A Fourth Quarter “Storm” Sends Phoenix Home

A Fourth Quarter “Storm” Sends Phoenix Home

By Patrick Ralph

 

Through the first three quarters of Game 5 on Tuesday night, the Phoenix Mercury were in control. The top-seeded Seattle Storm had yet to hold a lead in the game, and the tension was building in Key Arena.

It felt like the Mercury were going to capture another road playoff win in an elimination game and advance to the WNBA Finals for the first time since their last championship in 2014. And with Diana Taurasi and DeWanna Bonner having yet to take over, it felt as if the two Phoenix stars were about to go off in the final 10 minutes.

Instead, an offensive tsunami ensued as the Storm outscored the Mercury 35-21 in the fourth quarter to roll to a 94-84 win at home in Game 5 to advance to their first WNBA Finals since 2010.

Through three quarters, Phoenix’s defense had successfully corralled and slowed down Seattle’s offense. It all but forced the Storm to operate in the half court rather than let Seattle get out running in transition. But in the fourth quarter, the horses broke down the barn door.

After Seattle and Phoenix exchanged punches back and forth in the first few minutes of the fourth quarter, the game was knotted up at 76-76. But the Storm took over in the final minutes and simply could not miss a shot down the stretch, as Seattle outscored Phoenix 18-8 to close out the game. Phoenix’s defense all but collapsed in crunch time.

Breanna Stewart played like the MVP she is, as she led all scorers in the game with 28 points. But the reason why the Storm finished the final game of the semifinal round in Golden State Warriors-esque fashion was because of its veteran point guard and floor general: Sue Bird.

Donning a protective face mask similar to that of former NBA player Rip Hamilton after breaking her nose in Game 4, Bird had been contained in the first half of Game 5. But in the second half, she took control of the game. Scoring 14 of her 22 points in the second half, Bird was the key to Seattle running away with the win.

It was also fitting that it was Bird who brought Taurasi’s undefeated record in winner-take-all playoff elimination games to an end, as Bird’s friend and fellow UConn star was handed her first loss in such games during her Hall of Fame career.

Now only 13-1 in winner-take-all playoff games, Taurasi was not her signature self in Game 5. While she finished with 17 points and scored seven points in the fourth quarter, Taurasi did not have the breath-taking offensive performance that many expected her to have on Tuesday night in Seattle.

Game 5 was also the first game in the series that Bonner struggled offensively too. After averaging over 25 points per game in the first four games of the semifinals, Bonner scored only 14 points in Tuesday night’s game and was all but a non-factor until the fourth quarter when she scored half of her points.

All five of Phoenix’s starters scored in double figures and outscored Seattle’s starting lineup, highlighted by a team-high 21 points from Brittney Griner and an inspiring 19-point showing from Yvonne Turner.

However, the Mercury’s bench was outscored 18-2 by Seattle’s bench, bringing to light the lack of depth and over-dependence on star power that Phoenix has suffered from all season long.

At the start of the fourth quarter, both teams were ice-cold from three-point land. By the time the final whistle blew, it ended up being one of the key differences in the game. Phoenix’s three-point shooting plateaued, while the Storm surged from the perimeter in the final period. Phoenix’s poor three-point shooting throughout the series finally came back to bite.

Furthermore, Phoenix was dominated by Seattle on the glass in Game 5. Outrebounded 40-29 in the contest, the Mercury gave up several second chance opportunities to Seattle in the fourth quarter and were unable to create ones for themselves offensively. Seattle’s defense did a good job at limiting Phoenix to single-shot possessions in the final minutes.

With their season over and now eliminated from the playoffs, the Mercury are sure to be disappointed that they were unable to make it to the Finals. But it was still a great season for Phoenix. Taurasi and Griner had two outstanding All-Star campaigns, and Bonner’s return from missing all of last year due to child birth to becoming an All-Star was incredible.

While the Mercury’s Big 3 was arguably the best star trio in the WNBA this season, Phoenix’s lack of a supporting cast was an issue all year long. The return of a healthy Sancho Lyttle and Stephanie Talbot next year will certainly help salvage that weakness and could have made a significant difference against Seattle.

But this is an area of the team that Phoenix could look to improve this offseason. While the Mercury went seven deep in Game 5, Seattle was able to comfortably implement a nine-person rotation in the elimination game.

This is a team and a franchise with championship aspirations. The Mercury will not sit still and be complacent, especially with Taurasi in the twilight years of her career. As long as the Big 3 is healthy and still productive, Phoenix is going to continue to contend and keep that championship window open as long as possible.