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Halfway Through, Storm Surging

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Kevin Pelton, storm.wnba.com | July 7, 2006
While the WNBA’s All-Star break will not take place until next week, the week-long break the Seattle Storm is currently in the midst of effectively serves to break up into halves the Storm’s 2006 season. One game past the exact midway point, the Storm sits 10-8 and tied for third place in the Western Conference.

However, the Storm goes into this break with its strongest run of the season so far - three straight wins and four in the last five games, moving the Storm a season-high two games above .500. Three of the four wins have come against opponents the Storm is battling for playoff positioning in the Western Conference. It could be a sign that the Storm has turned the corner and is ready to embark on a run reminiscent of last year’s six-game winning streak during late July - the difference between the Storm finishing the season .500 and the team’s actual finish with a franchise-record-tying 20 wins and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.


"Without a little adversity, without some of the games we did lose, I don’t think we would be playing like we are right now."
Ray Amati/NBAE/Getty
"I would say that we’ve been very up and down, inconsistent," says Storm Coach Anne Donovan.

"I think we’ve had a lot of ups and downs at times," echoes guard All-Star guard Sue Bird, "some games we should have won that we lost, and I know our record isn’t exactly where it could be. At the same time, it took those things for us to be where we are now. Without a little adversity, without some of the games we did lose, I don’t think we would be playing like we are right now."

As Bird alludes, one reason for the Storm to feel optimistic even prior to the recent winning streak was the way the team has suffered many of its losses. After stumbling in the early going against Houston and at Sacramento, the Storm has suffered just one more loss by double-figures (at Houston on June 23). Even in that game, the Storm led entering the fourth quarter. While the spate of close losses suffered by the Storm, primarily on the road, were frustrating, such games are less cause for concern than lopsided losses. As opposed to last year, when the Storm had been outscored by a point at the All-Star break, this year Seattle has outscored opponents by an average of 4.0 points per game.

A major factor in those losses was the minutes restriction All-Star forward Lauren Jackson is working under this season.

"I do feel like it's impacted us greatly, much more than I ever thought going into the season," Donovan says. "I think we're still struggling at the end of the game, in the fourth quarter when she needs rest, of being able to maintain the lead that she's helped create and not continually reinserting her in the lineup with five, six minutes left and we're down."

Jackson owns the Storm's best net plus-minus this season. With Jackson on the floor, the Storm has outscored opponents by 8.8 points per 40 minutes. When Jackson is resting, Seattle has been outscored by 5.9 points per 40 minutes. That's what made last Wednesday's win at Los Angeles with Jackson staying home because of sore shins - the first home loss dealt to the Sparks - so impressive for the Storm.

That win and the Storm's current three-game winning streak has coincided with rookie forward Barbara Turner's elevation to the starting lineup last Tuesday, replacing the slumping Iziane Castro Marques. Turner has offered some of the presence provided by Sheri Sam during the 2004 Championship season.

"We need energy out of that spot more than anything," says Donovan. "Sheri had that, to some degree. She had a swagger about her that Barbara brings, even as a rookie. She brings that confidence and that nastiness. Izi is just a sweet, nice girl. Coming off the bench, we're focused on not losing Izi and giving us a spark in a different kind of way than Barb's was."

While the fear was that Castro Marques would be less productive as a reserve, she has seemed energized since starting alongside Turner, who slid to power forward in place of Jackson, in Los Angeles. In her last two games, Castro Marques has combined for 14 points, her best two-game stretch since June 4-7. Turner has averaged 8.0 points, 2.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists in her three starts, but her biggest impact has, surprisingly, come at the defensive end.

Over the last three games, the Storm has held each of its opponents under their season-long Offensive Rating. The Seattle defense was particularly stingy against Sacramento, allowing 32.3% shooting. On average, the Storm has held its last three opponents to an Offensive Rating 13.1 points per 100 possessions below their season average. Given that defense was where the Storm needed to show improvement this season, it's been an impressive stretch.


"Sheri had a swagger about her that Barbara brings, even as a rookie. She brings that confidence and that nastiness."
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty
"I’m very confident with this team when it comes to defense," says Bird. "I think individually we’ve all gotten better; as a team, we’ve gotten better. Look at the scores the last couple of games. We’ve been holding a lot of really good teams that score a lot of points to 60 or so points. I think the more we play that good defense, the more confident we get."

A major key has been the addition of Turner and Shaunzinski Gortman. Along with holdover Tanisha Wright, Turner and Gortman have given the Storm three strong perimeter defenders. Gortman has shown her value in matchups with high scorers, notably Minnesota's Seimone Augustus. Augustus dropped 32 points on the Storm in Minnesota, but only six of them came against Gortman in the final 13 minutes of the game. Gortman held Augustus to three points in the fourth quarter of the Storm's win over Minnesota on Saturday.

"Gortman, Turner and Wright - to me, any two of those three in the game changes us defensively," says Donovan. "They change the tempo, they keep offenses uncomfortable, individual players uncomfortable. Systems that coaches are trying to run usually get disrupted when two of those three are in the game."

While Jackson has rolled along outside of her shin issues, it's been a more challenging season for Bird, the Storm's other superstar. Bird's scoring average (10.3 points per game) is a career low, though she is second in the league in both assists per game (5.4) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.3). After struggling with Donovan's mandate to be more aggressive, Bird seems to have found a comfort zone during the winning streak, scoring a season-high-tying 18 points in the win over Sacramento and handing out a career-high 14 assists on Saturday against Minnesota.

"I'm so proud of Sue," says Donovan. "She's struggled at different times this season. She came back knowing she had to be more aggressive, really focused on it, come out strong and then lost it, as she'll admit. Then she's tried to re-focus on it again. That struggle to always tap into a different side of her game, I'm very impressed with her intellect of knowing that. She might make the wrong decision - pass the ball too often or not take her shot - but right away, she's the first person to recognize it."

MORE MIDSEASON ANALYSIS
For a statistical perspective on the Storm's season thus far, check out Storm at Midseason By the Numbers. Next week's edition of StormCast will feature Kevin Pelton and David Locke breaking down the first half of the 2006 season.
Janell Burse, averaging a career-high 11.6 points per game (her 6.1 rebounds per game are also the best mark of her career), and Betty Lennox have picked up the slack for the Storm offensively. Lennox has been remarkably consistent, scoring double-figures in 11 straight games in June, and also exploded for 20 or more points four times in the month. Lennox's scoring average (14.0 ppg) is her best mark since she won Rookie of the Year in 2000, and her shooting efficiency (46.8% from the field, 52.8% True Shooting Percentage) are career highs.

"In the beginning, she struggled offensively, but she really focused on her defense, so she was helping us at that end of the floor until she could get her offense rolling," says Donovan. "Now, for many games, she's been rolling at both ends. I'm proud of her. Despite the inconsistencies that the Storm has had, I think Betty's been a very stable, steady player at both ends."

With the next four games at KeyArena, the Storm has an opportunity to build momentum and begin a second-half push. Given five of the West's seven teams are above .500, it's an important chance for the Storm to separate itself in the Western Conference playoff picture.