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Saturday, July 20, 2019

Surviving Stormy Seas: Despite Jackson’s Long Absence, Seattle Is Likely Second Seed Out of West

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Photo Caption: In 2010, with a healthy Lauren Jackson (center, holding trophy) anchoring the team, were all but unbeatable, cruising to a WNBA record-tying 28-6 regular-season record, including a perfect 17-0 at home, and sweeping all three of their playoff opponents on their way to their second WNBA Championship. In the process, Jackson was named the league’s MVP, both for the regular season (her third such honor) and of the Finals. Predicted by many to repeat this season, the Storm have instead struggled since Jackson was forced to undergo surgery to repair a hip injury. Still, thanks to the contributions of others, the Storm have clinched a Western Conference playoff berth and, with Jackson back in the lineup, are poised to defend their title.

Photo Credit: Courtesy NBAE/Getty Images/Jesse D. Garrabrant

By Ganelle Swehla

The reigning WNBA champion Seattle Storm have had their work cut out for them this season. A year after losing just six games and taking the national championship with a 7-0 romp through the WNBA Playoffs, they were the preseason favorite of most analysts to go back-to-back this year. That is, until late June, when the high-flying Storm were brought back to earth by a familiar problem.

The monkey wrench thrown into Seattle’s plans? On June 21, superstar Lauren Jackson was injured, likely while tangling with fellow Aussie Liz Cambage beneath the hoop in Seattle’s 82-77 win at Tulsa. As the team celebrating last year’s championship at the White House, Coach Brian Agler announced that a subsequent MRI showed that the labrum in her left hip had been torn in half and away from the bone, forcing Jackson to undergo surgery and extended rehabilitation. Whether she would return at all this season was very much in doubt.

For Storm fans who are already dreading the 2012 season, much of which Jackson will dedicate to Australia’s 2012 Olympic basketball quest in London, watching the team struggle without Jackson in 2011 has been a bit unnerving. Still, despite the challenges imposed by Jackson’s extended absence, the Storm soldiered on. A reshaped roster fought well enough through July and most of August, that now, since Jackson’s return on August 20, Seattle has already punched its ticket to defend its crown in this year’s playoffs. The Storm currently stand in second place in the West heading into the final week of the season, and though they currently hold only a half-game edge over third-place Phoenix, they are now playing with a momentum that they are likely to finish as the second seed in the West.

That’s a somewhat surprising outcome under the circumstances. When the Storm lost in Chicago to drop to 7-7 in mid-July, it was reasonable to think that merely getting into the Western Conference playoffs with a number four seed would be a worthy goal. However, a steadily better brand of Seattle ball over the past six weeks—combined with Danielle Adams’ season-altering injury in San Antonio and a midseason slump from the Mercury—has the Storm in very good position as the regular-season finish line approaches. Seattle has the much easier path to a second-place finish. They are well ahead (at the moment, three games ahead) of fourth-place San Antonio, which is still duking it out with Los Angeles for the West’s fourth playoff berth. As for Phoenix, which at half a game back is considerably closer, unless the Mercury can win in Seattle on September 9, the Storm will own the head-to-head season series and gain both the tiebreaker between the two teams and the inside track to the number two seed in the Western Conference playoffs. The Storm don’t have to play Minnesota in September, while the Merc must close with the Lynx (who have already locked up the conference’s top spot) after making their trip to the Pacific Northwest.

The two seed means more than just bragging rights for the Storm. It would give the Storm home-court advantage in the first round against a foe (most likely, Phoenix) they have dominated in recent years. In year’s past, Seattle’s nemesis in the WNBA Playoffs has been Los Angeles, but the Sparks will be fortunate if a combination of a winning streak down the stretch, plus a death spiral by San Antonio, gets them into this year’s postseason at all. Even if the return of Parker allows L.A. to make a miraculous comeback, a two seed for Seattle means the two teams wouldn’t meet before the Western Conference Finals.

If, as seems more likely, San Antonio takes the last spot, they present a much lesser threat to the Storm’s hopes of a repeat. Even with Jackson MIA, Seattle has emerged the victor in three of the two teams’ meetings this season, and the one loss was a close one.

Phoenix’s high-scoring offense presents a more potent threat. But with Jackson back in the lineup, Phoenix’s lack of a powerful low-post presence would give the Storm a leg up on the Mercury.  If Seattle can continue to play the kind of basketball it is comfortable with—specifically, using its defense to jump start its transition game, allowing the Storm to run the floor and attack the basket—the second seed in the West playoffs will give Seattle a slight but clear edge against Phoenix. With a healthy Lauren Jackson back in action, the Storm have a chance—a very good one, in fact—to challenge again for the WNBA title.

Life Without Jackson: A Familiar Story for the Storm

In 2010, Seattle seemed nearly impervious to its opponents, a reality made possible by a lack of prolonged injuries to key players. But that hasn’t always been the case in the Pacific Northwest. In many ways, this has been—at times—a reprise of past seasons when Jackson’s health was constantly an issue. Most prominently, in 2009, the Storm put up a very good fight without their anchor in the paint, but that year, the size and length of the Los Angeles Sparks proved to be too much in the first round of that year’s Western Conference playoffs. Glimpses of that painful event have been in evidence in 2011, but this year, the Sparks themselves are struggling, and with Jackson now back on the floor and operating at close to her pre-injury peak, the Storm own a great chance to once again become everyone’s match-up nightmare in late September.

Despite these promising prospects, the picture hasn’t been particularly rosy one during Seattle’s long slog through this summer, however. Despite the return of its championship starting lineup at the beginning of the season, Seattle has often struggled to score early in games. To some degree, that’s a residual trait from last year’s team, which displayed a remarkable ability to rally at the half and wipe out appreciable deficits.

The difference is that this year, especially during the weeks when Jackson was sidelined, the Storm were less consistent. The team displayed offensive potency on some game nights, but not at their 2010 levels, particularly on the road. And that trend toward belated offensive intensity is not entirely a function of Jackson’s absence, either. Just this Friday, and even with Jackson back in action, the Storm had to overcome a 23-17 first-quarter deficit, then stave off a third quarter rally, just to nose past Tulsa, the worst team in the league, by a 78-72 margin.

Star Power to Spare

Throughout the season, the greatness of this team has remained evident, but without Jackson, it only flickered; it has not been a steady burn. Still, the Storm had plenty of star power on hand, most notably, the combo of Swin Cash and Sue Bird, who maintained Seattle’s status as formidable opponents.

For Cash, keeping Seattle in contention in the absence of Jackson meant taking on more assignments in the post; at times this year, Cash has had to play at the four spot instead of her more typical (at least during her pro career) role at the wing.

Having played in the paint during her college days at UConn, Cash says she was comfortable crashing the boards and employing a more physical style.

“You have to get the rim and be aggressive, and whenever I am doing that I think it is best for the team,” says Cash.

Cash is still spilling the tank on defense and adds considerable valuable to the team. However, the shift to the post has not come without some costs. Though, at 13.4 points per game, Cash managed to maintain close to her 2010 scoring averaging (13.8) and has actually narrowly improved her rebounding (6.5 rebounds per game this season, as compared to 6.0 last year), Cash has become less efficient, shooting just 39.5 percent from the field this year as opposed to 43.5 percent in 2010 and an even worse 28.3 percent from the arc, versus an impressive 40.7 percent last season. Agler has got to be hoping that with Jackson’s return enabling a move back to the wing, Cash’s shooting slump will be corrected before the playoffs arrive.

Predictably, the burden of carrying the team on offense fell largely to Bird, who is averaging 14.6 points per games so far this season, nearly two points above her career average. Seeing the landscape as clearly as anyone else on the team, Bird knew that she couldn’t just be a ball distributor with Jackson out of the lineup. Bird still owns the best crunch-time jump shot in the WNBA—it was apparent in her game-winning three-pointer against Connecticut on August 5—and has used that devastating weapon to elevate her offensive game this season. Bird, in tandem with Cash, has given Seattle enough star power to survive to this point in the season.

Photo Caption: In Jackson’s absence, Sue Bird has been forced to replace her “pass first” point guard’s mentality with the goal of point production. In the process, she has replaced Jackson as the Storm’s leading scorer at 14.6 points per game.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Jeff Faddis

The Bench Steps Up

Meanwhile, a number of role players elevated their games, helping to maintain Seattle’s presence on both ends of the floor. Among them, perhaps the biggest “dark horse” to move to the forefront was perpetual bench warmer Ashley Robinson. While Jackson was cheering from the bench, Storm head coach Brian Agler gave extended minutes to Robinson, arguably the team’s - and the league’s - most-improved player this season.

“I think she’s playing with a lot more confidence, more assertive offensively and defensively,” Agler said of Robinson. “Her teammates have more confidence in her.”

In her eight-season career in the WNBA, Robinson has played in 224 games but started in just 35, playing an average of 11.7 minutes. In the past two years as a member of the Storm, she did not make much of a mark. She was a decent defender with shot-altering length, but she could get overpowered by elite post players. Moreover, Robinson was a complete liability at the offensive end of the floor. She wasn’t strong with the ball and plainly lacked a low-post game. She was able to defend, but she could not stay on the court in tight games because the Storm needed someone who could contribute at both ends. Indeed, until Agler called upon her this year to help the team ride out the time without Jackson, Robinson had yet to have a season in which she averaged more points than fouls.

Even now, Ashley Robinson is no Lauren Jackson. In a season vastly superior to any other in her career to date, she has averaged just four points and 4.1 rebounds per game, and she is still a foul magnet, averaging 2.71 personals in just 17.5 minutes per game on the floor.

Still, anyone who has monitored Robinson in 2011 has had to marvel at the extent of her transformation. With Jackson out, Robinson took on the burden of providing not just defense but also authoritative rebounding and a credible assortment of low-post moves that result in point production. She is playing with poise and aggression. Her low-post defense seems stronger than ever, as Robinson, averaging more than twice her minutes of last season, has shown the power and resilience to withstand the physical rigors of low-post play while using her wingspan to block shots (1.1 per game).

Photo Caption: Until this season, Ashley Robinson’s main contribution to the Storm has been cheering the team on from the bench, where she is shown above (second from left in black warm-ups) during last year’s Western Conference Finals against the Phoenix Mercury. She played minimal minutes and while providing some help on the boards, in her eight seasons in the WNBA she had never had a season in which she averaged more points than fouls. She is still far from a prolific scorer this season at just four points per game, but has vastly improved her low-post game while filling in for the injured Jackson.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Jeff Faddis©

It’s at the offensive end where Robinson has truly emerged. The confused player of seasons past has been replaced by a confident, strong and determined force in the paint. Robinson occasionally puts the ball on the deck and drives to the basket with a clear sense of purpose. She regularly attacks the offensive glass and has made herself into a player defenses must legitimately account for. In a loss at Chicago on July 19, Robinson, though matched up against Sylvia Fowles, arguably the league’s best center this season, carried—yes, carried—the Storm for stretches of time. When Robinson fouled out late in the fourth quarter, she had posted a career-high 14 points, making it a double-double with 10 boards.  That’s a sign of how far the veteran has come.

“I wanted everybody to see I did work hard,” Robinson said. “I think it’s been questioned how important basketball is to me. I don’t play this because it’s just so much fun. I do it because I love it and it’s one of the most important things in my life. I want to have success at it. I’ve just been working hard and trying to stay positive and knowing it’s going to manifest itself on the court.”

“I think this is the best she’s played since I’ve been here,” added Agler.

Robinson has taken on a clear role on the court and she knows it:

“My job is going to bring energy, rebound, block shots,” Robinson said. “If I can work on my offense, get those easy lay-ups and hit a few shots, that’s a huge plus.” That’s exactly what Robinson has been doing this season.

With Jackson back in the line-up, Robinson, who saw 12 starts this season, will return to her role coming off the bench. But if she can maintain the level of improvement she demonstrated in Jackson’s absence, the Storm will have a reliable replacement to spell their their superstar.

Getting There: June—The Champs Show Their Vulnerability

June started with a closer-than-the-box-score-suggests, 78-71, victory over the Phoenix in the Storm’s home opener. Close on the heels of that narrow win came an 81-74 loss to the Minnesota Lynx on June 9. The home defeat snapped Seattle’s 18-game regular-season winning streak in Key Arena. However, that’s one of just two games the Storm have dropped in their building all season.

More than just proving that the Storm are beatable in Key Arena, that loss to the Lynx presaged what would become a trend for Seattle heading into the rest of June: A pattern of playing catch-up.

Thanks to a supremely sluggish start that had typified the Seattle offense since its 71-66 loss to Los Angeles in a preseason game in late May, the Storm found themselves in a dire situation, down, 50-24, to Minnesota at the half. It’s a pattern that continues to plague Seattle throughout the season: For example, in a turnover-ridden game in Atlanta on August 8, the Storm scored just 14 points in the first 15 minutes, en route to a 70-53 loss to the defending Eastern Conference champions they had so adeptly “handled” in last year’s WNBA Finals.

The loss of Jackson in late June only exacerbated the problem. Not only did the Storm lose Jackson’s own scoring, rebounding, defense and playmaking capabilities, they also lost offensive contributions from their bench, as role players rotated into the starting lineup to fill the gap. One factor in Seattle’s previous ability to recover from slow starts with quick scoring later in the came had been the impact of bench players such as Le’Coe Willingham. But Willingham moved into a starting role immediately following the loss of Jackson, drastically reducing the Storm’s depth and bench scoring, a deficit that has been most sorely felt as fouls and fatigue take their predictable toll in the fourth quarter.

Photo Caption: While no one can really replace a Lauren Jackson, Le’Coe Willingham is another Storm bench player who has upped her production, starting eight games in Jackson’s absence. However, the need to fill that gap left the Storm with a shortened bench for much of the season.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Jeff Faddis

The defending champs finished their first month of 2011 regular-season play a solid, but uninspiring, 4-2.

Getting There: July—One Step Forward, One Step Back

July saw a repeat of many of the same up-and-down struggles Seattle had experienced in June. The once dominating Storm was winning—indeed, they were winning as many or more than they were losing—but they still couldn’t seem to string more than two victories together. A “one step forward, one step back” theme became commonplace for a team in search of the right formula without Jackson.

Despite their winning record, the Storm found themselves working much harder to win games for most of this year. It’s a fact of life when a consistently excellent player—one who also happens to be the team’s best interior defender - is unavailable. 

“We have a winning record and we’ve been fighting it hard with injuries and a road trip, inconsistent play, but you have to be persistent. You can’t give in to it; you just have to find ways to get better when you can’t practice,” Agler said in the weeks before Jackson’s return.

After dropping three straight on the road in mid-July against San Antonio, Minnesota and Chicago to fall to 7-7, the Storm returned home in late July to give their fans a glimpse of just how brilliant this team could still be. The Storm’s rebounding and defense answered the bell, as Seattle thumped the Silver Stars to the tune of 73-55. True, the victory was marred by an injury to San Antonio’s Danielle Adams, who, to that point, had been the best rookie in the league this season. Still, as a team, the Storm outclassed the Silver Stars from tip to final horn. Moreover, though Adams played much of the first half, she was never a factor before her injury.

“That’s the kind of basketball we want to play, I don’t know any way else to put it: That’s the kind of basketball we want to play—we need to play—to be successful,” said Storm guard Tanisha Wright following the lopsided 18-point runaway.

Key Arena has long been viewed as one of the league’s toughest venues for visitors, and the Storm had clearly been able to put together a very different game at home from the narrow loss very different they had suffered in San Antonio just a week earlier. Still, as Cash acknowledged, while home victories are a must for this team, if they were to defend their title, the next step had to be to string together some road victories, especially against other conference contenders.

“We’ve always played well at home; for us [we] need to go on the road and figure out how to win games, and that’s what we’ll do,” said Cash.

Finding ways to get better is exactly what the Storm learned to do as the season wore on, beginning with Katie Smith.

Acquired in an off-season trade with Washington, Smith had held out the promise of the outside scoring presence Storm fans had hoped. In the early going, however, the player viewed by many as the best pure shooter in the history of the WNBA, disappointed. Coming off a minor Achilles injury, Smith fought hard to regain her rhythm, which was finally starting to click again in July. Fans got a glimpse of Smith’s talent on July 9 in a 99-80 victory over the L.A. Sparks, in which Smith was seven-of-16 from the field with what was then a season-high of 13 points. 

By month’s end, the Storm were holding their own, but nothing more. They finished July 6-6 for the month, in the plus column overall thanks only to June’s start.

Getting There: August—She’s Back!

August saw more of same, as the Storm alternated home wins with road losses. Indeed, though the Storm were still hanging on to fourth place in the West thanks to the uninspiring performance of the Los Angeles Sparks, their 79-81 loss to Phoenix on August 16 marked the nadir of the 2011 season for a Seattle team that had won nine straight against the Mercury, including a sweep in the 2010 Western Conference Finals. The Phoenix loss, though a narrow one, also meant for the first time in the 2011 season, Seattle was in the red for the month—3-4 to that point in August.

If it had been at all unclear to anyone up to that point, the bottom line was unmistakable by August: Jackson’s return was absolutely necessary if the Storm were to have any hope of defending their title against the confident Minnesota Lynx, who had been steadily crafting a poor (wo)man’s version of the tour de force Seattle had enjoyed a year ago.

Things were headed nowhere but downhill for the Storm until, on August 20, Lauren Jackson returned to the Seattle line-up and proceeded to make a statement. Jackson may not yet have been in top form, but before fouling out after just under 22 minutes on the floor, she posted a game-high 20-point, to which she added seven rebounds (also a game-high, tied with teammate Cash), a steal and a block, while leading her team to a 63-62 home win over the New York Liberty.

Since then, the Storm have steadily made up the ground they had lost in Jackson’s absence, winning six out of their last seven contests. Heading into September, the biggest sign of encouragement for the Storm is – unsurprisingly – has been Jackson’s steadily improving in health. Though her minutes have been limited—fewer than 30 minutes per game and typically substantially fewer, including one outing, a home rout of Tulsa in which she played just 15 minutes—Jackson has not failed to log double digits in any game since she’s been back.

Yet though Jackson’s array of offensive weapons is impressive, it’s her length on the glass that has really been lifting the Storm. Several times in her absence—including losses at San Antonio on July 14, at Chicago on July 19, and even in a win over Connecticut on August 5 – the Storm were beaten on the offensive glass, allowing crunch-time rebounds that led to big buckets for opposing teams.

With Number 15 back on the floor (plus an ill-timed foul by Kristia Toliver in the game’s waning seconds and two clutch free throws from Sue Bird), Seattle was able to hold off the Candace Parker-led L.A. Sparks in a 65-63 slugfest at Key Arena on August 28. Without its Australian superstar, Seattle would have had a tough time containing the size of both Parker and Tina Thompson at the same time. With Jackson on the court, the Storm persevered and grabbed a win that kept them even with Phoenix in the race for the West’s two seed.

Jackson’s return not only gives the Storm the five on the floor they need, it will also keep Willlingham and Robinson fresh for the playoff push. Seattle’s legs won’t be quite so tired; its depth won’t be so severely tested late in close games. Those factors play into the Storm’s ability to rebound against younger, deeper, healthier teams. In short, Jackson’s return means the Storm have a team that can go toe-to-toe with Minnesota in what could be a blockbuster Western Conference Finals series.


Originally published Sat, September 03, 2011

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