Playing without the league's reigning MVP could put the Seattle Storm at a disadvantage as they head into their first-round playoff matchup with the Los Angeles Sparks. Having a leading candidate for this year's award could help them overcome that disadvantage.
With Lauren Jackson sidelined, Sue Bird looks to continue her emergence as the team's leader as the Storm visit the Sparks for the opener of their best-of-three Western Conference playoff series Friday night.
Jackson missed five games before the Olympics to train with the Australian national team, then needed surgery after injuring her ankle in Beijing. She isn't expected to return until the finals, if Seattle advances that far.
The Storm (22-12) might have faltered without their leading scorer and rebounder, but Bird helped the club to an 8-5 record in Jackson's absence. In the 11 games during that stretch in which Bird played more than a handful of minutes, she averaged 17.5 points and 3.6 assists. She shot 53.1 percent (52-for-98) from the field over her last eight games of the season.
Bird's emergence helped Seattle claim both the franchise wins record and the No. 2 seed in the West.
"I think Sue deserves MVP, without a doubt,'' said Jackson, who won the award both last year and in 2003. "I think she has led this team in a way no other player has led their team all season. She's always had potential to be the best guard in the world, but I think she's the best point guard in the world. Just the way she has brought the team together has just been exceptional."
Though she's getting a lot of the credit for Seattle's success, Bird downplays any changes to her game.
"I definitely shot the ball more as of late, particularly when we lost Lauren I picked it up a little bit offensively," she said. "(But) I don't feel like that much has changed. I know the numbers make it seem that way, but in terms of the mind-set nothing is different."
Bird and Jackson aren't the only MVP-caliber players in this series. Together, the Storm and Sparks feature the winners of the last nine awards. Seattle's Sheryl Swoopes won it three times with Houston in 2000, 2002 and 2005, while Storm forward Yolanda Griffith took home the trophy while with Sacramento in 1999.
Sparks center Lisa Leslie was named MVP in 2001, 2004 and 2006, and might even be considered for this year's award. After missing last season while on maternity leave, Leslie averaged 15.9 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.1 blocks to help the Sparks go 20-14, including 6-2 in their last eight games.
Leslie, DeLisha Milton-Jones and rookie of the year front-runner Candace Parker - all members of the U.S. national team that won gold in Beijing - form one of the best frontcourts in the history of the WNBA.
"I believe we're the best team in the league. We just have to show it," Sparks coach Michael Cooper said. "One of our Achilles' heels has been playing up to our opponents' level. Seattle plays at a very high level and we know we have to match that."
The Sparks won two of the clubs' three regular-season meetings, including a 65-48 victory in Sunday's finale with starters on both teams playing limited minutes. Parker averaged 18.0 points and 8.5 rebounds in the first two games against Seattle, while Bird averaged 14.5 points and 3.5 assists.