Bird Displays Aggressive Attitude

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Kevin Pelton, | May 21, 2008
As the numbers trickled in from half a world away, they began to tell a story. As her Spartak team was winning championships in Euroleague and the Russian Superleague, Sue Bird was a big part of that. While that wasn't unusual or unexpected, that Bird was doing it as much with her scoring as her passing was something of a surprise. In the Euroleague Final, Bird scored 14 points, and she scored double-figures in all four games of the Russian Superleague Finals, averaging 15.5 points per game.

Stats can only tell so much, however, so it was more meaningful to see Bird's scoring mentality on display first-hand during the Storm's first two games of the 2008 season. On Opening Night, Bird had 13 points and seven assists. Last night vs. Sacramento, her eight first-half points were a big reason the Storm was still in the game at halftime and Bird finished the night tied for the team lead with 17 points.

"At the end of last year I made the decision that I need to shoot the ball more. I need to be more aggressive."
Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE/Getty Images
After the game, Bird made it clear the increased point totals were more than a coincidence but instead the product of a new mentality that has her focused on being more aggressive.

"Pretty much at the end of last year I made the decision that I need to shoot the ball more," Bird said in the locker room. "I need to be more aggressive. I think it just got to a point, where because we had so many scorers on our team, I never wanted to force the issue as much as I probably should. This year, even thought sometimes it turns out to be a bad shot, if you force it a little bit you're going to get foul calls. They're going to have to guard you more, which opens things up for your other teammates.

"It definitely started overseas."

Watching with keen interest in Russia was Bird's teammate both here and abroad, Lauren Jackson. Jackson was certainly impressed with what she saw.

"She was the main reason or a huge part of the reason why we won both the Euroleague and the Russian League," said Jackson. "She was just so aggressive and impressive. It was great to see her play like that. She's doing amazing things and she's proven she's the best point guard in the world."

Another notable observer, Bird's and Jackson's Spartak teammate and roommate Diana Taurasi, also saw a difference in Bird. According to Jackson, Taurasi drew the parallel with how Bird played when she teamed with Taurasi at UConn and won the AP and Naismith Player of the Year awards as a senior.

"Diana, when we were in Russia, always spoke about how Sue was just amazing in college," Jackson related. "I never saw her play in college, but I guess she's emulating that play that she had in college that made her so well-known and so good."

Certainly, it would be inaccurate to say Bird played poorly last season or anything of the sort. She finished the year third in the WNBA in assists per game and was one of six point guards in the league to average double-figures scoring. It's just that by looking to pass first, Bird wasn't using her complete abilities.

"I think she got to be playing more of a traditional point guard spot, which she did a real fine job of," observed Head Coach Brian Agler, who has encouraged Bird to look for her own offense. "I just want to bring out all of her strengths. Scoring is one of them."

The fact is that by playing more aggressive, Bird can actually make things easier on her teammates by forcing the defense to be concerned with her and opening up passing lanes that allow her to create shots for others as well as herself. Agler, who was on the other sidelines when Bird scored 27 points in her third WNBA game in her rookie 2002 season, has seen that in action.

"I thought Seattle, they've always been real tough to defend," he said, "but sometimes they were impossible to defend when she was attacking."

FGA40 - field-goal attempts per 40 minutes
FTA/FGA - free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt
3PA/FGA - three-point attempts per field-goal atempt
For Bird, attacking isn't necessarily synonymous with shooting more. In fact, her shot attempts have gone up on a per-minute basis the last two seasons after they were down in 2004 and 2005 (see chart at right). It's early, but through two games, Bird is attempting no more shots per minute than she did last year and fewer than in 2006. What is more noteworthy is how many of those shots have come from three-point range and how often she has gotten to the foul line per shot. Those ratios show that Bird has increasingly become a perimeter player rather than driving to the basket, a trend clearly exacerbated by knee injuries suffered in 2003 and last season.

Last year, Bird attempted just 26 free throws in 29 games. Reserves Shyra Ely and Tanisha Wright got to the line for more total attempts than Bird in far fewer minutes. No WNBA starter got to the line less frequently per field-goal attempt than Bird, and the only players with lower ratios of free-throw attempts to field-goal attempts were three-point specialists like Washington's Laurie Koehn. Considering Bird is an 87.9% career shooter from the charity stripe, those trips are very valuable for the Storm.

"That's part of attacking in the lane," said Agler, noting that Bird's pullup jumper is so effective it sometimes keeps her from getting in the paint and getting fouled. "The more she's aggressive, the more she'll get to the line."

After Wednesday's practice, Head Coach Brian Agler talked about Bird's aggressive play and more.
Bird attempted eight free throws against Sacramento, making them all, just the second time since the 2005 season she's gotten to the free-throw line so often (she also had eight attempts on July 23, 2006 at Washington).

Staying aggressive will be an ongoing process for Bird. Just like Agler, former Storm Head Coach Anne Donovan also encouraged Bird to look to score. However, this time, the change has been initiated as much by Bird herself.

"It was just something I had to do," she said. "I think the last couple of years I was content to let my teammates take on the offensive burden. But I think I'm too good of an offensive player to do that. Not that I'm as good as the rest of them but I do have to take on some of the load."