Storm's Task: Translate Historic Regular-Season Success to Playoffs
Kevin Pelton, stormbasketball.com | Aug. 24, 2010
It was a magical 2010 regular season for the Seattle Storm, which set records and wowed fans en route to a perfect record at KeyArena, but that's history now. The Storm's record-tying 28 wins became irrelevant the moment the buzzer sounded on Saturday's home win over the Los Angeles Sparks.
"We told our team that after the regular season's over, now it goes back to ground zero," said Storm Head Coach Brian Agler. "Everybody's record is 0-0 right now."
Of course, the Storm will derive some benefit from posting the league's best record during the regular season. Starting with tomorrow's Game 1 against Los Angeles (8:00 p.m., ESPN2, 1150 AM KKNW, ), the team will enjoy home court advantage throughout the duration of its playoff run, which means an opponent will have to beat the Storm at KeyArena to win a series. A similar formula worked in 2004, when the Storm won just one road playoff game but went 5-0 at home en route to the first WNBA championship in team history.
Yet the Storm also knows from experience that home court is no guarantee. The Storm lost deciding Game 3s at home to the Sparks each of the last two years. In 2008, it was just the team's second loss at KeyArena all year long.
That history, and five years of first-round exits since the championship, looms large as a storyline as the Storm tips off the playoffs. It's tough to say, however, that it is really relevant to this year's Storm team.
"Each year is different," said Storm guard Sue Bird. "I don't look at the last however many seasons we haven't gotten out of the first round. I don't think about them, I don't compare this year to previous years. We know what our task at hand is and that's what we're focused on."
While that sentiment isn't entirely universal - teammate Swin Cash says that the losses the past two years are a major motivating factor for her because of her hunger to advance deeper in the postseason - Bird's point is correct.
This Storm team has changed compared to the ones that lost to Los Angeles the last two years, let alone previous incarnations. That starts with health, and the obvious - for the first time since 2007, the Storm goes into the playoffs with Lauren Jackson in uniform.
"It helps a little bit," deadpanned Agler when asked about having Jackson. Her healthy MVP-caliber season is the latest reminder of a healthy Jackson's value to the Storm. The team's other stars and a strong defensive philosophy helped the Storm compete without Jackson the last two seasons, but winning a playoff series against a quality opponent was too much to ask.
The health issues extended beyond Jackson. In 2008, Cash barely played in the postseason because of debilitating back pain. Last year, the Storm was missing reserve forward Katie Gearlds, while Bird was coming back from a sore neck that sidelined her late in the regular season. This time around, the Storm enters the postseason at full strength.
"I'm glad that we are healthy," said Agler. "When you go into the season, you always think you're going to be that. It's when it doesn't happen that it hits you in the stomach, like it did the last two years. I'm glad that we are; I hope we can take advantage of it."
Agler did take steps to protect the team's health by resting starters late in the season, after the Storm clinched the league's best record. At the same time, his decision to play the last two home games like any other game had at least as much to do with preparing for the playoffs as it did the goal of going 17-0 at KeyArena.
"The last two years, we had one or two games left where we knew where we were sitting and rested people," Agler explained. "I don't think, in either case, the first game we came out real sharp. I'm glad we had a chance to really play full-throttle here two of the last three games. I'm hoping that will help our timing and our preparation."
This Storm roster is also the strongest one Agler has put together, in large part because of an improved bench. Svetlana Abrosimova and Le'coe Willingham give the Storm a pair of reserves who could start elsewhere (as Willingham did last season for the champion Phoenix Mercury). Rookie Jana Veselá has been a steady presence since establishing her spot in the rotation and Ashley Robinson has provided strong minutes off the bench during the month of August. The depth might allow Agler to use a nine-player rotation at times in the playoffs.
"We're staying extra, we're doing extra work," Abrosimova said of her fellow reserves. "We're ready too. We're going to help."
The newcomers have quickly meshed with a core of starters that have been together for two and a half seasons, building cohesion and giving the Storm an advantage over other teams - including L.A. - who changed identities during the offseason. By winning games in a variety of fashions early in the season, the Storm built confidence and momentum that have lingered throughout the season.
"We've seen every situation," said Cash. "We've seen every combination teams have tried to use against. We've seen all different types of defenses. I think that experience is something we can draw on going into the postseason."
That track record of success helps explain the Storm's quiet confidence on the eve of the postseason.
"I know we had home-court advantage in the first round in previous years," said Bird, "but it definitely has a different feel the way we're playing going into the playoffs than it did previously."
"Going into the playoffs, winning so many games, we definitely have a lot more confidence than we've had in other years - but still not complacent," added Jackson. "We know that other teams are after us - L.A. more than anyone, probably, because of the rivalry."
The Storm has passed every test so far, and the team is prepared for the playoffs. Now, it's time to take aim at loftier goals. The postseason can't start soon enough.
"I think we're definitely chomping at the bit wanting to get things going," said Bird.