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Insider Preview - Storm vs. Chicago

HEAD-TO-HEAD
20-13 RECORD 14-19
W-3 STREAK L-4
4-1 LAST 5 1-4
71.4 PF 74.6
98.5 Off. Eff. 96.8
69.8 PA 75.0
96.4 Def. Eff. 97.4
31.9 RPG 34.0
.505 Reb % .500
72.4 Pace 76.5
18.1 Exp. Wins 15.8

Storm (20-13) vs. Chicago (14-19)
Sunday, Sept. 11, 6:00 p.m.
KeyArena
TV: KONG 6/16, NBA TV
Radio: 1090 AM
Live Access: Live Video
Buy Tickets:
Promotion: Honoring Local Heroes. Also, the first 5,000 fans get a Storm T-shirt. Arrive early - doors open at 4:30 p.m. and additional security will be in place as mandated by the WNBA.

Kevin Pelton, StormBasketball.com


Since the Seattle Storm has made the postseason eight consecutive years, claiming one of the Western Conference's top two seeds six times in that span and each of the last four seasons, sometimes it's easy to take for granted playing on after the 34 games of the regular season. The Chicago Sky offer a good reminder that playoff appearances are not a given.

The Sky was admitted to the WNBA as an expansion franchise in 2006. Six seasons later, Chicago is still seeking its first playoff appearance. It's not as if the Sky has been the league's Keystone Cops; the team has won as many as 16 games in a season. However, Chicago has always fallen short of cracking the East's top four teams.

This year looked like the Sky's best opportunity yet to claim an elusive spot in the postseason. One issue that has held Chicago back has been coaching instability. The Sky may have found a long-term solution by bringing Pokey Chatman back to the U.S. The former Louisiana State head coach had been serving in the same capacity with Sparta&K Moscow Region, coaching Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson, among others, before replacing Steven Key on the Chicago sidelines.

Chatman decided to build around stalwart Sylvia Fowles, whom she coached at LSU, with more size. The Sky swapped high-scoring guard Jia Perkins to the San Antonio Silver Stars in exchange for enigmatic 6-5 Michelle Snow. Heretofore strictly a center, Snow was plugged into the starting lineup alongside Fowles to give Chicago the league's tallest frontline. The pairing has anchored a stout Sky defense. At times, Chicago has led the league in points allowed per 100 possessions and opponents are shooting just 41.4 percent from the field against the Sky, which ranks second in the WNBA.

There's a tradeoff, however, at the offensive end. Snow doesn't space the floor like predecessor Cathrine Kraayeveld, who has split time at both forward positions this season. Chicago also starts Tamera Young, who is enjoying her best season as a pro but is not an outside shooter either (she's made one three all season).

The ability for opposing defenses makes it all the more remarkable that Fowles is putting together an MVP-caliber season. (Alas, the Sky's record makes it unlikely she'll get much serious consideration for the award.) Fowles is bidding to join Chamique Holdsclaw in 2002 as the only players in WNBA history to average 20 points and 10 rebounds for a season. Fowles probably isn't quite going to get there - she'd need 30 points tonight, as well as six rebounds - but she will still in all likelihood finish in the league's top three in both scoring and rebounding as well as leading the league in field-goal percentage and blocks.

As difficult as she is to stop, Fowles alone cannot carry an offense. That has left Chicago highly dependent on the play of young guards Epiphanny Prince and Kent native Courtney Vandersloot, the team's first-round picks the last two seasons. Trading Perkins gave the two fresh faces the chance to start together. Through the All-Star break, that worked brilliantly. Both players joined Fowles in the All-Star Game. By the end of August, both had lost their starting spots.

Looking at the statistics, Prince and Vandersloot ran out of gas. At the All-Star break, Vandersloot was shooting 46.2 percent from the field and Prince 42.1 percent. Since then, they've dipped to 31.5 percent and 32.6 percent, respectively. This is part of the growing process for two first-time starters in the WNBA, but it's been painful for the Sky just the same.

Chicago clung to playoff hopes through Aug. 28, standing 14-15, but a loss at New York on Aug. 30 about sealed the Sky's fate. Since being eliminated, Chicago has scuffled to the finish line, losing its last four games to drop to 14-19 on the season. The record understates how well the Sky has played. In terms of point differential, Chicago is much closer to a 16-17 team. Many worse groups have made the playoffs, but in this year's East it might take 20 wins to get in. So it goes for the Sky.

The Storm's position in the Western Conference bracket is set and home court advantage for the series with the Phoenix Mercury secured. However, there still might be something for the Storm to play for tonight - home court in a possible WNBA Finals matchup. Because of a sub-.500 record against the East, the second tie-breaker for interconference ties, the Storm would have to finish a win clear of any East team to have the edge. Indiana, at 21-12, could not be caught. But the Connecticut Sun (20-13) would be vulnerable with a loss to the 19-14 New York Liberty today. Meanwhile, if New York and Atlanta (also 19-14) win, the Storm would need a win to ensure home court against both of them.

Storm Head Coach Brian Agler must weigh all of that against the desire to get players - and especially Lauren Jackson - some extra rest going into Thursday's Game 1 against Phoenix.

"We talked with our team about it and if we feel like getting to 21 (wins) will help us down the road then my vote would be to try to play," Agler said Friday night. "I donít know what weíll do with Lauren. We want her ready for the playoffs. We want to put ourselves in the best position. Thatís my philosophy."

KEY MATCHUP
Even if Jackson does play, expect Ashley Robinson to see plenty of action after enjoying the best game of her career against Chicago at Allstate Arena. Robinson's size makes her one of the Storm's better matchups for Fowles. That's not to say Robinson, or anyone else, can shut down Fowles, who had 24 points in that game. Robinson made her work and also recorded the first double-double of her career, doing an excellent job of finishing around the basket.
LAST TIME

The Seattle Storm entered the fourth quarter July 19 in Chicago with the lead, but saw the Sky control the final minutes of a 78-69 victory at the Allstate Arena. The Storm trailed by just one with three minutes to play after a Sue Bird three-pointer, but would not hit another field goal the rest of the game as Chicago finished up on a 9-1 run. A pair of turnovers in the last two minutes doomed the Storm offense, while Fowles was too tough to stop at the other end of the floor.

The Storm missed Robinson late in the game after the center, getting her first start of the season to deal with the Sky's gigantic frontcourt, fouled out at the 3:03 mark. Before then, Robinson put together the best game of her WNBA career, scoring a personal-best 14 points on 6-of-10 shooting. Robinson also pulled down 10 rebounds for her first double-double ever, adding three blocks in 30 minutes of action. After a slow start, Bird kept the Storm in the game with her shooting. Bird's 26 points were a season high and tied the most by any Storm player this season. She hit three-pointers at the end of the second and third quarters to give the Storm the lead. However, Chicago got more production from the duo of Fowles (24 points, nine boards) and Prince (23 points), as well as 11 points and seven assists from rookie Vandersloot.

INJURIES

Storm - Center Lauren Jackson (recovery from hip surgery) is a game-time decision.

Chicago - Guard Shay Murphy (sprained left thumb) is out.

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