2009: Storm Stopped by Sparks Again

Storm celebrates
Sue Bird and Camille Little hug while their teammates celebrate the Storm's Game 2 win over L.A. Aaron Last, Storm Photos

2009: Storm Stopped by Sparks Again

Kevin Pelton, storm.wnba.com

Storm huddle
The Storm's starters huddle before a game.
Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE/Getty Images

The Seattle Storm opened the 2009 season looking to take care of some unfinished business. The previous summer, the Storm was rolling with six straight wins when Lauren Jackson left the team to prepare for the Beijing Olympics. She would not play again the rest of the season, undergoing ankle surgery after winning a silver medal in Beijing. While the Storm exceeded expectations without the two-time MVP, the team could not help but wonder what might have been had Jackson been available for a first-round loss to the Los Angeles Sparks.

The biggest order of business for the Storm in the offseason, then, was re-signing Jackson - an unrestricted free agent for the first time in her career. Brian Agler, the Storm's head coach and director of player personnel, pulled out the stops to recruit Jackson, visiting her in Europe three times over the course of the offseason. The last time, he brought with him a scrapbook of fans' messages to Jackson as she deliberated between returning to the Storm and joining friend Diana Taurasi in Phoenix.

Meanwhile, the Storm was piecing together a roster around Jackson and the team's other core pieces. Agler quickly re-signed guard Tanisha Wright, who became a restricted free agent after a breakout season, before turning his attention to bolstering the team's depth. The Storm signed veteran Shannon "Pee Wee" Johnson to give Sue Bird a reliable backup and brought back a pair of centers - Janell Burse, the team's starter before taking the 2008 season off, and Australian National Team member Suzy Batkovic-Brown, who had last played in the WNBA in 2005.

The Storm did say goodbye to a pair of veterans. Future Hall of Famers Yolanda Griffith and Sheryl Swoopes, both signed before the 2008 season, moved on. Griffith signed with the Indiana Fever as a free agent, while the Storm waived Swoopes before her contract for 2009 became guaranteed. The Storm's need to maintain roster flexibility and the WNBA's move to an 11-player roster made it difficult to keep Swoopes.

When the Storm selected California forward Ashley Walker in the first round of the 2009 WNBA Draft in April, it left one spot on the roster earmarked for a 6-5 Aussie. Jackson waited until she was able to return home following the conclusion of her season in Russia playing for Spartak Moscow to make a decision. On May 4, the Storm announced that Jackson had re-signed with the team.

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"I love the Storm - I love playing there," Jackson explained to stormbasketball.com. "For different reasons, the opportunity came up to play somewhere else. It came down basically to me loving it in Seattle. I've said for a long time it's my home there in America. I couldn't bear to leave."

The Storm opened training camp on May 17 with one starting spot up for grabs, as Burse and Camille Little battled to play alongside Jackson up front, but the roster largely set. The team did play most of training camp and the entire preseason without starting forward Swin Cash, who was recovering from March back surgery. A 1-1 preseason record got the Storm ready to open the season June 6 in Sacramento, the first time the team had played its opener on the road since 2003 and half of a back-to-back home-and-home set with the Monarchs.

Kicking off the season in style, the Storm swept Sacramento. Trailing 59-58 at ARCO Arena, historically a house of horrors, the Storm rattled off a 13-2 run to win the game going away. Jackson and Wright combined for 12 of the 13 points. A night later, the Storm led nearly from start to finish in defeating the Monarchs in the home opener at KeyArena.

After those two games, the Storm quickly headed out on the road for an early three-game trip. At Indiana on ESPN2, the Storm fell behind early and was done in by 20 turnovers and the Fever's 15 offensive rebounds. The 73-66 loss dropped the Storm from the ranks of the unbeatens. Playing next in Minnesota, the Storm handed the Lynx their first loss by a lopsided 88-71 margin, shooting 56.4 percent from the field. However, a loss at Chicago cost the Storm a chance for a winning road trip.

The Storm's best basketball of the season might have been played the following weekend. Getting a week of practice to work on execution, the Storm crushed Minnesota 90-62 at home and went on the road to defeat the Phoenix Mercury 90-82. Jackson averaged 25.5 points in the two games, earning Western Conference Player of the Week honors. The Storm ran its winning streak to three the following Friday, when Cash's block of Tina Thompson's shot attempt at the buzzer saved a 69-67 win over Los Angeles. The victory kept the Storm atop the WNBA in the early going.

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Storm forward Swin Cash was the MVP of the All-Star Game.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images

Following the win over L.A., the Storm began its most uneven stretch of the 2009 season. In the return match two days later at the STAPLES Center, the Sparks humbled the Storm 82-55, while the Mercury handed the Storm consecutive defeats for the first time all season. Back at home, the Storm defeated San Antonio and Sacramento, but the team's defense began to suffer in an upset loss to Chicago that ended the Storm's home winning streak at 15 games. The Storm then was beaten again at KeyArena by Detroit on July 15, falling 66-63 after Jackson left the game with a strained left Achilles tendon.

Without the MVP, the Storm rallied at Sacramento to snap the winning streak with a 69-56 win. The Storm outscored the Monarchs 25-12 in the fourth quarter, with Bird scoring 10 of her 20 point sin the period. Earlier, she scored her 3,000th career point and joined Johnson and San Antonio's Vickie Johnson as the lone members of the WNBA's 3,000 point/1,000 assist club. Two nights later, the Storm came back from eight down in the fourth quarter against the Lynx. Wright's bucket gave the Storm the lead, and Little drew a charge from Candice Wiggins in the closing seconds to secure the victory.

Jackson returned for the Storm's last game before the All-Star break, July 22 against an L.A. team beginning to pick up steam with Candace Parker returning to the lineup after maternity leave. The game turned into an epic clash, with teams missing chances to win in regulation and during two overtime sessions. During the third overtime, after Jackson and Wright had both fouled out, Bird took command. She hit three times from beyond the arc as the Storm won going away, 98-87.

While their teammates enjoyed a well-deserved break, it was off to Connecticut for Bird, Cash and Jackson, all of them voted starters for the Western Conference All-Star team. Jackson enjoyed a light load because of her Achilles injury, but all three Storm players shined on the national stage. Jackson scored nine points in seven minutes, Bird had 16 points and 10 assists and Cash set an All-Star record by scoring 21 points. The effort earned Cash All-Star MVP honors, capping off her comeback after spending the previous two seasons battling back pain.

As it turned out, the Storm's 3OT win over the Sparks would be the first of several close games and overtime periods over the next month. To start the second half, the Storm traveled to San Antonio, where Sophia Young's three at the buzzer was the difference in a 74-71 loss. The Storm returned the favor in Seattle, using Bird's late three to force overtime before prevailing 85-82 on 10th Anniversary Night and the culmination of the Storm celebrating its history all season long. Bird, Burse, Cash and Jackson were part of a 10-player 10th Anniversary Team that was honored at halftime. It took another extra session to decide things between the Storm and Phoenix at the Key in the third straight home game that went to overtime, but the Mercury dominated OT to win 101-90. The Storm took another overtime loss two nights later in L.A., falling 79-75, before narrowly avoiding more free basketball by hanging on to beat New York 70-69.

The middle of August took the Storm back to the East Coast, where the team dropped the first two games of a three-game road trip at Connecticut and Atlanta. The latter game did offer the Storm a pair of important milestones. Lauren Jackson became the fifth player in WNBA history to score 5,000 career points, reaching the mark faster and at a younger age than any other player. Swin Cash also joined Bird, Jackson and Johnson in the 3,000-point club. However, late in the game Jackson injured her back when she came down funny while rebounding. She shook off the pain to score a season-high 36 points - her highest total ever in a regulation game - to carry the Storm to a 79-75 win in Detroit to wrap up the trip.

The Storm closed out August with the season's longest homestand - four straight games, all against Eastern Conference foes. Even with Jackson's minutes limited by her back, the Storm stayed hot and swept the homestand, which began with an impressive win over East-leading Indiana. Before the final game, on Aug. 29 against Atlanta, the Storm learned that Jackson would be sidelined indefinitely after a bone scan revealed stress fractures in her lower back. Still, with Burse stepping into the starting lineup, the Storm defeated the talented Dream in overtime. The winning streak reached six, tying the second longest in team history, when the Storm began its last extended road trip of the season by winning in New York.

Storm huddle
Sue Bird celebrates a key play in the Storm's seventh sixth consecutive victory, a win in New York.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images

The winning streak finally came to an end on Sept. 3 in Washington, when foul trouble plagued a short-handed Storm squad in a 78-67 loss. Already playing without Jackson, the Storm saw Bird sidelined with a sore neck, losing in Minnesota to wrap up the road trip. The outcome locked the Storm into the second seed in the Western Conference for the second consecutive year. That allowed Bird to rest the final two games, which the Storm also played without Cash, who had to return home after the death of her grandmother. (Forward Katie Gearlds also missed the season's final 14 games after tearing her left PCL.) A makeshift Storm lineup took Phoenix to overtime before falling in the home finale, then defeated San Antonio in the last game of the regular season to reach 20 wins for the second straight season and fourth time in franchise history.

The playoffs would pair the Storm with a familiar foe. Just as in 2008, and previously in 2006 and 2002, the Storm would face the Los Angeles Sparks in the opening round. Adding to the sense of déjà vu was the Sparks being the favorites in the series despite the Storm having the superior record and home-court advantage. While the Storm would play without Jackson, Los Angeles had gotten healthy at the right time. Parker was not herself when she did play in the first half of the season as she worked back from giving birth in May, while veteran Lisa Leslie missed an extended portion of her final WNBA campaign with her knee surgery. With both players back and healthy, the Sparks used a favorable schedule down the stretch to catch fire.

With Bird playing for the first time in nearly two weeks and Cash returning after a week-long absence, the Storm looked rusty early in Game 1 at Los Angeles. In the first quarter, the Storm had seven turnovers and just one field goal (on the last possession of the period), falling behind 22-6. The Storm stayed with it, getting as close as three points on multiple occasions late in the third quarter and early in the fourth, but the comeback ultimately took a toll and the Sparks controlled the stretch run to win 70-63. Cash was fantastic, scoring 24 points, and Batkovic-Brown chipped in 16 off the bench, but a 1-of-9 shooting effort from Bird was difficult to overcome.

Back home for the completion of the series, the Storm had no margin for error in Game 2. It appeared the season would come to an end when L.A. led by four with 14.3 seconds left, setting the stage for the most remarkable comeback in franchise history. A Bird three-pointer got the Storm back within one. After a timeout, the Sparks inbounded the basketball as the Storm looked to make something happen. With Noelle Quinn having to pass around 6-5 Ashley Robinson, Little had a chance to step in and deflect the ball. Wright recovered it on the sideline, setting up a fast break. Little headed toward the basket and caught the pass, going up for a contested layup from the left side of the rim with 5.0 seconds left that went in as KeyArena descended into pandemonium.

Though the Storm had taken the lead, Los Angeles would get a final chance to win, but without the benefit of a timeout. Tina Thompson's inbound pass was deflected out of bounds, giving the Sparks possession on the sideline near their basket. Leslie caught the inbound pass, but her turnaround jumper was way long and the clock ran out before either team could take possession, giving the Storm a 75-74 victory and forcing a deciding Game 3.

Two days later, the teams met again at KeyArena. The Storm was unable to maintain the momentum of the miraculous Game 2 win, starting as slowly as in the first game of the season. The Storm shot 3-of-17 in the first quarter, and wasn't helped by Wright quickly getting in foul trouble. By the time the Storm offense finally found a rhythm in the fourth quarter, Los Angeles had built a 20-point lead. The Sparks overcame the comeback attempt to win, 75-64, and knock the Storm out of the postseason.

After the season, Jackson was named to the All-WNBA First Team for the sixth time. Jackson and Wright were both WNBA All-Defensive First Team picks, Wright earning the honor for the first time in her career as part of a breakout season. Bird also won a WNBA Peak Performer award for leading the league in assists (5.8 apg) for the second time.

Game 3 would be the last of Johnson's stellar WNBA career. Between the first two games of the playoff series, she announced her retirement at season's end. In 11 WNBA seasons, Johnson was a four-time All-Star and a three-time All-WNBA Second Team pick. She finished her career third on the WNBA's all-time assist leaderboard and also won two championships with Agler for the ABL's Columbus Quest before coming to the WNBA.

While the Storm learned Johnson would not be back in 2010, the team did secure the future of two key pieces late in the season. Bird, who could have become an unrestricted free agent, inked a multi-year contract extension announced on Sept. 10. The following week, Agler and the Storm came to terms on a new two-year contract with a team option for 2012. During exit interviews, Jackson also pledged that she would sign a two-year contract as a free agent to remain in Seattle. With the Storm's core back, the team enters the offseason looking to improve its depth to build on posting consecutive 20-win seasons for the second time in franchise history.

2009 Seattle Storm
BACK ROW: Equipment Manager Missy Bequette, Assistant Athletic Trainer Melissa Hardin, Head Athletic Trainer Tom Spencer, Assistant Coach Shelley Patterson, Ashley Walker, Suzy Batkovic-Brown, Ashley Robinson, Janell Burse, Katie Gearlds, Assistant Coach Nancy Darsch, Head Coach Brian Agler, Equipment Manager and Video Coordinator Danielle Yellam.
FRONT ROW: Shannon Johnson, Camille Little, Lauren Jackson, Sue Bird, Tanisha Wright, Swin Cash

2009 Storm Roster

22 La'Tangela Atkinson * G-F 6-1 164 03/22/1984 North Carolina 3
9 Suzy Batkovic-Brown C 6-4 197 12/17/1980 Australia 1
10 Sue Bird G 5-9 150 10/16/1980 Connecticut 7
33 Janell Burse C 6-5 199 05/19/1979 Tulane 7
2 Swin Cash F 6-1 162 09/22/1979 Connecticut 7
1 A'Quonesia Franklin * G 5-4 154 09/29/1985 Texas A&M 1
4 Katie Gearlds G-F 6-1 184 10/26/1984 Purdue 2
15 Lauren Jackson F-C 6-5 187 05/11/1981 Australia 8
14 Shannon Johnson G 5-7 152 08/18/1974 South Carolina 10
20 Camille Little F 6-2 180 01/18/1985 North Carolina 2
43 Ashley Robinson C 6-4 180 08/12/1982 Tennessee 5
44 Ashley Walker F-C 6-1 200 02/24/1987 California R
30 Tanisha Wright G 5-11 165 11/29/1983 Penn State 4

* Did not finish season on Storm's roster