Storm Short-Handed for Final Week
When the Los Angeles Sparks lost at San Antonio on Saturday, the Seattle Storm clinched home-court advantage in the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs. With the Phoenix Mercury securing the top overall seed in the West, the Storm is locked into the second spot regardless of the results of the two remaining games in the regular season. That development came just in time for a Storm team that figures to be short-handed this week.
"Luckily," said guard Sue Bird, who missed Saturday's game at Minnesota with a sore neck, "we did our work early in the season and we've gotten second place, so there's not so much pressure in terms of having to win the next two games."
"We're going to get people back here for the playoffs," explained Head Coach Brian Agler. "It's just a matter of getting through these next two games. Fortunately, it doesn't impact us. We want to go out and compete, we want to try and win, but we can't get first and we can't get third. We're right where we are. We want to get to the playoffs as healthy as possible. That's the top priority."
While Bird and Jackson watched Tuesday's practice in street clothes, Gearlds was able to up her level of activity. She is now five weeks removed from tearing her left PCL on Aug. 4 in a game against Phoenix, putting her at the midpoint of the typical 4-6 weeks recovery time. Cleared to begin actively shooting last week after shedding a restrictive knee brace, Gearlds also tested the knee by running and jumping on Tuesday and felt good afterward.
"I feel like it's getting stronger," said Gearlds, who has yet to schedule an appointment to be cleared for full activity and contact. "My knee feels pretty stable. It's just a matter of making sure everything is the way it's supposed to be. I can't give you an answer on when. Maybe a couple days, maybe 3-4 days, maybe next week. I don't know."
Gearlds noted the plan all along has been for her to return in time for the playoffs. Agler was more cautious about the likelihood of getting the reserve sharpshooter back.
"I don't want to be pessimistic, but I don't want to be optimistic for playoffs," he said. "I think there's a chance."
As for Bird, she told reporters that if the Storm had a game tonight, she likely would not be able to play. However, the condition of her neck should continue to improve with rest and is not considered a long-term concern.
"It feels alright," said Bird. "It's gotten a little bit better, but it's still very stiff, uncomfortable and at times painful. It's just one of those things where I think it's going to take a couple of days as I go and it will get better progressively."
Having the Storm locked into the second seed in the West means Bird won't have to push it, though she would prefer to return to the court this week if possible.
"I think I'm fortunate in that way," she said. "If I don't feel 100 percent, I don't need to play, but at the same time I want to play. You want to stay in rhythm. It's been a couple days now I haven't been able to do anything. I'm doing all the rehab and my hope is to be back as soon as possible."
While the Storm was on the road, Jackson visited specialists to get a final diagnosis on her back. Doctors found that one of the stress fractures in her L5 vertebrae was preexisting, but the one on the right side was "acute" - caused by her funny landing during the Storm's game at Atlanta three and a half weeks ago. Jackson declined to share the timetable doctors offered for her return.
"At the moment I'm taking it day-by-day and just hoping that it starts to feel better and I can give it a go," she said.
"I don't even want to go down that path," reiterated Agler. "I'm going to stay the same - she's out indefinitely."
Jackson, who is not able to do any physical activities right now, has noticed improvement.
"It's getting better," she said. "Originally when it happened, it was pretty painful. The last two days, it's really started to come along."
Agler wants to be cautious with Jackson's potential return, saying, "My strong opinion is her health first."
The absence of Cash, coupled with Gearlds and Jackson's injuries, means the Storm will drop below nine active players on the roster. That qualifies the team for the WNBA's roster hardship exception, which allows teams to exceed the 11-player roster limit when they have at least three players sidelined. The Storm has the cap space to add a free agent for the season's final two games and could even add a second if Bird is ruled out. When the Storm returns to nine healthy, active players at the start of the postseason with Bird and Cash back in the lineup, if not Gearlds and Jackson, those additions would have to be waived.
The injuries will play a key role in determining Agler's strategy for the Storm's final two games.
"Last year, we sat people out that last game," he explained. "This year, we definitely don't want to overdo it with people, but just because of our injury situation we may have to play some of these (healthy) people."