Storm, Merc meet in marquee matchup
Seattle bench and defense, Phoenix's own ability to step up on defense could be keys
Mmm, mmm, mmm, what a choice UConn fans face. They've been through this before. With a wealth of riches (Huskies alums) to root for in the WNBA, they are used to conflicts by now.
Like absurdly wealthy people trying to decide which Porsche to drive on a weekend getaway, the Huskies faithful can feign distress over their dilemma in the Western Conference finals. They've had to choose between Seattle and Phoenix previously in the postseason, in 2007. It's a high-rent district kind of quandary.
UConn fan in conversation with self:
"How do you spell 'success'? With an S-S-S. Sue, Swin and Svet. Sock it to 'em, Storm! Except Phoenix has Diana. We so love Diana! And Ketia! Mighty Mercury! Oh, what is one to do?"
Alas, the Eastern Conference finals -- which apparently will be played sometime around Halloween (just kidding) -- won't pose this kind of dilemma. Whoever wins Wednesday's Game 3 between New York (Kalana Greene) and Indiana (Jessica Moore) has one former UConn champ on its roster. And that victor will face UConn-free Atlanta.
Although, this is not to say that Huskies faithful are driven only by their UConn allegiance in terms of their WNBA fandom. (You wonder how many of them will throw their support behind the Tulsa Shock should Maya Moore end up in one of those yellow jerseys next season. By the way, any chance for a Tulsa uniform do-over?)
But the former Huskies involved in the Western Conference finals are particularly cherished in UConn Land, of course. Some fans are hard-and-fast Phoenix or Seattle die-hards, and while they will wish the other team's Huskies well, they are certain which squad they are rooting for.
However, for those torn between "Team SSS" and "Team DTKS" going into the West finals, they might not know which they're "really" rooting for until the games are under way, and they find themselves cheering more for one side.
Obviously, though, fun as it is to joke around about that, all the good vibes from UConn fans for either the Mercury of Diana Taurasi and Ketia Swanier or the Storm of Sue Bird, Swin Cash and Svetlana Abrosimova won't be any real factor in this series.
But what will be? Let's take a look at three areas for each team and try to determine how they'll impact this marquee battle to make the WNBA finals.
Seattle Storm: Business as usual?
• Hunger/focus: Bird has made the point emphatically this season that despite the Storm's 28-6 record, Seattle hasn't been dominant. She knows what that really feels like for a team -- her UConn squad felt that in the perfect season of 2001-02.
Seattle has had to rally plenty of times in 2010. The Storm have had to scrape and fight back. So while Bird's 2001-02 college squad had to often motivate itself just by the pursuit of perfection (a repetitive theme at UConn, isn't it?) even when 50 percent effort still would have easily won, the Storm have never even felt the temptation of that luxury.
However, the luxury that Seattle was able to indulge in, albeit cautiously, was giving its starters some rest in the last several games of the regular season. The balance between keeping them sharp and giving them a needed break was something coach Brian Agler thought long and hard about. He wisely sought advice from a lot of sources about it, most importantly his players.
The whole hunger/focus issue is often referenced with that most grating of banalities: "It's about whoever wants it more."
But to the degree that you can give that cliché any weight, the Storm do want it very badly. Five consecutive first-round playoff series losses have weighed heavily on the uber-competitive Bird, and also Lauren Jackson, who has had the additional frustration of not being able to play in the postseason the past two seasons due to injuries.
Bird and Jackson are the only remaining players from the Storm's 2004 WNBA championship. Cash won two titles with the Detroit Shock, and Le'coe Willingham won a title last year with Phoenix. For the other Storm players, though, a WNBA championship this year would be their first.
• Bench: In either the NCAA tournament or the WNBA playoffs, there is always the question of just how much the bench really matters. Rotations are down to the nitty-gritty, and coaches generally go with their top players as much as possible. Sometimes, teams do win it all with just sparse, basic contributions from the reserves.
Other times, the importance of the bench is subtle but noticeable. To a less frequent degree, but still worth mentioning, is when the bench plays a major factor in the outcome of a series.
Because Seattle rested its starters as mentioned, the Storm bench got more court time than would have been the case if the team was fighting to the wire for a playoff spot. That gave the Storm reserves valuable court time.
Abrosimova and Willingham, both of whom have started at times previously in their careers, are polished pros who almost certainly will have an impact in every game against Phoenix. Frankly, if they don't, Seattle might be hurt by it.
And Jana Vesela, a 26-year-old forward from the Czech Republic in her first season in the WNBA, has increased her value to the team in recent weeks as she got more of a chance to play.
• Style of play: Agler won titles with the Columbus Quest in the ABL, and his emphasis on defense goes back all the way to his days as a college coach. Phoenix's race car style takes a toll on teams, but the Storm have stood up to it five times already this season and prevailed.
Agler has never been a gimmicky coach or a gambler. And when you've got the talent he does on the Storm now, there's little reason not to just play the percentages.
That said, Phoenix is far from just a mindless running machine, as we'll get to later. So Agler knows there might be more moves to make in these matchups than perhaps was the case with many of the Storm's opponents this season.
Still, you have accomplished stars in Bird, Jackson and Cash. It isn't too complicated.
Phoenix Mercury: Better late than never?
• Hunger/focus: The easiest thing for defending champions to do is warn themselves over and over not to let up at all in the new season. But the hardest thing for defending champions to do is to actually never let up.
Phoenix's unimpressive 15-19 regular-season record wasn't just about that, though.
The Mercury had to adjust to the departure of Cappie Pondexter. They had to play Seattle five times, which certainly this season would have put a dent in anybody's record.
Phoenix seemed to get sucked into the ennui, if you will, that deadened the rest of the Western Conference other than Seattle this summer. And the Mercury ran into the hunger/focus that was jelling for some Eastern Conference teams who were due to be more competitive.
In the end, even though they tried very hard not to, the Mercury couldn't avoid knowing that in the West this season, they had a cushion. There was almost no way, considering how inconsistently (or flat-out badly) Los Angeles, San Antonio, Minnesota and Tulsa played, that Phoenix could have fallen out of playoff contention. And it's difficult to stay sharp when dull gets the job done.
But considering how briskly the Mercury dispatched the Silver Stars in the first round, it's also clear that Phoenix knows that sharp is now mandatory.
• Bench: Once again, the Mercury had the sixth player of the year, as DeWanna Bonner was a repeat winner of the award. She averaged 12.0 points and 6.1 rebounds in the regular season, and her performances in the first two playoff games were nearly identical: nine points and four rebounds.
Beyond Bonner, though, "bench" is not generally a word you think of much with the Mercury. Swanier can have some impact when she gets a little time, but she was used very sparingly in the first round. Taylor Lilley, Brooke Smith and Sequoia Holmes will settle in as spectators come game time.
Still, that leaves a large potential presence on the Mercury bench: center Kara Braxton, obtained in a trade with Tulsa in July. Braxton averaged 11.1 and 4.8 points during her 13 regular-season games with Phoenix. And as a two-time WNBA champion with Detroit, she has proved she can come up big in the postseason.
But she has also proved she can disappear, which should be pretty hard for someone who's 6-foot-6 and very talented. No one doubts that Braxton wants to contribute. But whether she's fully engaged in the task at hand has generally been a game-by-game proposition.
• Style of play: The Mercury scored a grand total of six more points than their opponents did during the regular season: 679-673. Suffice to say, when you surrender an average of 93.8 points over 34 games, you can't get too irritated when people smirk about your defense.
Well, take that back actually you can get irritated, and Taurasi does. But to many observers, the Mercury are only about piling up more points than the other team in a furious race to the finish.
It's not quite that simple, though. Phoenix does gamble, so to speak, defensively. There are things the Mercury typically give up, betting that it will pay off in the end.
At times, though, it doesn't. Opponents' success from the perimeter is a weapon that can hurt the Mercury, although Seattle has defeated Phoenix this year even when the Storm weren't particularly effective from the outside.
The Mercury aren't going to radically change anything at this point in the season; that would make no sense. But don't be surprised if you see a little extra "umph" on defense from Phoenix, as it looks to find something to change the way things have gone all summer against the Storm.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.
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