It's Tuesday and there's not much going on in the sporting world. The Diamondback are playing in Philly at 4:00 p.m., but that team is about 73 games out of the pennant race. Fortunately, there's another option on ESPN 2 that almost guarantees to provide a thrilling result.
The Mercury and Storm have turned into one of the top rivalries in the in WNBA, with these two teams almost assured to meet in the Western Conference Finals. The teams have gone to overtime in three of their last four games, including a triple-OT thriller in Phoenix two weeks ago.
Phoenix will want this game to build its confidence going into the stretch run and to send a message that the defending champs are not ready to turn over their title. Seattle always plays hard at home and will equally be motivated to let the league know who's in charge this season.
The teams meet one more team at the end of the season in Phoenix, but by that point seeding should be locked up, so both will be resting for the playoffs. This is the game that will have both teams fired up. Add to that a national TV audience and this has all the makings of a classic battle. Don't miss it.
The Storm are tearing up the league this season with an amazing 20-and-2 record. They have an incredible 9.78 point differential and, with a healthy Lauren Jackson leading the way, are killing teams on both ends of the floor. This season, they've added depth to a great starting unit and under coach Brian Agler are once again a top defensive unit.
Bottom line, Seattle is a great basketball team in every sense of the word and with only one more win can secure the top seed in the West and are on pace for the best regular season record in WNBA history.
The Mercury (10-12) are playing better as the summer moves along. In July, they are 5-and-2 and are averaging an incredible 107.5 points per 40-minute game. The team is shooting over 50 percent from the field and over 90 percent from the line.
The improvements can be tracked back to the Big Three: Candice Dupree, Penny Taylor and Diana Taurasi.
Candice Dupree understandably struggled in the first part of the season on her new team, but now, with better fitness and improved court-chemistry, is getting the ball in better positions to score. Her shooting percentage has increased from .526 in May to a league-leading .686 in July.
Her field goal attempts jumped from nine-per-game in June to 15-per-game in July as the Mercury offense added more complex plays based off the pick-and-roll. As the Suns used to do with Amare Stoudemire, the Mercury now run plays involving a third passer who can react to the defensive rotations and still find Dupree on the move in the paint.
Penny Taylor has been a rock all season, but has increased her efficiency from .423 in May to .532 in July. She's connecting on an incredible 58.3 percent of her threes over the past seven games. She is benefiting from Dupree's inside dominance, but also from another major adjustment Coach Gaines has made to his offense.
Diana Taurasi has taken over a lot of the ball-handling responsibilities in the half court. While point guard Temeka Johnson is pushing the ball in transition and looking for opportunities in the early offense, when the game slows it's Taurasi who's taken on the point guard responsibilities.
Taurasi, who entered the season with a broken hand, has improved her shooting from .364 in May to .465 in July and, more importantly, has increased her assists-per-game from 1.8 to 5.4 over that same period.
Another noticeable change during the Mercury's three-game win streak has been the shooting restraint from Tangela Smith. Instead of regularly jacking up eight threes per game at about a 25 percent hit rate, she's down to less than two-per-game more recently. Credit Gaines for recognizing that he can no longer afford for Smith to try and shoot her way out of a season-long slump.
Defensively, the Mercury are still what they are - a decent perimeter team, especially late in games when DeWanna Bonner is on the floor instead of Temeka Johnson. But Tangela Smith continues to get destroyed in the paint when she battles powerful post players and, in the zone defense, is a liability that good teams exploit off the dribble. Last summer, Smith cruised through the regular season before turning up her effort level in the playoffs. It would be good for her to flip the switch a little early this season; her teammates can cover for her against bad teams, but tonight she's going to need to bring it.
It remains to be seen if newly-acquired back-up center Kara Braxton will be able to use her size and experience to help in the paint and provide the size and physical play that Smith can't.
Playing with Kara will be an adjustment, as her lack of mobility is not something the Mercury are used to. Her presence on the floor changes how the Mercury will play and they've not had nearly enough time to figure that out yet. This is always the danger of mid-season trades.
The Storm are clearly the best team this season, but Phoenix will be fired up for this one and need to prove that they can win in Seattle as they will have to do in the playoffs if they hope to return to the finals.