Neil Enns/Storm Photos

Not Finished: 2012 Playoff Preview

Kevin Pelton, | Sept. 27, 2012

This isn't the way the Seattle Storm envisioned the 2012 regular season going.

Oh, players and coaching staff knew making a ninth consecutive trip to the playoffs was going to be difficult, especially without the services of Lauren Jackson for more than half the year because of her commitments around the Olympics. But nobody entirely envisioned that injuries would leave the Storm with as few as eight healthy players for extended stretches, forcing others to play out of position as Head Coach Brian Agler and his staff cobbled together a lineup.

"We now know why it's so difficult and no one's ever gone nine straight years," said Agler. "Over time, things change. You have a tendency to run into bad luck and your draft position ends up catching up with you, certain things like that. Even the greatest teams - the Houston teams, the L.A. teams when they had a run - never could put nine years in a row together."

The Storm did. While the adversity meant the team's 16-18 record was off from past seasons, including 20-win campaigns in each of Agler's first four years in Seattle, the Storm clinched a playoff berth with two weeks left in the season. That translates into an opportunity. With the roster getting healthy, the Storm has a window for everything to click. The team's goals for the 2012 season are still within reach.

It won't be easy. Nothing has been during 2012.

Neil Enns/Storm Photos

Staying Afloat

While integrating new players into the lineup, the Storm began the season 1-7 - the worst start in franchise history. The team was never that bad, but did struggle early on, which was exacerbated by a schedule that put seven of the Storm's first nine games on the road. Seven of the first 11 came against teams that won at least 20 games.

When the schedule evened out, the Storm won five in a row and six out of seven. Then came the injuries, with veteran posts Tina Thompson and Ann Wauters both sidelined for extended periods and Sue Bird also missing two games. Playing short-handed, the Storm was unable to take advantage of a favorable schedule after the Olympic Break. Jackson's return, anticipated as it was, meant fitting a key piece into the lineup midseason. And then, in the wake of a pair of blowout wins over Tulsa, injuries took both Bird and Jackson out of the lineup late in the year.

"It seemed like every time we would get it going," said Bird, "somebody else would get hurt - or, on the flip side, somebody who was hurt would be coming back. And while that is always a positive, it makes it difficult to develop a chemistry."

The issues were most problematic at the offensive end of the floor, where players lacked the familiarity to know where teammates would be at any given time. That translated into turnovers, especially when Bird was on the bench.

The constant was the Storm's defense, anchored by Camille Little (the only player to start all 34 games), Katie Smith (who played all 34, starting the last 31) and Tanisha Wright (who started every game until after the Storm had clinched a playoff berth).

"Obviously, when Brian Agler's your coach, defense is going to be part of the mantra," Bird said. "Camille and T and then Katie as well, those three really are the backbone in terms of that part of our team. When those three are consistent, it allows everybody else to fall into place."

During Agler's five seasons in Seattle, the Storm has consistently ranked among the league's top defenses. This year's team might have been the best of the bunch. The Storm set a franchise record by holding opponents to 39.1 percent shooting from the field - the lowest mark allowed by any WNBA team since 2008.

Neil Enns/Storm Photos

The Difference Maker

The Storm still hasn't seen the best of Jackson. When she returned from Australia, having crossed oceans twice in the previous week, she needed time to shake off the rust. As Jackson began to look like herself, including a 23-point outing in just 14 minutes against Tulsa, a strained left hamstring forced her to sit out three games. She came back for the final weekend of the regular season and scored 11 points in as many minutes against San Antonio to reach 6,000 for her WNBA career.

"She didn't play much but right away you see how she can be effective and so aggressive those minutes she was on the court," Wauters said after the game. "It was pretty great to see that. I think going into the playoffs, everybody is really excited."

The Storm has shown the ability to win without Jackson, but her presence makes the team far more dangerous not only with her own play but by pushing Wauters to a reserve role for which she is overqualified. Teaming Jackson and Wauters together gives Agler another option in the frontcourt with more size and two skilled post players.

During the 167 minutes Jackson played, the Storm outscored opponents by 12.5 points per 40 minutes. That's far and away the best mark on the team and one of the best in the league.

Whether Jackson's playing time will be limited in the playoffs remains unclear.

"We haven't got there yet," Agler said on Tuesday. "I would envision she'd play more than 10-12 minutes a game. She's feeling a lot better than she did earlier."

Smith isn't worried about Jackson's ability to contribute.

"She'll do whatever she needs to do throughout the week to get herself ready," she said. "She'll do whatever needs to be done. She's a competitor."

Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE/Getty Images

Not Satisfied

Despite the ups and downs, Agler calls this an enjoyable season.

"I don't necessarily enjoy the record," he explained, "but I've enjoyed seeing how our team has worked together and gone through some really trying times to be back in the playoffs again.

"At the same time, it doesn't mean we're satisfied with that. We don't want to be where we're at right now. We are here and we're still alive and kicking."

Agler's uncertainty about how the team is going to perform is atypical for this point, with 34 games in the books.

"Usually at this time of year, you know about where you're at and you know about what you're capable of doing," he said. "I think I know, but I don't know for sure. I know how good we can be, but I don't know how good we are at this point."

There have been games that have indicated the Storm's potential. Winning at Connecticut on the second game of a back-to-back. A blowout win over New York. Record-setting performances against Tulsa. Last week's win over Chicago. The common denominator in those performances has been balance and ball movement. While the team's overall performance does not indicate it, the Storm's number of offensive threats and unselfishness stands the chance of making the team difficult to defend.

"That's what makes us dangerous for the playoffs," said Bird. "If we do click at the right point, which would be tomorrow, we do have a team that's leading the league in a lot of defensive categories. I think if we click, we can be up there in a lot of offensive categories as well."

"I do think that potential is there. That's what's exciting about these playoffs. Anything can happen in a three-game series."
- Bird

With Svetlana Abrosimova returning from a sprained right wrist, the Storm should be at full strength for the postseason. The team played just five games during the regular season with all 11 players healthy and in uniform and won three of them, all by at least 16 points.

"I know it's not going to happen just because we have all 11 players healthy," Bird said. "We still need to go out there and prove it and play that way. I do think that potential is there. That's what's exciting about these playoffs. Anything can happen in a three-game series."

Awaiting the Storm is the WNBA's best team. The defending champion Minnesota Lynx won a league-high 27 games, threatening to tie the record shared by the 2010 Storm. Their season featured winning streaks of 10 games to start the season (broken by the Storm at KeyArena) and 11 games.

"Obviously they're the best team in the league at the moment," said Jackson. "It's going to be hard. They're going to be tough, but we're going to be tough too."

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