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Monday, September 19, 2011
Storm-Mercury Game 3 tough to call

By Meri-Jo Borzilleri

Two games. Two blowouts. Predicting who will win tonight's deciding game of the Seattle-Phoenix Western Conference semifinal is a confounding exercise.

With the winner set to face Minnesota or San Antonio in the best-of-three conference final, the easy answer is that defending WNBA champion Seattle has a huge advantage playing at home, where it has lost just two games -- both this year -- in the past two seasons. Seattle also has beaten Phoenix in 11 of the past 13 games over a two-year span.

Yet it's hard to overlook the 2007 and 2009 champion Mercury's 92-83 pasting of the Storm on Saturday and think they haven't figured something out. The nine-point margin felt more like 19, the difference in Seattle's 80-61 win in the opener.

The Storm and Mercury are like mirror images -- right is left, left is right. Seattle has the league's No. 1 defense, Phoenix the No. 1 offense.

Each has an Australian star -- Seattle's Lauren Jackson, Phoenix's Penny Taylor -- struggling through injuries. Each has two UConn players on its roster.

Each has role players who have grabbed the spotlight in this series so far: Seattle's Tanisha Wright in Game 1, Phoenix's Candice Dupree in Game 2.

Here's what it will come down to:

1. Who wins the inside battle. DuPree (29 points, three blocked shots, seven rebounds) outplayed Jackson in the paint Saturday as the Mercury shot 55.1 percent and outscored the Storm 55-12 inside.

Taylor and DeWanna Bonner (13 rebounds) helped negate Swin Cash, one of Game 1's stars. Wright was stymied by early foul trouble. Contrast that to the Storm's Cash and Camille Little, whose low-post play helped the pair combine for 27 points in Thursday's rout.

2. Defense. Consider that Seattle tied a franchise playoff record with 13 3-pointers Saturday and still lost. For the Storm, defense is king.

"It's our identity," Jackson said. On Saturday, it disappeared. Seattle came out flat and never got better.

Thursday was a different story. Jackson said it was the team's best defensive effort of the season. Wright held Diana Taurasi to just 11 points, and the Storm smothered Phoenix, allowing just 61 points, more than 20 below its league-leading average.

"They had the eye of the tiger," Seattle coach Brian Agler said of Little and Wright.

Agler, who built the team with defense in mind, said every Storm starter is a proven defender, starting with Jackson. Even popular point guard Sue Bird, who Agler says is underrated for her defense, rotated to help in a big way on the perimeter in Game 1.

The series hinges on which defensive team will show up tonight.

3. Whose small names will come up big? The Mercury's Bonner won the WNBA's sixth woman award this weekend, and Saturday showed why. She's a pipe cleaner with attitude, igniting Phoenix with 13 points, 13 rebounds and fiery aggression on full display.

Seattle will need to counter with Wright and Little, along with its own sixth woman, veteran Katie Smith, who nearly singlehandedly kept the Storm in the game Saturday with 14 points, mostly from outside.

4. Physical play. The Mercury got into the Storm's heads early Saturday by using their bodies like linebackers. With referees reluctant to blow whistles, it worked. A glaring example was Bird being literally run over by Taurasi and Bird getting the foul. You didn't have to look far to see thrown elbows, hip checks and players sent sprawling.

5. Lauren Jackson. One of those landing hard was Jackson, who missed 20 games with hip surgery and did not look comfortable all game in the Phoenix win. In two games, she has not been dominating on the stat sheet, but her presence is important.

For the Storm, everything goes through her. With Jackson in the middle, the offense can open up. Foes can't double-team as much. She changes the game's tenor defensively with her length in the paint.

Opponents are "always looking for her because of her potential shot-blocking ability," Agler said.

Jackson, who was able to sit for precious minutes of rest Thursday, is not playing at full strength or without pain, and Phoenix knows it. Is she, and her hip, being targeted?

"For sure," Little said before Game 2. "This is a professional game. Mentally and physically, people try to do whatever they can to get an edge. It's unfortunate it has to do with her health. ... Whenever they can hit her, they try to get a hit [on] her."

Game on.