Storm play well enough to win Game 1
Taurasi struggles; Seattle reserves Abrosimova, Willingham combine for 26 points
It was a night when Lauren Jackson put an exclamation point on her MVP award, Brian Agler made the classy move of practically handing his coach of the year honor to his point guard, Seattle's two reserves outperformed their Phoenix counterparts, and Diana Taurasi's very visible frustration summed up her team's night.
It wasn't really the grand showdown we were hoping for, as neither team was particularly impressive -- that is, considering how high the bar is for Seattle and Phoenix -- in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.
The Storm's 82-74 win kept them undefeated at home this season. And immediately following the game, there was surely another contest, as fans of both teams tried to claim victory in the "we didn't play well at all" debate.
Did the fact that season scoring champ Taurasi seemed so out of it, getting just nine points on 2-of-15 shooting, mean that Seattle actually should be worried to have won by "only" eight points?
Or should the Storm feel very confident, since their performance was hardly airtight, either, and yet still was good enough?
That can be debated up until Sunday's tip off of Game 2 (ABC, 3 p.m. ET) in Phoenix, where the Mercury will try to stay alive in a title-defense season that has been uneven for them.
And much as the Storm players appreciate the love they get in KeyArena, they'd just as soon not have to play Game 3 there Wednesday. They would like to finish off the Mercury in two games. But they also know how difficult that might be.
Even though the Storm are now 6-0 against Phoenix this season, Agler is not just blowing smoke by acknowledging the Mercury are still dangerous.
"We played the way we need to in terms of the pace of the game," he said. "I don't think either team was happy with what they did offensively. They're an excellent offensive team -- they can score, they have tremendous talent, they're well-organized, and they can be real slippery out there.
"[Defensively] they put a lot of size out there and take things away. But we have to find out what we can get. The defense is going to take things away from you, but they're also going to give you something. It's a puzzle, and you have to figure it out."
That's all true except when it comes to Jackson, she takes even the things the opponent doesn't give. After crediting her teammates, coaches and fans for the MVP award, she showed why she flat-out earned the honor this season. Her 23-point, 17-rebound performance was a vivid snapshot of what LJ has meant to the Storm her entire career.
Meanwhile, the Mercury "gave" the Storm some openings for the two Seattle reserves who played, and Svetlana Abrosimova and Le'coe Willingham took full advantage. Abrosimova seemed dialed in as soon as she stepped on court, and her 16 points and four rebounds were critical.
Willingham, who a year ago was helping Phoenix win the WNBA title, had 10 points and six rebounds for the Storm. Abrosimova and Willingham combined were 4-of-5 from behind the arc, part of the 10 3-pointers that the Storm used to keep the Mercury at arm's length.
"The minute they came in the game, it just changed the momentum," Seattle's Sue Bird said of the Storm's bench duo. "They hit some shots, they got some stops defensively, and we were able to build on that."
Which brings us to the "puzzle" part that Agler mentioned, and who best figures out where the pieces need to go. Bird again showed that even if she never gets the league's MVP award, every season she likely would win the MVPG award: Most Valuable Point Guard.
Bird might have missed a few shots that she usually makes (3-of-10 from the field), but that was hardly of note considering the 10 assists and six rebounds she added to her seven points. Furthermore, she was on the court more than any player, getting about a minute and half to "rest."
Agler gave her high praise before the game when he accepted his coach of the year award, saying Bird "gives everybody the opportunity to do their job the best they can."
Usually, that is something Taurasi does well, too, but she never seemed in sync on Thursday. From six turnovers to a silly technical to shots that seemed strangely out of rhythm, Taurasi was not herself.
Candice Dupree (15 points, 11 rebounds) and Penny Taylor (16 points, six assists) both ended up with strong games. And Phoenix's bench -- which Thursday, like Seattle's, consisted of two players -- contributed, too. Kara Braxton and DeWanna Bonner combined for 18 points and five rebounds.
But even when the Mercury got close to the Storm -- which did happen a few times -- it never lasted long enough for Seattle to really seem in danger.
The Storm may have seen plenty of flaws in their performance, but those didn't cost them anything Thursday. For the Mercury, though, their flaws were very costly -- and they have one game to fix them, or see their season end.
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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