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Storm Facing Sparks, Not History

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Kevin Pelton, stormbasketball.com | September 15, 2009
As the Seattle Storm prepares to tip off its Western Conference Semifinals series against the Los Angeles Sparks tomorrow at the STAPLES Center (7:00 p.m., ESPN2, 1150-AM KKNW), history apparently looms large. Four straight years, the Storm has been eliminated from the playoffs in the first round. Twice in that span, the L.A. Sparks have been on the other end of knocking the Storm out. And, just as last year, the Storm will be without injured star Lauren Jackson.

"We're going to have a series of detractors looking in our direction," says Storm Head Coach Brian Agler. "That doesn't matter. What does matter is how we play on the floor. Control what we can control, and we can control quite a bit."


"What does matter is how we play on the floor. Control what we can control, and we can control quite a bit."
D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty Images
What the Storm cannot control, at least right now, is the past. Yet it is hard to find many other common denominators in the Storm's first-round exits. Twice, the team has had home-court advantage; twice it has had to play on the road. Twice, the Storm has won Game 1; twice it has lost. The roster has largely turned over since 2005, and the Storm has changed coaches in that span.

Sue Bird thinks too much has changed to draw from previous matchups, even against the Sparks.

"L.A. is a very successful franchise with championships and the players they've had come through there," she said. "There's a reason why they're always in the playoffs. But each year is different. This year we just got lined up with them again, and that's the way it goes sometimes. They're a much different team, as are we. So you don't take too much from it."

Bird did learn something from last year's series, but a more general maxim that could have been applied to any opponent - don't fall behind early. The Storm trailed by 10 after one quarter and 17 at the half in Game 1 at L.A., quickly dashing hopes of stealing a game on the road. The year before, at KeyArena, Phoenix led by 12 at halftime of a Game 1 win.

A good start is even more crucial given the Storm's limited margin for error without Jackson, who is out indefinitely and will not play in this series because of a stress fracture in her lower back. The absence of Jackson certainly makes things more difficult for the Storm, but the team has demonstrated the ability to win without her the last two seasons.

This year, the Storm won four out of the five games Jackson sat out before Bird joined her on the sidelines for the season's final three games. Still, Jackson's absence is a big reason most experts are picking L.A. to win the series.

"I'm sure nobody's picking us, which is fine," said Bird. "We've been in this situation before and we're still going to go out there and play. I don't know that L.A.'s on the other side thinking this series is going to be easy. Obviously, losing a player like Lauren with her talent and her capabilities, we really depend on our defense. We're going to make this a scrappy, ugly at times, game. But that's to our advantage."

Indeed, the Storm's defense has been stingy in games without Jackson, allowing fewer than 90 points per 100 possessions - a mark that would lead the WNBA over the full season (as it was, the Storm finished second). That's not to suggest that the Storm is better defensively without Jackson, the 2007 Defensive Player of the Year. However, the situation has demanded that the Storm raise its collective level of focus at the defensive end.

The Sparks will test that intensity with a star-studded, veteran lineup. Having added free agents Betty Lennox and Tina Thompson to the MVP duo of Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker and Olympian DeLisha Milton-Jones, Los Angeles entered the season as the favorite to win the championship for the first time since 2002. Parker's absence after giving birth, a knee injury suffered by Leslie and a road-heavy early schedule conspired to leave the Sparks 6-11 at the season's midway point. When the team got healthy and the schedule evened out, nobody was surprised to see Los Angeles win 12 of its final 17 games to go from out of the playoffs to third in the Western Conference.

"I think L.A.'s sort of a tough matchup for everybody in a lot of ways because they've got great experience," Agler said. "They've got numerous Olympians on their team; I think their whole starting five is Olympians if Kristi Harrower starts. They're a good team. What we've got to do is find a way to put a gameplan together to be competitive and do some good things and put ourselves in position to have some success."

An interesting aspect of the series is that the teams will be able to take relatively little from the regular-season series. The last time the two teams squared off on Aug. 6, Leslie was in her second game back in the lineup and the Sparks were just trying to figure out how to incorporate everyone and make use of a post-heavy group of stars.

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"They play a unique, interesting lineup," said Bird. "They have players who are natural fours playing at the two and three spot, but because they can shoot, it still spreads the defense out. It's tough. They're going to switch a lot of screens, pound the boards, post up when they do have their mismatches. But at the same time, like every other team in this league, when you have strengths, there's weaknesses on the other side of that.

"We're going to play to our strengths and exploit their weaknesses. It's going to be a lot easier said than done, but I think that's going to be our gameplan. I don't know. We'll see."

Five months ago, the NBA's Houston Rockets were in a similar position at the start of their series against the Portland Trail Blazers. Like the Storm, the Rockets had a history of opening-round losses - six straight over a period of more than a decade, and four in the last five years. Houston too was playing without a star, guard Tracy McGrady. Yet Rockets Head Coach Rick Adelman was resolute, noting that it was a different team taking the floor than had lost in years past.

"Our story is being written right now," Adelman said before the start of a series Houston would win in six games.

So too is that of the 2009 Seattle Storm.