over the final 18 games of the season, including once more next Friday in Phoenix before the Olympic Break, twice in August after play resumes and then the season finale at the US Airways Center.
Both teams are completing back-to-back sets and flying to Seattle Sunday morning. The Storm is dealing with its own injury issues after Sue Bird (strained hip flexor) and Ann Wauters (strained left Achilles) sat out Saturday's loss in Los Angeles and Tina Thompson left the game with a left knee strain and stayed behind in L.A. when the Storm traveled home. Meanwhile, the Mercury had to log heavy minutes in a double-OT home loss to Atlanta. Bonner played 48 minutes (out of 50) and Prahalis 43.
Bird hopes to play on her bobblehead night.
"It was recommended to get as much rest as possible, so it didn't become a long-term issue," she told reporters after the game. "If I wake up (Sunday) and feel good, I expect to play."
The first 4,000 people through KeyArena's doors get this year's Bird Bobblehead, featuring Bird with a flag as she prepares to represent the USA. Because of the giveaway, doors will open 10 minutes earlier than usual, at 4:50 p.m. before the 6 p.m. tip time.
Phoenix often has a size advantage at guard with the 6-0 Taurasi, but that's reached a new extreme this season with the lanky, 6-4 Bonner starting at the position. That means whichever Storm wing defends her between Tanisha Wright and Katie Smith will be giving up several inches defensively. Expect Wright to get the nod, since Bonner is unlikely to play in the post and Wright can contain her off the dribble. The size advantage can help Bonner get uncontested looks off screens. At the other end, expect Bonner to use her length matching up with Bird, leaving the smaller Prahalis on Wright.
The Storm survived a historic performance by Taurasi to defeat the Mercury 85-70 at KeyArena last Sept. 9 and claim home-court advantage for the teams' first-round playoff series. Smith was the biggest reason why the Storm was victorious. Smith scored a season-high 26 points and knocked down five three-pointers, giving the Storm a lift on a night where other players had tough shooting nights. Wright was also terrific for the Storm, scoring 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting. Bird was quiet in the first half, but scored 13 points after halftime to finish the night with 15 and six assists. And Swin Cash and Camille Little combined to pull down 25 rebounds.M
Phoenix countered with Taurasi knocking down six three-pointers (tied for the WNBA record) and scoring 28 points in the first half alone. The Storm did a better job defending Taurasi after halftime. She made just one of her six shot attempts in the second half and finished with 36 points. Phoenix's total of 70 points tied the Mercury's season low. With Taylor sitting out, Dupree (12) was the only other Mercury player to reach double figures.
Storm - Guard Sue Bird (strained hip flexor) and center Ann Wauters (strained left Achilles) are day-to-day. Forward Tina Thompson (left knee strain) is out.
Phoenix - Forward Candice Dupree (left knee contusion) is day-to-day. Guard Diana Taurasi (strained left hip flexor) and forward Penny Taylor (torn left ACL) are out.