WELCOME SEATTLE HOME: The Storm’s flight arrives at 10:15 p.m. on Sunday at SeaTac International Airport and the team welcomed fans to celebrate their arrival with the Western Conference championship. The Storm is on Alaska flight No. 637.
STORM WINS: I’m actually at a loss for words. Bird’s shot was 2.8 seconds in the clock won it 91-88. It was on the opposite side of the court from where she hit the winner in the triple-overtime game. I knew the shot was going in, but seriously thought Taurasi, who had never lost a postseason series, would counter. Even Bird said afterward that she expected it, pumping her hands downward to keep her teammates calm after her heroic basket. “I don’t celebrate until it’s over,” Bird said. When Taurasi missed, everyone was shocked. Then Seattle started its party on the court, on the practice court for the trophy presentation, in the hallways, in the stands, and in the locker room. I’m sure it’ll continue on the plane and at SeaTac International Airport, where the Storm invited fans to welcome them home. Jackson’s mother couldn’t catch the game in Australia, watching the play-by-play and sending the text message “Oh MG” because she’s not a text-ing type. Jackson put her mom on the phone in a rowdy locker room and everyone said, ‘Hello.’ Jackson, who’s not uber religious, even gave a “Praise Jesus!” for Little and Wright, who were thankful to God. “In my head, I was thinking, ‘Thank you Jesus, you do things in mysterious ways'” said Wright of smiling after Cash’s tying shot. This is Wright’s first trip to the WNBA Finals, Cash has a chance to win a third ring. “Obviously we would have wanted to not be down by 19 and to comeback that way. But we tried to stay calm and we talked about being here before. I was just thankful to Him and grateful to Him, that he allowed us to be in this situation.” True, the Storm previously came back 13 times this season, but it was still remarkable on Sunday. And to hold a team that averages 90.7 points scoreless for the final 3:21 of a playoff game while stitching together a 15-0 run? What can you say? “This was one of the toughest comebacks, for sure,” Little said. “We were not taking this back to Seattle,” said Cash, who led her team with 23 points, eight rebounds, four assists, and two steals. Jackson added 20 points and eight boards while Bird had 16, eight assists, and five rebounds. Taurasi led her team with 28 on 9 for 15 shooting, but Taylor, who disclosed a shoulder injury afterward, had just eight. Dupree had 17 points and three rebounds. “We did everything we wanted to, except for win,” Taurasi said. The Storm advances to the WNBA Finals for the first time since winning the title in 2004. Seattle gets the luxury of watching its opponents, too, since the Eastern Conference Finals didn’t begin until two hours after Seattle celebrated its sweep of Phoenix. Game 1 is Sunday at KeyArena. Agler is giving the team Monday off and another day this week, gearing up for the matchup this weekend. “This is probably my most talented team,” Agler said.
TIE GAME: The Storm used a 12-0 run to tie the game at 88 points apiece with 31.8 seconds remaining off a layin by Cash from Bird. It was a broken play that Seattle had to hustle for, smiling as they went to the bench — perhaps knowing their fortune.
INJURY UPDATE: Willingham is wincing on sideline. Word is she has a tweaked right ankle after going for the block. She’s expected to return to the game, according to a spokesperson. Willingham has her shoe off, however, and is icing the ankle.
WILLINGHAM HURT?: With Jackson on the bench, her teammates did some serious dirty work to whittle away a 19-point lead. The Storm closed within 69-61 off a layin by Little from a Wright baseball pass. But Willingham limped off the court after a hard foul against Smith, going for a block. US Airway Center didn’t like the foul, but they’ve got to get real with all the hits the Mercury give. Anyway, Phoenix is up71-61 headed into the final quarter. Seattle was 13-6 during the regular season when trailing after three quarters.
ANYTHING LEFT?: Dupree has a pair of silky layins to help the Mercury to a 14-6 run to start the second half. It doesn’t look like the Storm has what it takes to defeat the defending champs on the road. Good thing there’s a Game 3 at KeyArena. But even that isn’t a given. Seattle is now down 67-48 with 5:02 on the clock.
FOUL TROUBLE: Jackson picked up her fourth foul against Smith, but is staying in the game. Seattle down 52-42 with 8:33 remaining in the third.
CASH IT: Cash’s hustle paid off to close the opening half, picking up a Mercury turnover with 2.4 seconds remaining and dribbling down court for the layin just before the buzzer sounded. It inched the Storm within 48-40 of the Mercury’s lead. Seattle is starting to dig even deeper and will need more of it to win. At this rate they look like they’re just trying to not get blown out. Cash’s bucket allowed the Storm to close the half on a 7-0 run, forcing three turnovers and getting one block. But Seattle has given up eight points on 10 first-half turnovers and Bird is a paltry 1 of 7 from the field. The Storm has also put the Mercury on the line 14 times, making 12 FTs. Taurasi is hot, shooting 5 of 8 for 16 points. No one else is going off, however, so Seattle could have a chance if Jackson could do better than 3 of 7 shooting. It’s not like the Storm isn’t giving itself second-shot chance, going 2 of 5 in those in the first half.
BUG CURED: Seattle is shooting 5-for-14 from three-point range, so Phoenix isn’t coming out of that matchup-zone anytime soon. When the Mercury did play man-to-man for two defensive sets, Seattle scored. The Storm is still down 48-38 with 46 seconds remaining in the half.
LOVE D: Just for a second, you have to give it up to Phoenix’s defense. The zone is really good, feeling like some sort of shifting blockade only the US army should be allowed to use. Seattle, meanwhile, is missing rotations and that’s leaving Taurasi open behind screens for three-pointers. She snapped the net on two to help put the Mercury up 42-33 with 2:40 left in the half.
BAD MISS: Phoenix made Seattle look really bad on a defensive set, not rotating and allowing Smith a clean sweep behind the defense for a baseline layin to put the Mercury ahead 34-32 with 4:18 on the clock. Agler immediately called a time out. The Storm is a little off. Bird is 1 of 6 from the field.
GETTING WORKED: Taurasi is having one-on-ones with all of the officials, complaining about the way Jackson is playing. One trend that I’m not liking is the Storm continuing to foul Phoenix to stop transition baskets. The Mercury shot 64.7 percent from the line in Game 1, but I think Seattle is going to need those fouls later in Game 2. Anyway, Bird was tagged for a tacky one and Phoenix is trailing 32-28 with 5:26 remaining in the opening half.
MINI RUN: The Storm is on a 6-0 run to build a 30-26 lead after a pair of FTs by Wright.
BOARD GAMES: The Storm’s shooting dropped to 42.9 percent as the Mercury built a five-point lead. But Seattle is hitting the boards to not let Phoenix run away with the game early. The Storm had five offensive rebounds to the Mercury’s one in the opening quarter. Seattle is outrebounding Phoenix 10-8 overall. Cash led the team with seven points while Taurasi is guiding her team with six.
GO DEFENSE: Abrosimova is a little rattled off the bench and the hounding defense played by Phoenix reserve DeWanna Bonner with Gaines also in her ear on the sideline didn’t help settle the nerves. Phoenix is back in a zone. OK, Abrosimova just nailed a three-pointer in front of Gaines to kill all of that. Seattle within 24-22 at the end of the first quarter.
SUBS IN: Both coaches are going to their benches. Agler is putting Willingham and Svetlana Abrosimova in while Phoenix coach Corey Gaines is just going with Kara Braxton to start. It’s crazy loud in the building. Don’t think it’s fake sound like in LA. Seattle up 18-16 after a Cash layin.
SOLID START: This is a game worthy of national TV. Both teams are shooting above 65 percent from the field, Phoenix leading 10-8 with 6:50 remaining in the opening half. As Bird predicted, Taurasi nailed her first shot, a three-pointer after elbowing Wright out of the way.
NICE SHIRT: Taurasi and Johnson pointed out a T-Shirt they liked in the stands. It read “Free Lild.” Gotta find out what that means.
There’s some concern about the holiday weekend and what it will do to attendance at US Airways Center. But it didn’t stop a rowdy bunch of Storm fans from traveling to the game. A pair are wearing metallic wigs while others have huge signs and ThunderStix from home, clapping away an hour before tip-off.
Inside the Seattle locker room, reserve F Le’coe Willingham said her vibe from teammates is anxious to play. Co-captain Sue Bird said she felt everyone was ready to go and coach Brian Agler had no read, just that the team had done all the preparation it could and there’s nothing left but to play the game.
“As the playoffs progress, games are going to get more and more physical,” said Willingham, who won a title with Phoenix in 2009. “I expect this game to be a physical game — it’s the magnitude of it, win or go home. It’s time to bring it and I think everybody is a little anxious, ready to play. We can’t take anything for granted. This is going to be a tougher game then it was back at home. We’re going to have to bring a little bit more than what we brought the last time.”
Everyone from ESPN/ABC commentators to beat writers like myself would be surprised if Phoenix and Seattle open shooting 2-of-14 from the field. And everyone would be shocked if the Storm would be able to stomp on the Mercury early as in Game 1.
But the Storm didn’t win six consecutive games against the Mercury by chance. From Bird’s winning three-pointer off a Lauren Jackson assist in the July triple-overtime game to G Tanisha Wright’s nine fourth-quarter points in Game 1, Seattle earned every win.
It’ll take the same rebounding and better help defense on Sunday for the Storm to close out the best-of-three Western Conference Finals series, however. Willingham said she plays a little inside-the-numbers competition with F Camille Little, making a conscientious effort to grab the boards on Game 1. Willingham had an impressive four offensive rebounds while Little had one, getting into foul trouble.
Jackson led the overall category, getting a franchise playoff record 17 to help Seattle outrebound Phoenix 40-34.
“They (Phoenix) have the ability to really force their will on you in terms of playing up-tempo and scoring quick,” Agler said. “They can be really clean and slipper in their offense. We have to not let them be as mobile and as fast as they want to play. Part of that is to get our defense set and part of that is to make them do a few things they don’t want to do. It’s a lot easier said than done, it’s a tough task. But having somebody like Sue Bird on your team helps that situation.”
Well, Bird is checked in. Here’s the rest of the starting lineups:
F Swin Cash
F Lauren Jackson
C Camille Little
G Sue Bird
G Tanisha Wright
F Penny Taylor
F Candice Dupree
C Tangela Smith
G Diana Taurasi
G Temeka Johnson
Tonight’s officials are Denise Brooks, Roy Gulbeyan, and Eric Brewton.