Seattle Storm center Lauren Jackson pretty much summed up the way I felt after their heartbreaking 77-75 loss to the Phoenix Mercury in Game 3 of the Western Conference Semifinals last night.
“It’s numb, like the rest of me right now,” Jackson said referring to the hip she injured earlier in the season. “My hip is nothing in comparison to how I feel emotionally. I think the same could be said of every one of my teammates.”
Thankfully my hip is fine, but numb pretty much captures what I felt otherwise.
Normally after a game that exciting – Storm or otherwise – I have no problem typing something beyond the basic recap. If the words don’t come to mind, I’ve developed all kinds of random tricks and mindgames to start typing. If typing doesn’t work, I go old school and pull out a pen and pad of paper. When all else fails, I hope that the numbers might bring some order to my thoughts.
But responding to a game like that is no time for statistics*.
After going through my progressions, I ultimately sat there staring at a sheet of yellow legal paper searching for a reaction – any reaction (Misery? Living Death by ref? The collapse of civilization as Storm fans know it!) – to what I just saw.
Where do you even begin?
Mercury statistical MVP: Penny Taylor grabs a career-high 17 rebounds
I am in awe of Penny Taylor’s basketball ability.
I think I’ve made that point clear before and reiterated it after the Mercury’s win in Game 2, but last night’s performance was an almost perfect example of why I think Taylor is among the most underappreciated players in the league.
And that’s probably the best place to start.
The game-winning sequence seems to encapsulate what Taylor is all about. Taylor neither got the game-winning shot nor an assist – Dupree will justifiably take most of the credit for this win. But everything leading up to that moment was Taylor – creating the missed shot that ended up bouncing to Dupree, the drive that led to the shot, 11 of the Mercury’s final 17 points in the 6:38 minutes after Diana Taurasi fouled out in a blaze of F-bombs to even set up a game-winning situation.
When Taurasi fouled out, the Mercury needed someone to pick up the scoring slack and Taylor didn’t just fill the gap but went from filling in the blanks for her team as usual as a complementary player to completely taking over the game in a way that we don’t have the pleasure of witnessing that often.
Taylor put up numbers that some players would be happy with for a game in the fourth quarter alone.
Comparison of Penny Taylor’s production in quarters 1-3 vs. 4 in the Mercury’s Game 3 win.
What always stands out about Taylor – and that dominant fourth quarter performance as well – is her ability to do so much at once so efficiency while her team makes it obvious that they’re going to go to her on every play. She finished with a game-high 69.64% true shooting percentage at a 21.46% usage rate, which is above her average primarily because of all the possessions she used in that fourth quarter performance. Even in getting 17 rebounds last night as a small forward, it’s not exactly like 15 defensive boards are going to make anyone’s highlight reel; a 38.75% defensive rebounding percentage might impress statheads, but otherwise, eh.
But even Taylor’s own scoring overshadowed a significant contribution she made to the team when they started to gain momentum in the second quarter. When the Mercury went big and sat in a zone that stifled the Storm’s offense, Taurasi was tasked with playing point guard, something the Mercury have been reluctant to do.
“We had worked on it maybe two weeks before the season was over,” said Gaines. “I said, ‘Let’s try the big lineup.’ Because what happens is it is hard for Diana because I’m asking her to bring the ball up the court, guard the best player, run the team, and score. Some of the other coaches were saying that it was a little bit much for her to do, but I said if we play a zone she should be capable of doing it and that’s what we did.
“We went to a big lineup and made them take outside shots. It plays into our style if you shoot outside shots because usually there are long rebounds and we can just go.”
While it’s certainly true that Taurasi takes on more ball handling responsibility with a lineup of Dupree-Taurasi-Taylor-DeWanna Bonner-Candice Dupree on the floor, it’s also worth noting Taylor’s role in making that work: Taylor is the most efficient playmaker in the league at small forward and having her on the wing – whether it’s Taurasi, Temeka Johnson, or Ketia Swanier running point – puts one more player on the floor who can share that burden of running the team (in fact, if you watch the Mercury closely, most of their plays in a halfcourt set begin with Taylor curling around a down screen to receive the ball at the top of the key and assume the responsibility of running the offense from the “point”).
Taylor didn’t pick up as many assists in Game Three as she did in Game 2, but a large part of that is that her teammates didn’t make shots when she passed to them. But whether she picked up assists for us to measure isn’t really the point.
“I tried to be a creator,” said Taylor. “Seattle has such a solid defense; it’s sometimes tough to crack it off the first play. My thought process was just to draw as much attention as I could. It sort of worked.”
Over the course of eight quarters against the same opponent in Games 2 & 3, we’ve seen Taylor go from pure distributor to rebounder to flat out dominant one-woman wrecking crew. So perhaps I – and others – should stop acting so bewildered about why it’s so difficult to appreciate what Taylor does. She truly defies neat categorization; there’s no pinning down exactly what Taylor will give her team from game to game or even what the Mercury might need from her game to game.
Taylor is far more defined by the situation instead of her position and most basketball players that grace the court don’t have anywhere near the combination of game awareness and skill to do that – that’s adaptive expertise beyond