Local fans have always made Sue Bird the focal point when the Seattle Storm guard returns to the state of Connecticut, where she won two national championships with UConn and was the collegiate player of the year.
The Connecticut Sun have a different reason to key on Bird.
With two-time league MVP Lauren Jackson out, Bird and the Storm will try to win for the 11th time in 13 games Sunday when they visit the Sun, who are looking for their sixth straight victory.
Bird was one of the most celebrated players in the University of Connecticut's storied basketball history, but she's enjoyed an outstanding pro career across the country in Seattle. The four-time All-Star has teamed with Jackson to form one of the league's best inside-out duos since 2002, and the pair led the Storm (18-9) to a WNBA title in 2004, when they beat the Sun 2-1 in the best-of-three championship series.
Jackson, however, had surgery to remove a bone spur in her ankle Thursday after leading her native Australia to a silver medal in the Olympics. The recovery time is expected to be four-to-six weeks, meaning the league's third-leading scorer at 20.2 points per game could miss the rest of the regular season. Jackson feels she'll be available shortly after she returns to Seattle on Sept. 8.
Either way, the scoring load now falls on Bird, who's averaging 13.8 points - the most since her rookie season - and 5.4 assists, tying her for the league lead with Connecticut's Lindsay Whalen.
Bird showed off her offensive skills Thursday in the Storm's first game after the month-long Olympic break, scoring 22 points to lead Seattle to a 66-49 victory over Houston.
"I'll just take what comes my way," Bird said. "I didn't play any different tonight than I have all season. When the shots are there, you have to take them. I'll just try to stay aggressive."
The Storm improved to 4-1 this season when Bird scores at least 20 points.
Bird hasn't fared well when she plays in Connecticut, however. She's averaging 7.5 points on 27.9 percent shooting in her last four road games against the Sun, with Seattle losing each time.
Connecticut (18-10) has won both of its games since the Olympic break, and on Friday became the first team to clinch a playoff berth. Tamika Whitmore scored 27 points and Asjha Jones added 24 as the Sun routed Atlanta 98-72 for their fifth straight victory.
"We just didn't want to lose any momentum of our winning streak,'' coach Mike Thibault said. "But we picked off where we left off. We're recharged now and ready to finish this season.''
The win may have been costly, however. Connecticut lost Whalen (14.4 ppg, 5.4 assists per game) to a right ankle sprain with five minutes remaining, leaving her status for Sunday's game uncertain.
Whalen had 13 points and Jones 15 in the Sun's 74-67 win at Seattle on June 16. That is the Storm's lone home loss in 15 games this season.
Connecticut has won five straight against Seattle overall.