Schimmel, Dream rout Mercury, earn No. 1 seed for East playoffs
ATLANTA -- For a brief few minutes into the Atlanta Dream's showdown with the Phoenix Mercury, the lion's share of attention revolved around the four key pieces (two on each side) who weren't in uniform -- Atlanta's Angel McCoughtry, DeLisha Milton-Jones and Phoenix's Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor.
But rookie Shoni Schimmel stole the spotlight later in the first half, rolling for a career-high 20 points in the second quarter alone.
That glorious 10-minute run -- which eclipsed her previous personal best of 17 points (three different times) -- propelled the Dream to an 96-82 home rout of the Mercury, the WNBA's best team.
And with the victory, the Dream (18-14) clinched the No. 1 seed in the upcoming East Conference playoffs. It's also the franchise's first regular season conference title.
"It was a good game. I don't care whether Diana Taurasi or Penny Taylor was in or out," said head coach Michael Cooper, whose Dream halted a five-game losing streak on Wednesday. "It was Phoenix, and they're the best team in the league. We needed the win, probably more so than them, but again it helped to stop the bleeding for us."
Schimmel's explosive second quarter served as the impetus for a dominant stretch for Atlanta, which crushed Phoenix in the following categories during that period: Points (37-15), rebounding (19-3) and shooting percentage (50-33).
Technically, Schimmel -- the No. 8 overall pick in the spring draft (Louisville) -- has enjoyed a better pro day than Wednesday's demolition of the Mercury. At the WNBA All-Star Game (July 19), she amassed 29 points and eight assists in the East victory (MVP honors).
But that still cannot compare to the rush of helping her teammates in a crucial clincher, playoff seeding-wise.
"I honestly don't know (what prompted the scoring eruption). Maybe it's just playing the best of the best," said Schimmel, who became the sixth player in WNBA history to score 20 or more points in a single quarter. "I just wanted to come out (here) and do my best ... and it kind of worked out that way."
This possible preview of the WNBA Finals (best-of-5 series) was an exercise in decisive margins for all four quarters, with the Mercury taking the 1st (26-18) and 4th (28-16) by 20 points total. But that was nothing compared to the Dream's sizable advantages for the second and third periods, posting winning tallies of 37-15 and 25-13.
For the night, Schimmel led the Dream with 24 points off the bench, connecting on 8 of 15 shots.
All five Dream starters logged at least 23 minutes, with Tiffany Hayes (19 points, five boards), Erika De Souza (12 points), Aneika Henry (15 points, 12 rebounds) and Sancho Lyttle (8 points, 11 boards) flourishing in supporting roles.
De Souza had a giant secondary task on defense, holding Mercury center Britney Griner to just nine points (3 of 7 shooting) and five rebounds.
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If the playoffs began today ... the top-seeded Dream would host the Indiana Fever, a below-.500 team that lost the season series to Atlanta, 3-2.
But the Fever (14-17) still have work before reaching the postseason, holding just a one-game advantage over the Liberty with three outings left.
(How's this for keen scheduling: Indiana and New York will meet twice in the season's final week.)
Regardless of whom the Dream play the East semifinals, they should be prohibitive favorites to reach the next round -- particularly on high-scoring days. Coounting this victory, Atlanta improved to 15-1 for the season when scoring 80 or more points.
In the West, Phoenix (27-5) has already locked up the conference's top seed, which explains why Taurasi (season averages: 17.1 points, 5.7 assists) and Taylor (10.7 points, 3.1 rebounds) were healthy scratches on Wednesday.
Record-wise, the Mercury (league-high 16-game winning streak from June 15-July 29) and Minnesota Lynx are redoubtably the WNBA's best clubs, combining for overall marks of 51-13.
When Atlanta (three WNBA Finals appearances in the last four years) and Phoenix met on Aug. 5, Taurasi (14 points) and Taylor (13) were one of four double-digit scorers in the Mercurys' 75-67 home win.