2010 Playoffs: Seattle Storm

Sep 11 2010 7:28PM

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Bird's Recounts Big Comeback
By Scott Stanchak, WNBA.com

The odds were against the Seattle Storm in the closing minutes of Game Two of the Western Conference Finals. In fact, with a 12-point lead in the fourth quarter, the Phoenix Mercury front office staff had every right to start looking at travel arrangements for Game Three.

But then there was a basket. Then another. After all was said and done, Seattle scored 12 points and held the Mercury scoreless to tie the game at 88 with 2.8 seconds remaining.

"Even down 12 with three minutes to go, we never stop," guard Sue Bird said after Saturday's practice at KeyArena. "Some teams look and say 'game's over, alright.' We never stop. We play until the end."

Bird's 3-pointer with 2.8 seconds on the clock put the Storm up 91-88. Phoenix failed to use the little time they had to tie it up, which gave the Storm a sweep and their second trip ever to the WNBA Finals.

The comeback is nothing new for the Storm. It's something they've had to do several, if not many, times this season. Bird feels those other instances no doubt prepared them for their experience in Phoenix.

"We've dug some holes in some games and it started from day one, game one,� Bird said. �It's something that for us as a team, looking at that last Phoenix game, we had seen ourselves do that time and time again."

Bird is averaging 11.8 points and playoff-career highs in assists (8.5) and rebounds (4.8) this postseason. Her 37.3 minutes a night is also more than the eight other trips she's made in her career.

Storm head coach Brian Agler cites Bird's leadership as one of the main reasons attributed to his team's ability to come from behind.

"She's calling more offense than even the coaches are for our team this season," Agler said. "She's really being a great leader on the floor."

Bird will be calling more of those plays beginning Sunday afternoon as the Storm take on the Atlanta Dream in Game One of the WNBA Finals. The first two games are at KeyArena in Seattle, before the series shifts to Atlanta on Thursday night.

"Our home court advantage is huge for us. It's been huge for us since I've been here. We've always done well at home," Bird said. "Then you get into the playoffs, and more specifically the Finals, and anything can happen."

Seattle was the league�s best team at home in 2010, registering a 17-0 record on their own floor. The Storm are also undefeated in the playoffs, having won their two best-of-three series in two games each. Two of those wins were at home, extending their full-season streak to 19 straight at KeyArena. Bird is well aware that the playoffs are a different beast at home.

"While we do get a lot of energy in this building, there's something about the fans, the crowd, their support that gets us going,� the four-time WNBA All-Star said. �We still have to be ready. It's not going to happen just because we're at home."

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Abrosimova Wants a Championship
By Frank Della Femina, WNBA.com

Seattle�s Svetlana Abrosimova has one thing in mind: winning a championship. The eight-year veteran spent seven seasons with the Minnesota Lynx between 2000 and 2007, never advancing past the Western Conference Semifinals in any of those campaigns. After a short stint with the Connecticut Sun in 2008, Abrosimova took the remainder of the season and the 2009 summer off to collect her thoughts.

�I felt like sometimes when you�re trying too hard � and obviously my main goal was winning a championship � every year was kind of a struggle,� she said. �I felt like maybe taking a stop, [taking] a break and just thinking if I really want to play every summer and have year-round basketball in my life.�

The down time wasn�t without basketball though, as Abrosimova continued to play back home in her native St. Petersburg, Russia. But even during her time away from the league, a time in which she also contemplated retirement, the itch was still there. She wanted a WNBA championship. On April 22, Abrosimova signed with the Storm and returned to the WNBA.

�It was a new team but I�ve played with these players,� she said. �I knew this coach, so they were familiar to me and it was comfortable so everything was working out.�

Storm head coach Brian Agler coached the Lynx for three seasons from 1999 to 2001 and watched Abrosimova enter the league as a rookie out of UConn where she had just come off playing alongside her current teammates Sue Bird and Swin Cash. Reuniting in Seattle gave Abrosimova an opportunity to win a championship while also taking on a more reserved role.

�I knew that they had Swin Cash and a couple of other players who were just playing really good together,� she said. �It was never my goal to get in the starting lineup. I just wanted to help them.�

And help them she did. Throughout the Storm�s 28-6 regular season run, Abrosimova led the Seattle bench with 20.2 minutes, 7.6 points and 3.1 rebounds per game, posing as the proverbial �spark� every team needs. Now, as she and the Storm find themselves just four wins away from securing a championship, Abrosimova is prepared to do whatever it takes.

�I like my role,� she said. �I�m not the type of player who sits on the bench thinking, �I hope somebody misses the shot so I can get in.� Sometimes I don�t want to get in because they�re playing so well together. And other times, when I see something is not going well or they�re just not being aggressive enough or it's not working out, I want to be there.�

�I want to create that spark.�

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Facing a Familiar Foe
By Mark Bodenrader, WNBA.com

It was just last year when Le'coe Willingham was celebrating her first WNBA title. As the starting forward on the Phoenix Mercury, she helped the team to a memorable Finals victory over the Indiana Fever. But after signing with Seattle in the offseason, now Willingham finds herself trying to prevent the Mercury from duplicating the feat with the Western Conference Finals set to commence Thursday.

�I don�t really look at it as going against my old team or anything like that," said Willingham. "We won a championship last year and everything we did last year was very special, but at the same time we�ve moved on and Phoenix is a different team. I�m just not looking at it as my old team. I�m looking at it as it�s just the team that we have to play in the Western Conference Finals, and I�m with Seattle now and we have a goal to accomplish and hopefully it�ll be a good series."

Willingham spent only two seasons with Phoenix, although she started all but seven of the 68 games she played for them (79 if you include postseason) and had her two most successful WNBA campaigns in terms of statistics. Meanwhile, the move to Seattle has meant a move to the bench with Lauren Jackson, Camille Little and Swin Cash ahead of her on the frontcourt depth chart. That has meant a decrease in Willingham's production, but team-wise the regular season concluded with Seattle 13 games ahead of the Mercury in the standings, so in theory her odds to repeat are better than the Mercury's.

Some may say regular season records are meaningless right now. Even Willingham admits that Phoenix is better than their 15-19 record suggests. But winning the West resulted in home-court advantage for Seattle, which hasn't lost a game in its building all year, and every edge right now is crucial.

And by virtue of having Willingham, someone who knows Phoenix's system well, the Storm might have another advantage.

"I know the tendencies and [Phoenix coach Corey Gaines�] philosophy," said Willingham. "I don�t think Corey really hides what his philosophy is. He�s going to let you know pretty much that it�s going to be an up-tempo game and they want to put up a lot of shots and hopefully stay even or control the boards so they can get out and run and control the transition. The philosophy is hopefully you can wear teams down by the fourth quarter in those last five minutes and to keep the push on.�

Even though Seattle is known more as the defensive-minded team in this series, they can keep up with the Mercury. They have stars. They can score. You don't go 28-6 without being able to put up some points.

�I don�t want to say you can�t get caught up going up and down in a frenzied pace. We definitely run also," said Willingham. "We pick and choose our times to run. At times we want to push the pace and then at other times we need to slow the ball down and execute and make them play a full 24 seconds on defense, a whole possession instead of putting up that quick shot and allowing them to get long rebounds and get out in the running game because they�re very, very good at running.�

On the flip side, while the Mercury's calling card is their offense, they can play defense when necessary. You don't win two titles in three years without making a few stops.

�Basically the advantage is, and this is similar to what it was like when I was in Phoenix playing in the Finals against Indiana, it�s who can impose the will and style of play on the other team," said Willingham. "Phoenix, they play defense also. They�re very tall when they go with that tall lineup. So they can go very big on the court and switch everything.�

Maybe we should forget points-per-game or points-allowed-per-game. The stat that could give you a better sense of what to expect going into the Western Conference Finals is 5-0. That was Seattle's record against Phoenix during the regular season, with three of those victories coming on the road.

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Little, Seattle Not Satisfied
By Mark Bodenrader, WNBA.com

In Game 1 of their Western Conference Semifinals series against Los Angeles, the Storm held the Sparks to just 66 points, 41 percent shooting and 25 rebounds.

Yet Seattle center Camille Littles thinks they can do better.

�Defensively I think there�s some things that we can still work on," said Little. "As a defensive team, we�re going to have to make some changes and adjustments. Both teams are going to watch some film and make some changes so we have to be prepared for that. And just continue to make stops when we need them and be aggressive.�

But that's just what it is with this Storm team this year; they are holding themselves to a higher standard, no longer satisfied with just being competitive and making the playoffs. Their goal is to be the best team in the league from start to finish.

On Wednesday, we received further evidence that the Storm posted the best record in the WNBA this season not just because they have a healthy Lauren Jackson, but because they are perhaps the most balanced team.

Jackson was held in check a bit in the opener. While she finisihed with 17 points, she had only six at the break, yet Seattle still held a 10-point edge on L.A. at that point.

�Our team is well-rounded enough so whoever�s open we can get them the ball, whoever has the advantage at that time," said Little. "So if they�re locking her down we�re just making sure she has open people to pass the ball to and then we can knock down shots and make the extra pass to the players who have the opportunity to take the good shot.�

The high scorer for Seattle was not Jackson, but Swin Cash, who scored a game-high 20. Little contributed 11, as did rookie Jana Vesela in 12 minutes off the bench. Sue Bird's 12 assists marked her highest total in a game this season.

As strong as the team effort was in Game 1, this series is by no means over and Little and Storm know that.

�I think definitely there will be more intensity on their part," said Little regarding the Game 2 matchup in L.A. on Saturday. "It�s their home court. They�re a veteran team. They�re going to be getting fired up and nobody wants to lose. So I think it�s going to be a good game and exciting to go out there.�

And it's not the like the Sparks weren't without positives coming out of Game 1. Tina Thompson, the Western Conference's Player of the Month for August, showed she's going to be a factor in this series, collecting 16 points, six boards and three blocks on Wednesday. Marie Ferdinand-Harris (18 points) and Kristi Toliver (16 points, five assists) stepped up their play. And you have to expect veterans Ticha Penicheiro and DeLisha Milton-Jones will have an impact on the Game 2 outcome.

�The thing about their team is they�re a great jump-shooting team," said Little. "And they�ve shown that. Noelle Quinn knocks down shots, Marie knocks down shots. Toliver has great range. So obviously you have to keep your focus on Tina but at the same time be able to close out and contest the shots of the other shooters as well.�

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Seattle Fresh and Focused
By Mark Bodenrader, WNBA.com

For the first time in his tenure as head coach of the Seattle Storm, Brian Agler isn't dealing with injury anxiety heading into the playoffs.

In each of the prior two seasons, the team's best player, Lauren Jackson, suffered a season-ending injury just before the playoffs arrived. In 2008, Seattle also had to deal with Swin Cash playing through back pain.

And in each of the past two seasons, the Storm have been eliminated in the opening round by the Los Angeles Sparks.

This year? The Storm went a league-best 28-6. They clinched a playoff berth on July 22, secured the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference on July 27, then wrapped up the top overall seed in the entire postseason on August 11.

In other words, Agler finally had ample opportunity to rest his stars and prevent them from getting injured or worn down at the worst possible time.

But he didn't necessarily follow through on that, worrying this time around that rust might play a factor in holding them back in the playoffs.

�No matter what happens, when you�re in a situation like we were and you�re playing some games that don�t really impact playoff situations, you have to roll the dice," said Agler. "The last couple years we�ve had one or two games at the end of the year that didn�t really mean anything and we rest people. We didn�t feel like we were quite as fresh going into the playoffs doing it that way.�

Strategies aside, the Storm haven't played a meaningful game in a while, so perhaps the bigger issue is whether the team has lost that mojo that made it so dominant earlier in the season.

Agler doesn't see that.

�Our team�s been pretty focused," said Agler. "We�ve had a couple lapses obviously, our game in Tulsa was a lapse, and we�ve had some games where we didn�t play some of our key people big minutes and I think we took a loss or two in that kind of way, but our team�s got good leadership with Sue and Lauren and Swin. They�ve played together for a period of time and I feel like we have an opportunity to play real well.�

Seattle's opponent, Los Angeles, also has its share of seasoned WNBA veterans though, which makes it anything but a typical four seed. Despite being without Candace Parker, Los Angeles is plenty capable of beating anyone and has already shown it possesses grit just by making the postseason.

�We respect all of our opponents," said Agler. "They�ve got a very seasoned team there with Ticha (Penicheiro), Tina (Thompson) and DeLisha (Milton-Jones), Marie (Ferdinand-Harris); those players. Especially those first three. They played on championship teams and they�ve been here before. They understand what they have to do to win games."

Mercifully for Agler and the Storm, the playoffs are finally here and they're ready to make their run.

Instead of anxiety, however, Seattle is now dealing with the pressure of being the team to beat after posting by far the best regular season record in the WNBA. There's also the matter of getting Seattle past the the opening round for the first time since 2004.

�Everybody gets there different ways, but at this point in the year everything�s even," said Agler. "Everybody�s record is zero-zero.�

Series Info
Game 1: SEA 79, ATL 77: Box | Recap | Photos | Video
Game 2: SEA 87, ATL 84: Box | Recap | Photos | Video
Game 3: SEA 87, ATL 84: Box | Recap | Photos | Video

Gm 1: SEA 82, PHX 74
Box | Recap | Photos
Gm 2: SEA 91, PHX 88
Box | Recap | Photos

Gm 1: SEA 79, LAS 66
Box | Recap | Photos
Gm 2: SEA 81, LAS 66
Box | Recap | Photos

Gm 1: PHX 106, SAN 93
Box | Recap | Photos
Gm 2: PHX 92, SAN 73
Box | Recap | Photos

Gm 1: ATL 81, NYL 75
Box | Recap | Photos
Gm 2: ATL 105, NYL 93
Box | Recap | Photos

Gm 1: ATL 95 WAS 90
Box | Recap | Photos
Gm 2: ATL 101 WAS 77
Box | Recap | Photos

Gm 1: NYL 85, IND 73
Box | Recap | Photos
Gm 2: IND 75, NYL 67
Box | Recap | Photos
Gm 3: NYL 77, IND 74
Box | Recap | Photos