‘Yes We Can’: Storm Confident Without Jackson
With his twin messages of hope and change, presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama has inspired many Americans so far in his bid for the White House. Yet Obama's campaign theme found an unlikely role as motivator for Seattle Storm forward Swin Cash during this week's Democratic National Convention in Denver.
"I was watching Michelle Obama and her speech and it was so inspirational," Cash said. "I kept thinking about his whole thing of 'Yes we can.' I was like, 'That's our team - yes we can. We can do whatever.' If we all believe in that and have that mindset, I think we can come out here and really surprise some people."
"I know Lauren is a tremendous player and she's definitely going to be missed," said point guard Sue Bird, "but we still have a lot of talent on this team. With eight games left, we're still in position to obviously make the playoffs and hopefully finish high in the West and see what happens from there."
The Storm's confidence begins with the team's performance without Jackson in the last five games prior to the Olympic break, when she left early to join the Australian National Team for training camp and a pair of warmup games. Despite playing four of those five games on the road and playing at times without two other starters, center Yolanda Griffith and guard Sheryl Swoopes, the Storm went 3-2. In fact, the Storm's pair of wins on the four-game road trip matched the team's total in eight road games with Jackson in the lineup.
"Had it been different and we had not played any games without Lauren," said Swoopes, "coming back after the break and having to go and play these last games without her would probably be very tough for us to deal with. Because we did go 3-2 without her and have played five games without her, I think it does a lot for our confidence."
"I know that the period of time that we played without Lauren will not hurt us through this situation," added Head Coach Brian Agler, who has noted that counting practices during the Olympic break the Storm has really been without Jackson for the last six weeks. "I think that we're a team that's still evolving. We keep dealing with this adversity. We've found ways to fight through it and make the best of it, and I expect that to continue."
Even without Jackson, the Storm has no shortage of veteran leadership. Bird and newcomers Cash, Griffith and Swoopes have all served as leaders on championship squads. That experience has allowed them to help put Jackson's injury into perspective as an opportunity for the remainder of the team.
"We've had a series of team meetings and things like that," Agler said. "I know that Yolanda and Sheryl both have really been vocal in encouraging - and not necessarily pointing one person out - but they've really challenged the rest of the group to step forward and presented it from the standpoint of, 'This is your opportunity now. This is the time for you to make a name for yourself and a statement for our team.' I'm hoping they'll take on that challenge."
"I can say this: This team has a lot of confidence, and it comes from veteran leadership," said Cash. "You can see how even our younger players - Katie Gearlds, Ashley (Robinson) and Tanisha (Wright) - everyone's jelling together and playing solid. That, for me, is nothing but a positive. We'll see what happens in games now. Will that carry over from practice to the game?"
During the previous five games without Jackson, the Storm pitched in and replaced her production by committee. While forward Camille Little saw the biggest increase in her production after stepping into the starting lineup for Jackson, seven of the team's nine rotation players improved their scoring averages. On any given night, different players took on a heavy load, with four players leading the team in scoring in a game in that span. In Bird, Cash, Griffith and Swoopes, the Storm has four players who have been a go-to scorer for their team at some point in their career.
While Jackson attempts to return from her surgery, scheduled for Thursday, as quickly as possible and rejoin the team during the playoffs, the approach from the Storm is to plan as if Jackson will not be available the rest of the way.
"I hope that we come out and we play and we make the playoffs and Lauren's surgery goes well and she's able to come back and play," said Swoopes. "Realistically, even after she has the surgery, how effective is she going to be? We've got to approach the rest of the season without her and if we make the playoffs and we get her back, that's just going to be an added bonus."
The immediate goal is securing a playoff spot. The 3-2 stretch helped the Storm finish the first half at 17-9 and in second place in the Western Conference. The Storm's magic number for clinching a playoff spot is a combination of six wins and losses by the large pack of teams fighting to make the postseason in the Western Conference. That makes head-to-head matchups against those teams, like tomorrow's return to action against Houston (7:00 p.m., 1150 AM KKNW, ) especially crucial. While the Storm plays five of its last eight games on the road, the schedule is not especially arduous. According to WNBA.com, the combined .412 winning percentage of the last eight teams on the Storm's schedule is the lowest for any WNBA team.
The Storm is confident. Now it's a matter of translating that confidence into success, as was the case without Jackson before the Olympic break.
"I think we are definitely a very good team with Lauren; we're a very good team without her," said Swoopes. "We've just got to go out and not even think about it and just play. I think a lot of teams are probably counting us out now that she's out. It's a good thing to be the underdog. We've just got to go out and take one game at a time, play with a lot of confidence and know we can get the job done."