- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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SEATTLE -- In Seattle, the expectations to start this season weren't very high.
No Sue Bird, no Lauren Jackson and maybe no playoffs for the Storm for the first time in a decade.
In Phoenix, the season's outlook lived at the other end of the spectrum. Labeled title contenders from the day the Mercury popped up on the screen at the draft lottery, Phoenix spent the first two months of the WNBA season trying to live up to those lofty anticipations -- and not always succeeding.
So it's funny how things work out, that these two teams that don't really like each other much on the floor -- let's just call the Darth Vader music Thursday at KeyArena during Phoenix introductions a tone setter -- are nudged right up against each other in the Western Conference standings. Seattle won a chippy, hostile little affair 88-79 on Thursday night to improve to 8-10, still in fourth place in a conference with an increasingly clear line of demarcation. The Storm came back from a 13-point first-half deficit, found their shooting touch and took advantage of a night when the Mercury's two marquee stars weren't as big a factor as they could have been.
And Phoenix, losing its third straight, dropped to 9-10, below .500 for the first time since it was 3-4 on June 19.
The Mercury won't assign any big meaning to a road loss in the first game after the All-Star break. Because, as most everybody has been assuming about them all season, they still have every reason to believe their best basketball is ahead.
Brittney Griner is back in the lineup for the first time after missing five games with a knee sprain, and in her limited time on the floor, she was a game-changer, scoring 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting, blocking four shots and making the Storm think twice about putting up attempts in the paint.
Diana Taurasi, when not engaged in a battle of wills with the league's officials, is having a MVP-caliber season.
But Griner could play just under 18 minutes Thursday, and every time she went to the bench, it represented an opportunity for the Storm. Taurasi, in her first game back since serving a one-game suspension for receiving her seventh technical foul of the season, was stifled by frustration and foul trouble -- the two clearly connected -- going 3-of-10 from the floor for 10 points. She fouled out with 2 minutes, 59 seconds to go.
For Mercury coach Corey Gaines, the game -- and realistically any chance that Phoenix has of moving up into the West's No. 2 playoff spot ahead of Los Angeles -- depends on Griner's ability to stay on the floor.
"I had to put Brittney on the bench," Gaines said. "She could only play four minutes a quarter. I'm not frustrated with the team. We were playing well, and I had to take Brittney out of the game."
Griner wasn't happy with her limitations either. She joked sarcastically that she should call the phone company to ask for rollover minutes but confessed, "Hell, yeah, I wanted to be out there more. This sucks."
Storm coach Brian Agler would acknowledge that his team caught a break on this night, watching Griner repeatedly return to the bench, but he would argue that the Mercury, and the rest of the league for that matter, have caught a break in facing a Storm squad without Bird and Jackson this season.
And his team is figuring out how to stay in playoff position anyway.
"We are getting better as a team, and for us, it's about doing well in the second half," said Storm guard Tanisha Wright, who finished with 14 points and seven assists. "Every game from here on out is big for us. We need to win as many games as possible to finish."
Agler acknowledged that regard for his team is probably as low as it has been in a decade. But that's an issue for the folks on the outside looking in.
The Storm will try to use their underdog role to their advantage.
"There's a lot of pride here about making the playoffs nine years in a row, and we want to make it 10," Agler said. "We are in the race, and we are just trying to hang in there. Whether we can do it, I don't know."
Thursday didn't hurt. Phoenix and Seattle will meet again Tuesday (ESPN2, 10 p.m. ET) in Arizona, but not before the Storm have to go to the Midwest and face Minnesota, the team with the best record in the league.
"Every game is a big game after you beat a good team," Agler said.
Especially one you don't like that much.