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Inside The W: Playoffs or Bust for Storm, Coach of the Year Race, Lynx Proving Points

It’s an eight-game WNBA season for the Seattle Storm.

Since the moment Gary Kloppenburg took charge of an up-and-down season, the Storm have boiled their 2017-18 campaign down to the final stretch run. Now it’s playoffs or bust.

“We are a really competitive group and we want to win,” said Storm guard Jewell Loyd. “We want to make the playoffs. Right now, for us, it’s eight-games. We aren’t going to care what happened before this. It’s eight games or bust.”

And so far, it’s a success. The Storm reeled off four straight wins before falling Wednesday night against Atlanta in a dramatic game with ten lead changes.

Kloppenburg, who assumed the interim coaching duties on August 10, said he has kept things simple.

“We made it a short season. I just wanted to see if we could come in, be more aggressive defensively, try to generate some easy baskets,” Kloppenburg said. “We need to cut down on turnovers, but if we could do both of those things, I thought it could help us.”

There simply wasn’t enough practice time to make wholesale changes and Kloppenburg didn’t think they were necessary.

“It’s more about mindset and attitude,” said Kloppenburg, the veteran WNBA coach who first entered the league coaching in Seattle in 2000. He’s coached as an assistant in Phoenix, Indiana and Los Angeles and was a head coach in Tulsa in 2012-13.

Seattle has plenty of talent on its roster with Loyd, Breanna Stewart, Crystal Langhorne and Sue Bird, who needs six assists to become the WNBA’s all-time assist leader. Many people considered Seattle a contender in the Western Conference after last year’s playoff appearance and the sophomore season of Stewart as a springboard. But instead, Seattle struggled.

The Storm foundered both on the road and with putting together back-to-back wins finally figured out how to do both. Just in time.

Seattle is well-positioned for a playoff spot, sitting in the No. 7 position, tied with Dallas. There are three games left on the slate, a Sunday home game against Phoenix and two road games against Washington and Chicago.

“We have tried to find ways to win and we are staying positive, not getting so rattled,” Loyd said. “We have figured out how to take a deep breath. That comes from our vets and our experience. We have refocused and that has definitely helped.”

As has getting a few wins under their belts after a run of six losses in seven games.

“This is such a coachable team. They really want to be a good team, they want to work hard, they are receptive. There are no egos here,” Kloppenburg said. “We know we had to be more fierce to get over the hump.”

The Storm know they can score. On Sunday, they collected a franchise-record 34 assists in a win over Chicago. Loyd and Stewart are two of the most dependable scorers in the league.

Defensively, there is much more work to do.

“We needed to be the team to throw the first punch,” Loyd said. “We have a lot more energy.”

Loyd said she will let the coaches evaluate what went wrong for much of this season, putting the Storm in the position of having to rally late to make a playoff run.

“That’s what exit meetings are for,” Loyd said. “Individually, the most important thing is to look at yourself, how you are getting better and what we can improve on as a team for next year. But that’s for after the season. Right now, we are focused on this eight-game stretch. Once we are in the playoffs, anything is possible. The rest of it is above my pay grade. Our only job is to produce.”

Kloppenburg acknowledged that much of this season has been a struggle for the Storm, but there is an opportunity to write a happy ending.

“Obviously, you don’t want things to happen the way they did and things don’t always go in the direction you anticipate,” Kloppenburg said. “Coming in here, with eight games to go, we didn’t have a lot to change. We just needed to have an aggressive mindset and prepare for every game like it’s a playoff situation.”

With WNBA Awards ballots out, the Coach of the Year award is going to be one of the more intriguing races.

Connecticut’s Curt Miller has to be considered the front-runner considering that he has taken a young Sun team, which hasn’t been to the WNBA playoffs since 2012, from a 1-4 start to a postseason berth. He reshaped a roster that saw Chiney Ogwumike and Morgan Tuck miss all or most of the season with injuries and helped turn Jonquel Jones, Jasmine Thomas and Alyssa Thomas into a star trio. They are the highest-scoring team in the WNBA and for the first time in five years, they have 20 wins.

Minnesota’s Cheryl Reeve manages to keep the Lynx at the top of the WNBA standings and hungry for more. And it’s hard to argue that Minnesota’s remarkable consistency has much to do with the high expectations and wisdom of Reeve.

Los Angeles coach Brian Agler, meanwhile, has the Sparks playing its best basketball at the end of the season and looking primed to defend a title.

Reeve and Agler are experienced WNBA coaches making the most out of elite talent. They are the best in the league at what they do.

But it’s hard to build an argument against Miller. And so we won’t. He has my vote.

The Lynx might have missed the chance to finish the first 30-win season in league history, but Minnesota – without Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson – look intent on proving they are entirely playoff-ready.

Last week, the Lynx pulled off the largest margin of victory in league history, trouncing Indiana 111-52. And on Tuesday night, Minnesota defeated Phoenix 105-69 to complete a season sweep of the Lynx.

In between, Minnesota lost to the hot New York Liberty. But there is little doubt that Minnesota, who should get both Whalen and Brunson back in time for the meat of the playoffs, is still the favorite to win it all.

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith will have a weekly column on throughout the 2017 season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.