Even the next morning, this one stings.
I suppose you could say that about any season-ending loss, but they are not created equal. In the debate on whether it’s more difficult to lose in lopsided fashion or drop a close game, consider me firmly on the latter side. When the game isn’t close, it’s easy to accept that the other team was simply better and move on.
In this case, when the game wasn’t decided until Candice Dupree scored an unscriptable putback with 1.9 seconds remaining, it feels like there should be one more game, one more overtime, even one more play. (Oh, to see what Sue Bird might have done with those 1.9 seconds had the Storm had a timeout left to set something up.)
The cliché is that at some point, losses hurt more than the wins feel good, even for a team that has experienced as much success as the Storm has in the Bird-Lauren Jackson era. One of the biggest benefits of winning is as simple as extending the season and playing on. That’s especially true in the WNBA, what with the long offseason that now stares us in the face. As long as teams play on, they stay together. As soon as the year ends, players scatter within days to all ends of the country and the world.
It’s going to take some time for that reality to set in.
“Right now, it just feels like, ‘We have a game in two days. We must,’” said Bird, eloquent even in heartache. “Obviously, we don’t. It will set in as the playoffs continue – every time we see a commercial, every time we see a game, it’s a reminder.”
That other WNBA teams still battle for a championship that, up through last night, belonged to the Storm is a reminder of what might have been. I think that’s what separates this season from some of the Storm’s past first-round losses. When Jackson was sidelined in 2008 and 2009, advancing deep into the playoffs was too much to ask of the remaining Storm players, no matter how hard they fought. The two years before that, the Storm simply wasn’t as good as a team as the opposition. To find an equivalent to this year, I think you have to go back to 2005, the last time the Storm defended a title. Then as now, the Storm won the opening game of the series in convincing fashion (on the road in Houston) before losing two in a row, including the deciding game at home.
What will stand out looking back are opportunities the Storm missed last night. A score here or there could have made it a double-digit game at the break and left Phoenix disheartened. When referees tried to tighten the game in the third quarter, Storm players lost their composure and committed fouls that proved costly both in terms of putting themselves in foul trouble and putting the Mercury on the free throw line. And missed free throws loomed large in a two-point game.
One of the dangers of fandom is putting too much of the credit or the blame on your own team and forgetting there is another one on the other side just as responsible for the outcome. Phoenix’s players deserve every bit of credit for the way they played last night. In fighting back from an 18-point deficit, the Mercury showed its own championship character, and the talent of Penny Taylor was on full display after Diana Taurasi fouled out. Dupree and DeWanna Bonner battled tirelessly in the paint against bigger Storm opponents and Nakia Sanford was the ultimate gamer in this series, fighting through a sore right knee to prove a difference-maker in the last two games.
Despite all that, the Storm found itself a stop away from overtime. It didn’t work out this time.
“We thought we could win and we did a lot of good things tonight,” said Brian Agler, “but sometimes things aren’t meant to be. That’s sort of how this game was. It wasn’t meant to be tonight.”
Over time, the bounces tend to even out. The Storm caught plenty of breaks on the way to last year’s WNBA championship. I’m sure that Phoenix lamented losing Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals on Bird’s clutch three the same way we will look back on this loss. There were also three narrow wins in the WNBA Finals against Atlanta. Last night, the bill for those close wins may have come due.
No matter how many times we look at last year’s trophy, that still hurts.