The Phoenix Mercury who finished the regular season as the top team in the WNBA will tonight face a battle to keep that season alive as they take to the floor in Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals. Phoenix dropped Game One of the three-game playoff series to last year's Western Conference champions, the San Antonio Silver Stars, who barely squeaked into this year's playoffs but proved Thursday that they still have the heart -- as well as the skills -- of a champion.
The Silver Stars entered the playoffs (15-19), which was not only the worst record for any playoff team this season, but also marked the first time a team with a losing record has made the playoffs in the tough Western Conference. Their opponents, the Phoenix Mercury, were at the other end of the spectrum with a league best (23-11) and averaging over 90 points per game. In fact, most analysts consider Phoenix the favorites to win this season's WNBA Championship, and though the vote was close, Full Court picked the Mercury to win it all before the playoffs tipped off.
However Phoenix is on the brink of elimination after losing the first game, 92-91, in San Antonios AT&T Center before more than 5,700 fans.
Deanna Nolan showed last night why you never count out a champion. Overcoming symptoms of concussion incurred just two nights before, the Michigan native, who played college ball in Georgia, scored 22 points on eight-of-20 shooting from the field hand and handed out five assists, leading her club to a 94-79 drubbing of the higher-seeded Atlanta Dream on their on their "home" floor and to a sweep of their series.
Detroit will now move on to face the winner of the Indiana - Washington series, the second game of which will be played tonight at Conseco Fieldhouse. The Fever lead that series, 1-0.
Coming into Fridays encounter, Nolan was listed as "questionable" for the night's game, and her clearance to play came down to a game-time decision. She had to be helped from the court, as she sank to the floor complaining of dizziness nearly a minute after suffering a hard blow to the head in a collision with Atlanta's Sancho Lyttle in the final minute of Wednesday's game, and continued to complain of "wooziness" after the Shock arrived in Atlanta on Thursday. But Nolan participated in Friday morning's the shoot-around earlier and passed the neurological tests needed to be cleared to participate.
Early on the game, it was obvious that she was not 100% as she did not attack the basket but rather settled for jumpers, which fortunately for the Shock, were nevertheless going down with sufficient regularity that she led her team in scoring in the first half with 16 points (5/11 from the field and 6/6 from the foul line). The heightened propensity of athletes who sustain a concussion to suffer another is just one of the reasons why trainers and coaches have become so cautious about allowing a concussed player to return to action too quickly. But Nolan was not about to join the stable of Shock stars watching the game from the sidelines. She played played nearly 37 of the game's 40 minutes, despite taking another hard clip in Game 2, and the Shock could not have done it without her.
On the Dreams side of the injury report, Chamique Holdsclaw, who was ineffective on Wednesday in her first game back from arthroscopic knee surgery, sat out this game entirely as her knee was again acting up. Given the erratic play of her replacement Angel McCoughtry in this contest, a healthy Holdsclaw was needed to save the Dream from extinction. The Atlanta-based team, forced to play in out-of-town Gwinnett Arena rather than downtown Phillips Arena (occupied by a performance of Sesame Street Live), lacked energy for most of the night. In the post-game press conference Coach Marynell Meadors commented that her team seemed a step slow compared to Wednesday.
Unlike game one, the Dream, known for their running game, rarely got out on the break and, for that matter, the relatively few easy baskets in the first three quarters were scored by the Shock. For the most part, the pace was moderate, seemingly dictated by the Shock, who got back quickly on defense so regularly that, more often than not, the Dream didnt seem to be trying to push for a quicker pace.
Anyone too eager to count Seattle out of a run for the championship when the news broke that Lauren Jackson would be out indefinitely with a fractured back didn't really know the heart of the Seattle Storm.
Putting aside a dismal first quarter, the Storm battled admirably in the absence of their superstar on Wednesday, losing the opening game of their series against the Los Angeles Sparks by just seven points, despite being down by as much as 22-6 in the early going.
But on Friday night, the Storm truly showed what they are made of as they simply refused to allow themselves to be sent packing, regardless of the ready excuses. This game was much closer throughout, but the Storm still had to come from behind. This time, Seattle made up the gap, though they were still down by one as the clock ticked down its final seconds, and it looked like the Storm might be eliminated in the first playoff round for the fifth season in a row.
Instead, Camille Little picked off an inbounds pass and laid it to steal a 75-74 victory for the Storm, and even the season at one game apiece.
Now that I've blown the ending, let me share with you a running commentary on how the game unfolded.