NEW YORK – Sue Bird sees all.
Across 4,700 square feet of hardwood, 10 players and one orange ball dart between two baskets. But when the ball is in Bird’s hands, she’s in control – calling out plays, manipulating defenders with her eyes, leading teammates to open baskets.
“A lot of passers see offense, even better passers see defense,” Seattle Storm head coach Dan Hughes said. “She sees both.”
On Monday, the WNBA’s All-Time Assist Leader dished seven more assists to help her Seattle Storm defeat the New York Liberty, 96-80, at Madison Square Garden.
Bird is in her 16th WNBA season but is still very much at the top of her game as a passer. She has 199 assists this season and ranks second in the league in assists per game with 7.4, behind only Courtney Vandersloot. Bird is also closing in on Ticha Penicheiro’s single-season record of 236 assists, which was set in 2000.
The guard from Syosset, New York, has dished out a season-high 11 assists five different times this season. Also, from June 24 to July 6, she put up a six-game stretch during which she tallied nine or more assists in each game. Her teammates appreciate her passing ability and recognize her greatness.
“Anytime I have the opportunity to step on the court with Sue, it’s something you really take advantage of,” Breanna Stewart said. “She’s the best in the game at what she does. I think that we are lucky to be playing with her.”
Passing is something that has always come naturally to Bird on the basketball court. When asked what’s changed in her passing style from her first WNBA season until now, she said not much. Instead, she’s always been pass-first and team-first.
“That’s just kind of been my basketball personality – to see the open player, to try to make the pass, to try to create situations where I get defenses to have to move and adjust to me, and then I can find my teammates,” Bird said. “I think that’s always been my nature.”
Hughes, in his first-year as head coach of the Storm, is appreciative of the skill set of his star point guard. He also highlighted Bird’s vision and precision specifically as two of her best attributes as a passer.
“Great passers see offense and defense, but she sees the space and the position that the ball is going to be caught, and she figures in who she’s throwing it to,” Hughes said.
“Now that’s a lot of stuff. But that’s the most impressive thing to me is that she puts them in a position to succeed upon reception and she has an eye towards where their sweet spot is.”
For a spot-up shooter, that might mean lasering the ball right into the shooting pocket. For Storm center Natasha Howard, that might mean leading her just a little bit to create an easy bucket on a fastbreak.
That attention to detail, coupled with Bird’s calming presence and leadership on the court, shows in the box score. Coming into Monday’s game, Seattle had played 697.5 minutes with Bird on the floor and 432.5 minutes with her on the bench. The Storm are almost 15 points per 40 minutes better when Bird plays (92.4 team points per 40 minutes) than when she sits (77.5). That net plus minus was the fifth-best in the league through Sunday.
Bird also relishes in her passing prowess tricking down into her teammates’ games. With 3:57 left in the first quarter against the Liberty on Monday, Jewell Loyd swung the ball to Stewart at the top of the key. As the pass was in the air, Howard cut towards the basket and Stewart found her for the easy layup. Bird watched it all unfold from the top of the arc and nodded her head in approval after the basket was made, appreciating her teammates as they found the open look.
“I think when you play that way, it can be contagious,” Bird said. “When you play that way, it’s extremely hard to guard – if a team has to guard all five players and all five players are willing to make the next play, it’s just really hard. We just have so many offensive threats in this locker room, the more we do that, the tougher we are to beat.“
The Storm find themselves atop the WNBA standings with a record of 22-7 and with a spot in the playoffs clinched. They’ll need Bird to be at the top of her game for the stretch run of the season and to help avenge last year’s first-round loss to Phoenix in the WNBA Playoffs.
Luckily for Seattle, Bird still has more than a couple more passes up her sleeve.
“It’s fun. It’s like a chess game,” Bird said. “And I think the older you get, the more you know how to play that game. And you know how to manipulate scenarios to where you can be successful.”
“When I call plays, 90% of the time, there’s a thought behind it, there’s a reason why I’m doing it. And I’m hoping for one or two thing, a couple reads. And when it works out, there’s really no better feeling.”