Storm’s Superstars Playing at High Level
When Lauren Jackson won the WNBA's Western Conference Player of the Week award on Monday, her toughest competition might have come from her own team. While Jackson was phenomenal in the Storm's wins over the Minnesota Lynx and the Phoenix Mercury, averaging 25.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.0 steals and 3.0 blocks, Sue Bird was outstanding in her own right. Her assists - 19 of them in the two games - set up many of Jackson's buckets, and she added 21 points in the win at Phoenix. Bird did it all without committing a single turnover.
Now that they play together around the year both with the Storm and for Spartak Moscow Region in Russia, Bird and Jackson know each other's games inside and out. Yet even they are impressed with how the other has played.
"She's just playing," said Bird, returning the compliment. "She's just out there having a good time and really playing her game. I know from three she's shooting really well, higher than her career averages, which is great. But more than anything, she's just doing her thing. She's playing loose and knocking down shots."
The way Jackson is playing stands somewhat in contrast to her play for Spartak. Coming back from ankle surgery last August, Jackson's numbers were somewhat down in comparison with the impossibly high standard she has set in the past.
"Right now, she's just playing, she's loose, she's confident," explained Bird. "I don't think she ever got into that overseas. Coming back from injury can be hard. I think she never really got into her own little groove. Toward the end of the year, she got much, much better."
So far, Jackson is the WNBA's leading scorer at 23.4 points per game, and she's done it with remarkable efficiency. Jackson is making 57.3 percent of her shots from the field and a sizzling 58.1 percent beyond the arc. She's also been metronomic in her consistency, scoring at least 20 points in all seven Storm games. According to WNBA.com (via the Elias Sports Bureau), she's just the third player in league history to start the season with a streak of 20-point efforts that long, joining former Houston Comets Cynthia Cooper (1999, nine games) and Sheryl Swoopes (2000, eight games).
The way Jackson has played suggests Storm Head Coach Brian Agler might have been on to something when he argued before the season that Jackson still had more room to grow even after twice being named the WNBA's MVP.
"I still think the best is ahead," said Agler. "But I also know she's human too. I see things that I know that she can improve on and how she can get other opportunities and things like that, but she's playing marvelous basketball. We don't have any complaints, but it's our job - my job in particular - to try to help her be the best she can become. That also is helping us become better."
Bird was frustrated by turning the ball over a combined 12 times in the first two games of the Storm's three-game road trip earlier this month, and made taking care of the basketball a heightened priority starting with the road finale on June 14 at Chicago. The results have been remarkable, with Bird playing turnover-free her last three games over 96 minutes while leading a Storm offense that has been extremely efficient.
During the fourth quarter against Phoenix, the Storm was able to take advantage of its two superstars by putting them in the pick-and-roll with each other. That left the Mercury with undesirable options - either let Bird get a lane to the basket or leave Jackson free on the perimeter.
"I think Phoenix didn't really know what to do toward the end," observed Bird. "Tangela Smith, Nicole Ohlde, their post players - they're guarding Lauren Jackson. As basketball players, you're taught to stop the ball. Yet you're guarding Lauren Jackson. I think you saw a lot of hesitancy. That's how I was able to get a lot of my shots, because they didn't want to leave her. The times they did, she made them pay."
It was Bird's aggressiveness - knocking down pullup jumpers on the first two possessions of the final period and following them up with a three-pointer, all of them created by the pick-and-roll - that made defense so difficult for the Mercury.
"The pick-and-roll's a huge threat, especially when Sue's scoring like that," said Jackson. "She was scoring at will. In the fourth quarter, she was just unstoppable. I think that was a bit of a backbreaker for them. She's the best point guard in the league and we're just lucky we have her on our team."