Mercury, Storm prepare for Game 1 of semifinals

Mercury, Storm prepare for Game 1 of semifinals
FILE - This July 12, 2011 file photo shows Seattle Storm's Sue Bird gesturing after a teammate scored against the Washington Mystics, in the second half of a WNBA basketball game, in Seattle.
SEATTLE (AP) - Sue Bird isn't afraid of leaking any strategic secrets that the Seattle Storm might employ when they open defense of their WNBA title on Thursday night against the Phoenix Mercury.

As the All-Star point guard sees it, there are simply no secrets left to leak in a rivalry that has become as fierce as any in the league.

"We know them very well, they know us very well, even down to the play calls," Bird said. "At this point, it's just about who can execute and who can impose their will on the other team."

Heading into the opener of the best-of-3 Western Conference semifinal series in Seattle, it's the Storm who have done most of the imposing lately.

Seattle has won 10 of the past 11 against the Mercury. That includes a two-game sweep of last year's conference finals and an overall run of nine straight victories that ended Aug. 16 when the Mercury prevailed 81-79 in Phoenix.

"Most of these games come down to the last two or three minutes," Phoenix star and WNBA leading scorer Diana Taurasi said after the Mercury lost Friday in Seattle, losing homecourt advantage for the first round. "We have to find a way to get stops and good offensive possessions."

Phoenix, with the league's best offense (89 points per game), and Seattle, with the stingiest defensive average (69.9 points), are both aiming for a third title. The defending champion Storm also won in 2004, while Phoenix took it all in 2007 and 2009.

Seattle (21-13) is surging into the playoffs, winning eight of its last nine, all since three-time MVP Lauren Jackson returned on Aug. 20 after missing 20 games for hip surgery.

Jackson has averaged 14 points since then. Before her surgery, she averaged 9.1.

"The last eight games have helped me get involved with the team on offense and defense and everything," Jackson said. "It was just more of a mental thing, just getting through that. Staying out for so long, obviously, I was burning to get back into it."

Storm coach Brian Agler said the time off might actually have been a blessing for Jackson with the postseason looming.

"She doesn't have that baggage (of 20 extra games)," Agler said. "She's going to be fresh."

Phoenix (19-15) is trying to shake off a late-season slump, having dropped two straight and three of its last five.

"The last couple of games, I don't think we've been making our transition, pushing the ball. And that's how we beat teams," said Candice Dupree, the Mercury's leading rebounder at 8.2 per game. "So we have to revert back to that, and we should be OK."

The Storm are counting on their vocal fans for an added edge. The Mercury say bring it on.

"We have to come out and attack," Dupree said. "I don't know about everyone else, but I enjoy playing there. The fans are great, but that should give us some motivation to come out and beat them."

Just as the Storm benefit from having Jackson back on the court, the Mercury are counting on the return of fellow Australian Penny Taylor. The forward averages 16.7 points and 4.9 rebounds, but missed five of the last six with back spasms.