The Seattle Storm is nearly as familiar with its opponent in the Western Conference Finals, the Phoenix Mercury, as with the since-vanquished Los Angeles Sparks, but the rivalries have very different tones. While there has been no love lost between the Storm and the Sparks over the years, Phoenix has been a friendly rivalry for the Storm. The end result has been similar - a series of great games over the year that continues with this matchup on the conference's biggest stage.
The most obvious ties between the two teams run through the University of Connecticut. There are five Huskies combined on the two rosters, and four of them - the Storm's Svetlana Abrosimova, Sue Bird and Swin Cash and Phoenix's Diana Taurasi - played together. The friendship between Aussies Lauren Jackson and Penny Taylor dates back even longer to their days at the Australian Institute of Sport. The Storm has a pair of former Mercury players on the roster in posts Ashley Robinson (2004-05) and Le'coe Willingham (2007-09), and even Head Coach Brian Agler spent a year in Phoenix as an assistant coach.
"Get your popcorn out. I think it's going to be something for the fans to really enjoy and watch."
Aaron Last/Storm Photos
The friendships on both sides take nothing away from the competition between the two teams. If anything, they add to it.
"You always want to beat your friends and get bragging rights," said Robinson, "because this stuff comes up in everyday life when you're talking about championships and playoffs and things like that. We always want bragging rights. I don't think we want Diana bragging anymore about championships."
And nobody brags quite like Taurasi.
"She's the queen of it, but she can because she's been a champion a lot," Robinson said. "It's not really bragging, I guess - it's stating facts."
The closest of the friends are Bird and Taurasi, who were teammates at UConn, make up the starting backcourt for the U.S. National Team and have played together in Russia every winter since 2004-05. (The duo will be split up this winter, when Taurasi will head to Turkish power Fenerbahce to join Phoenix teammate Taylor.) Their friendship takes a backseat to the matchup.
"We haven't talked since we both won our series," Bird said. "I'm sure we'll both go to dinner after games, but it will be competitive on the floor."
Still, Bird downplayed the notion that seeing Taurasi on the other side changes anything on the floor.
"I feel like everyone has friends everywhere, so it's not that big of a deal," said Bird. "It just so happens that this friend is really good when it comes to big games, so that's my issue - not so much that she's my friend, but that she's got a killer instinct."
"I think you sort of forget that when you start playing the game," added Agler, who coached both Taurasi and Taylor in Phoenix.
When the two teams get down to business, the results have been sensational. The contrast in styles between the Mercury's up-tempo philosophy and the Storm's desire to execute and play tough defense within the half court has resulted in a happy medium with plenty of points - the Storm averaged 85.2 points in regulation in five regular-season meetings against the Mercury - and open-court play. The finishes have also been fantastic, with four of the five games decided by six points or fewer. The two teams have played overtime four times over the last two years.
Where Agler has observed that most playoff series tend to get bogged down by physical play because of the familiarity between the two teams - and that was certainly the case at times against Los Angeles - the Western Conference Finals should be an exception. No wonder ABC picked up Sunday's Game 2 of the series for its first national broadcast of the season.
"I think it's going to be really entertaining, definitely great TV, but it's serious business," said Robinson. "You're going to see two teams with different styles who are very good at what they do. It should be a great series."
It should also be a lot of fun for fans at KeyArena for Thursday's Game 1 (7:00 p.m., NBA TV, 1150 AM KKNW, ). One of the season's best crowds was treated to a thrilling Storm rally from an 18-point halftime deficit on July 27, and the home court advantage provided by fans was a big factor in the comeback.
"I expect it to be a good series," said Cash. "Get your popcorn out. I think it's going to be something for the fans to really enjoy and watch and I'm glad our first game is at the Key. What better place to open up and for our sixth man and our fans to be out there supporting?"