(Neil Enns/Storm Photos)
2012 Recap: Shot to Knock Off the Champs
The Seattle Storm begin preparing for the 2012 season with a 6-6 shadow looming over everything the team did. Prior to the 2011 campaign, three-time MVP Lauren Jackson made the decision to sit out the first half of 2012 in order to prepare for the London Olympics - possibly her last chance at an elusive gold medal - with her Australian Opals teammates. So Head Coach and General Manager Brian Agler, along with the rest of the Storm's coaching staff, faced the task of preparing to play half the season without Jackson.
At the same time, with core players aging, the Storm also felt the need to inject some youth into the roster to complement the team's championship experience. A bold offseason trade helped the Storm address both goals. On Jan. 2, when the WNBA opened for 2012 business, the team sent All-Star forward Swin Cash and veteran reserve Le'coe Willingham to the Chicago Sky in exchange for the No. 2 overall pick. In addition to giving the Storm the opportunity to add one of the top incoming players from the college ranks, the deal also cleared space under the salary cap for the Storm to go shopping in free agency.
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The Storm added WNBA legend Tina Thompson, the league's all-time leading scorer, in free agency.
With the newfound flexibility, Agler added a pair of established WNBA stars to fortify the frontcourt - center Ann Wauters, who returned to the league after giving birth in 2011, and all-time leading scorer Tina Thompson. Along with rookie Shekinna Stricklen, taken with the pick acquired from Chicago, they marked the key additions to a team that brought back the rest of the core of the 2010 championship squad. Thompson and Wauters teamed with Jackson and Sue Bird to give the Storm four No. 1 overall picks, the most in WNBA history, and in Bird, Jackson, Thompson and Katie Smith the Storm also boasted four of the WNBA's Top 15 Players of All-Time, as chosen for the league's 15th anniversary in 2011.
The Storm showed off the new lineup for the first time on May 18, hosting Los Angeles on Opening Night. Through three quarters, the potential of the roster was obvious as the Storm built a 14-point lead over the Sparks. That advantage evaporated during the final period, as players with limited experience together struggled with turnovers and L.A. came from behind to spoil the festivities by winning 72-66.
The opener set the tone for a slow start to the season. The schedule did the Storm few favors. The Storm played seven of its first nine games on the road, and faced the two top teams in the West (L.A. and Minnesota) four times in the first five games. Those factors contributed to an 0-3 start to the season. After getting in the win column by beating Tulsa at home, the Storm dropped a heartbreaker at the Staples Center when No. 1 overall pick Nneka Ogwumike made the game-winning basket for the Sparks at the buzzer. That kicked off a four-game losing streak that dropped the Storm to 1-7, the worst start in franchise history.
Throughout the stretch, Agler insisted to the media that by season's end the Storm would be the most improved team in the league. His players proved him right more quickly than that. A win at Tulsa on May 15 kicked off a five-game winning streak. The highlight of the streak came back home on Father's Day, when the Storm handed the Minnesota Lynx their first loss after a 10-0 start. The Storm also went 2-1 on a road trip back East, including a win at Connecticut's Mohegan Sun Arena for the first time since 2003 - in the second game of a back-to-back set, no less.
As the calendar turned to July, injuries begin to hit hard for a roster that was already limited to 10 players because of Jackson's absence. Wauters suffered a strained left Achilles that would keep her out for two months. The Storm was blown out at Los Angeles without Bird, who sat out one game with a sore hip, and lost Thompson to a severe knee sprain in the fourth quarter of the loss. Bird returned a night later to score 31 points on 10-of-11 shooting against the Phoenix Mercury on her boblehead night. Another win over the Mercury carried the Storm within a game of .500, at 9-10, as the league paused for the Olympics.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
Bird added a third gold medal to her trophy case in London.
In London, Bird led a USA team looking for its fifth consecutive gold medal, while Jackson sought gold for the first time in her four Olympics with Australia. During group play, Jackson passed Lisa Leslie to become the all-time leading scorer in Olympic women's basketball competition. However, the Opals were knocked off by France, meaning a meeting with the U.S. in the semifinals rather than the gold-medal game. Australia led at the half before the USA controlled the final 20 minutes. The Americans then breezed past France to continue their dominance of Olympic play and earn Bird her third gold medal, while Jackson added a bronze to her three silvers.
Jackson, who was chosen to carry the flag for the Australian delegation during Opening Ceremonies, was asked to come back home to take part in celebrations after the Olympics. Without her, the Storm went 1-2 in its first two games after the break. Thompson and Wauters were still limited by their injuries, while Bird missed a loss to L.A. due to the stomach flu. After watching one game from the bench, a jet-lagged Jackson made her long-awaited 2012 WNBA debut on Aug. 23 against Indiana. Up 13 late in the fourth quarter, the Storm saw the visiting Fever score the game's final 15 points and win on a Shavonte Zellous three-pointer at the buzzer.
With Thompson and Wauters returning to the lineup, the Storm had all 11 players active for the first time all season on Aug. 26 against New York. The result was a 21-point halftime lead in a game that showed the Storm's potential, as did lopsided victories over Tulsa home and away. The road game was highlighted by Camille Little's career-high 28 points. Though the Storm was upset by Phoenix and Diana Taurasi in between, a Mercury loss on Sept. 9 assured Seattle its ninth consecutive trip to the playoffs, setting a new WNBA record.
Virtually locked into the fourth spot in the West, the Storm had little incentive to push players with nagging injuries down the stretch. Bird (hip), Jackson (back/hamstring) and Tanisha Wright (knee) all missed games in the season's final weeks. The Storm suffered three blowout losses on the road before returning home to host Connecticut. A short-handed lineup took the Sun to the buzzer of a 60-58 loss. With first Bird and then Jackson returning to the lineup, the Storm closed out the home schedule with wins over Chicago and San Antonio. Both games featured milestones. Against the Sky, Thompson became the first WNBA player to score 7,000 career points. Jackson joined Thompson, Smith and Lisa Leslie in the 6,000 club against the Silver Stars. The Storm wrapped up the schedule by winning at Phoenix on the final day of the regular season to finish at 16-18.
Immediately, the Storm was confronted by a difficult postseason challenge. As the No. 4 seed in the West, the Storm faced the defending champion Lynx, who finished atop the league with a 27-7 record for the second year in a row. Minnesota won the season series 3-1, but never faced Jackson. With the star back in the lineup and the team relatively at full strength, the Storm could go star for star with the Lynx and boasted the edge in terms of experience.
Game 1 at the Target Center in Minneapolis showed the Lynx were in for a test from the Storm. Despite a poor shooting night, the Storm got as close as six points with possession inside the final minute of a 78-70 loss. Still, the team returned home for Game 2 needing a win in front of the home fans to extend the series. Nobody could have guessed just how long that would take.
In an epic battle between the last two WNBA champs, the Storm battled back from a six-point deficit entering the fourth quarter to take the lead with three minutes left to play. Minnesota then went on top and had a chance to end the game at the free throw line. Seimone Augustus missed a technical free throw for a dead-ball foul, and Taj McWilliams-Franklin split two free throws with 11.0 seconds left on the clock. That gave the Storm life and Jackson took full advantage, draining a three just before the buzzer off a Bird feed to force overtime.
Jackson shoots the tying three that forced OT in Game 2 (Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE/Getty Images)
In the first extra session, the Lynx had an opportunity to win as time ran out. Tough defense by Wright forced Augustus to miss, and the Storm broke up an inbound pass to go to double OT. By then, Jackson had already fouled out. Her replacement, Thompson, gave the Storm the lead with a three. Bird followed with two more triples and the Storm won going away, 86-79, in one of the three longest games in WNBA postseason history.
That set up a deciding Game 3 two nights later in Minnesota. Both teams battled through fatigue to stage another great show. A Wright three pulled the Storm within one at halftime. The teams went back and forth through the final period, with Bird's trey cutting the Lynx lead to just one with 35 seconds remaining. After getting a stop, the Storm took timeout with 3.3 seconds on the clock and a chance to steal the game and the series. Smith inbounded the ball to Jackson, whose turnaround jumper rimmed out as the buzzer sounded.
While the Storm had lost, the team pushed the defending champions to their limit. The Lynx went on to sweep Los Angeles in the Western Conference Finals before losing to Indiana in the WNBA Finals, 3-1.
Because of injuries and absences, the Storm rarely got the opportunity to play as a full team during 2012. That made it difficult to build chemistry, and produced an up-and-down regular season. Even against Minnesota, the Storm played through adversity. After the season, Bird revealed that she would not surgery to repair her torn left hip labrum. Jackson took several weeks off to rest her back and hamstring. Wright also played through painful soreness in her knees, while Thompson was never back to 100 percent after her injury. Yet the roster was able to come together for a memorable series that nearly allowed the Storm to pull off the upset.
2012 Storm Roster
|32||Alysha Clark||F||5-10||167||07/07/1987||Middle Tennessee State||R|
|20||Camille Little||F||6-2||180||01/18/1985||North Carolina||5|
|14||Katie Smith||G||5-11||175||06/04/1974||Ohio State||13|
|30||Tanisha Wright||G||5-11||165||11/29/1983||Penn State||7|
* Did not finish the season on the Storm's roster
HEAD COACH: Brian Agler
ASSISTANT COACHES: Jenny Boucek, Nancy Darsch
DIRECTOR OF BASKETBALL OPERATIONS: Missy Bequette
EQUIPMENT MANAGER: Kayce Kirihara
HEAD ATHLETIC TRAINER: Tom Spencer