Willingham Leads Storm Bench Against Former Team

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Kevin Pelton, stormbasketball.com | Aug. 30, 2010

With Olympians and All-Stars in both starting lineups, the Western Conference Finals matchup between the Phoenix Mercury and the Seattle Storm might just come down to the benches. If that's the case, the Storm has an inside advantage. Le'coe Willingham is making her second consecutive appearance in the Western Conference Finals, but now she's trying to knock off the same Mercury team for which she started during last year's championship run.

"I think it's huge," Willingham said of the battle of the benches after the Storm practiced Monday. "He (Phoenix Head Coach Corey Gaines) has DeWanna (Bonner) and Kara (Braxton) coming off. DeWanna won Sixth Woman again this year and she's a big spark coming for them off the bench, able to get to the rim, draw fouls, rebound, knock shots down. It's going to be a big part of this series."

"It's no secret what they want to do. It's all there for you to see."
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

While the Mercury might boast the league's best reserve in Bonner, who collected her second Sixth Woman Award in as many WNBA seasons after averaging 12.0 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, the Storm counters with a group of bench players who have shined down the stretch.

The Storm's advantage in terms of depth was crucial in the opening round against a short-handed Los Angeles Sparks team. In Game 1, forward Jana Veselá came off the bench to score 11 points. During Saturday's deciding Game 2, the Storm rallied when Willingham (who had a +11 plus-minus during the game, meaning the Storm outscored the Sparks by 11 points when she played) and Svetlana Abrosimova (+21) were on the floor. Willingham had seven points and seven rebounds and Abrosimova added 17 points as the Storm's reserves outscored their L.A. counterparts 17-5.

"I just have a confidence in (the bench)," said Storm Head Coach Brian Agler, "because it's been developed throughout the season."

It doesn't hurt that the Storm has proven veterans in those roles. Abrosimova has started more than 60 percent of the games she's played during her nine-year WNBA career and Willingham was a starter throughout her two seasons in Phoenix. Willingham is especially experienced when it comes to the postseason, having twice reached the WNBA Finals in Connecticut (including being on the wrong side of the 2004 WNBA Finals when the Storm won the championship) before breaking through and winning a title with the Mercury.

The addition of Willingham has given the Storm a dependable backup to both Camille Little and Lauren Jackson in the frontcourt. Per 40 minutes, Willingham averaged 14.1 points and 10.6 rebounds per game during the regular season, the latter mark good for 10th in the league. As throughout her career, Willingham was a high-percentage shooter, hitting 53.8 percent of her attempts from the field - seventh among WNBA players with at least 100 shot attempts.

Willingham has also added a new dimension to her game this season, showing three-point range. An effective long-distance shooter while playing in Europe, Willingham had made just 12 triples in her WNBA career entering this year. She more than doubled that by knocking down 14 threes this season, making them at a 45.2 percent clip. Willingham added another three to her total in Game 2 and made eight of them in the month of August alone, making opponents pay for failing to respect her marksmanship.

The series against Los Angeles also showcased Willingham's defensive versatility, as she stepped out to defend on the perimeter when Agler wanted to put more size on hot-shooting Sparks wing Noelle Quinn. That ability to handle different matchups will be needed in this series.

Phoenix can go with shooting and quickness in the frontcourt when Bonner or Penny Taylor swings to power forward alongside Tangela Smith at center, or play a more physical style with newcomer Braxton (acquired from Tulsa before the trade deadline) in the middle and Candice Dupree at power forward. Bonner and Braxton see the most time of any Mercury reserves, and Bonner plays starter's minutes at a variety of different positions.

"It's a different look when you have Kara and Dupree in at the same time," noted Willingham. "That's more of a traditional lineup from having Tangela, who can trail and hit threes, and usually a speedy four. I think the offense is so much more spread when Tangela is in because she has the ability to hit the outside shot."

When it comes to defending the Mercury, Willingham downplayed her notion that her experience in Phoenix will help her in this series.

"It's no secret what they want to do," she noted. "It's all there for you to see. Everyone knows what Phoenix loves to do, and that's run and impose their will and their pace on their opponent."

Jackson, however, has seen a benefit, saying, "She knows the ins and outs of their team and she definitely has a lot of input into what we do when we're playing Phoenix, which is good."

Whether her inside knowledge played a role or not, Willingham has been productive against her former team this season. In the first four head-to-head matchups (she left the last game against the Mercury early with a sprained ankle), Willingham averaged 7.5 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. That same kind of production in this series will go a long way toward helping the Storm have an advantage off the bench.