The interminable wait is nearly over, as the Seattle Storm are set to open the 2018 WNBA regular season and continue what feels like a best-of-57 series with the Phoenix Mercury.
The Storm and Mercury have seen a lot of each other lately. Phoenix bounced Seattle out of the playoffs last year, and the two teams had a pair of preseason games earlier this month. And after Sunday’s game at KeyArena, they turn right around for a rematch Wednesday at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
Playing the Mercury not once but twice this early into the season can be both good and bad for the Storm.
It’s good in the sense Seattle will have a rough indication of where things stand.
The Mercury finished fifth in the WNBA in 2017 despite injuries to a number of key players. Now, everybody is healthy, and Phoenix will be once again vying for a top-four spot. An early win or two over the Mercury would get the Storm off to a great start.
With that said, Seattle might be playing Phoenix at the worst possible time, and the opening week of the season could be a sobering reminder of how far the team is from truly challenging the WNBA elite.
It’s easy to look at the final score in the Storm’s 84-61 preseason win over the Mercury and get excited, but Brittney Griner’s line offers some cause for concern. Griner finished with 14 points and seven rebounds in just under 21 minutes of action.
The Storm generally had a good offseason. Rim protection is one area general manager Alisha Valavanis failed to significantly address.
Natasha Howard has a 3.8 percent block rate over her career, though her height (6’2″) will leave her at a clear disadvantage against the 6’9″ Griner. And Courtney Paris is a historically efficient rebounder but has averaged a solid if unspectacular 1.4 blocks per 36 minutes. Not to mention, Howard has just two preseasons games under her belt with the Storm, while Paris didn’t appear in either game while fulfilling her overseas requirements in Turkey. There’s going to be adjustment period for both players—Paris in particular.
Seattle went 1-3 against Phoenix last year, and Griner is a big reason why. She averaged 24.0 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.0 blocks against the Storm. The presence of Paris will help counteract Griner on the boards, but Seattle will likely be leaning heavily on Breanna Stewart to guard Griner inside.
While Stewart is one of the WNBA’s brightest talents, her matchups against Griner showed how far she still needs to go to be on the same level of the league’s best frontcourt players.Perhaps Stewart has made great strides on the defensive end during her season in China, along with the natural progression that comes with more experience in the WNBA.
In order to win a title, the Storm will likely encounter one or more of the Mercury, Minnesota Lynx, New York Liberty, Dallas Wings or Connecticut Sun in the playoffs. All of those teams have taller post players who could wreck shop against the Storm. And that list doesn’t even include the Los Angeles Sparks, for whom either Nneka Ogwumike or Candace Parker could cause problems inside.
Without a solid rim protector—be it Stewart, Howard, Paris or somebody else—it’s hard to see how Seattle can make a deep run in the playoffs.
These two games against the Mercury won’t be the definitive barometer for whether Seattle can push for a top-four seed. They will, however, prove instructive in seeing what improvement the Storm have made since the end of 2017 and what issues still need to be solved.
Matchup to Watch
Jewell Loyd vs. Diana Taurasi
As important as the individual battle between Stewart and Griner is likely to be on the final result, the two may not be going one on one all that frequently. Head coach Dan Hughes is likely to use double teams on Griner, along with switching between Stewart, Paris, Howard and Crystal Langhorne as the defender on the four-time All-Star.
And for as much as the Mercury will look to feed Griner inside, they may have more success trying to exploit Diana Taurasi’s matchup against Jewell Loyd.
Whereas Taurasi often played at the 3 for Phoenix in 2017, the signing of Sancho Lyttle means Taurasi can move over to 2-guard. That’s where she lined up in the Mercury’s second preseason game with Seattle, so that’s where we should expect her again.
If that’s the case, it could be problematic for the Storm. Defense has long been Loyd’s biggest issue. Her 103.3 defensive rating was third-worst on the team, and she ranked in the 46th percentile in defensive points per possession (0.896), according to Synergy Sports.
The Mercury may look to run the pick and roll through Taurasi with great frequency. She had a .459 adjusted field-goal percentage in pick and roll situations, while Loyd allowed a .486 adjusted field-goal percentage. Opponents scored nearly 44 percent of the time when Loyd was forced to guard the pick and roll.
And that’s to say nothing of the size advantage the 6’0″ Taurasi has over the 5’10” Loyd. She could try to bully Loyd close to the basket or force her way to the paint and draw fouls.
Taurasi remains a dangerous scorer, even at 35, and she’ll be a handful for either Loyd or Alysha Clark.
Stats That Mean Nothing (or Everything)
- The Storm are 2-0 against the Mercury under Dan Hughes, winning by a combined 27 points; perhaps he has a psychological advantage over former assistant Sandy Brondello, a la LeBron James and the Toronto Raptors
- Seattle is 2-1 in home openers when Roman Reigns wrestles in the main event of WWE’s WrestleMania pay-per-view
- The Storm were winless against the Mercury during the 2017 regular season and playoffs when Sami Whitcomb had fewer than three rebounds
- Daniel Craig debuted as James Bond in Casino Royale in November 2006. Since then, the Storm are 6-5 in their regular season opener
- Seattle has yet to win a WNBA title since selecting Jordin Canada in the 2018 draft
- Brittney Griner had a minus-5.4 net rating in her one game against Courtney Paris in 2017
- Aleksandra Crvendakic has the highest net rating (44.7) on the Storm in 2018
- Seattle won its season opener in both of its title-winning years (2004 and 2010)