From the outside, it might seem that the Seattle Storm have little left to prove this season and might fall prey to complacency.
Storm on historic run as Chicago comes to town
With the top spot in the Western Conference secured, the Storm will stay at home to play the Chicago Sky on Friday at 7 p.m.
If the Storm wins, it will be its 13th straight win and will keep the team on pace for the record for wins in a season.
However, the veteran team led by a no-nonsense coach is focused on one thing: winning a championship.
Yet if there is one team that the Storm still have something to prove against, it's the Chicago Sky.
Early in the season, the Storm got a bit of a wake-up call from the Sky, suffering their first loss of the season in Chicago.
Storm | Storm players glad they got early wake-up call in Chicago | Seattle Times Newspaper
True, the Storm has trailed teams before and even lost to the Sky twice in 2009. But the 84-75 WNBA road defeat May 27 was unique.
And the players witnessed it again via video to prepare for the rematch.
More than any other opponent, Chicago had Seattle scrambling. The game appeared to whiz past the Storm and before the starters knew it, Agler put all five on the bench, letting the reserves use a 21-7 run in the fourth quarter to whittle the deficit to five with 26.6 seconds remaining.
The obvious reason for their struggle against the Sky was the presence of All-Star center and USA Basketball centerpiece Sylvia Fowles.
STORM: Insider Preview - Storm vs. Chicago
"They're a tough matchup for us," Storm Head Coach Brian Agler said after yesterday's practice, adding that he had his theories as to why the Storm had struggled with the Sky but didn't wish to make them public before the game.
One reason is obvious - Sylvia Fowles, one of the toughest matchups in the league. Fowles is especially problematic for the Storm when Lauren Jackson is off the floor because the Storm has only one other player who can come even close to matching Fowles' size, reserve Ashley Robinson. Agler also cited Chicago's physical play and preference to work in the paint. Even guards Jia Perkins and Epiphanny Prince are better on the drive.
However, matching up with the Sky will require more than merely stopping one player -- Fowles' dominance inside is what triggers the Sky's potent inside-outside game meaning that Fowles is as dangerous as a means to establish the team's three point attack as she is an inside scorer.
Storm vs. Sky Preview: Why stopping the Sky takes more than focusing on Fowles - Swish Appeal
"They do a great job of playing inside-out," said Agler when asked about Fowles setting up shooters on the perimeter. "It's a good balance between the two: Sylvia scoring, Sylvia getting touches. The ball's going through her."
The impact of the ball going through Fowles is probably still best illustrated by their first 8 games of the season: their 0-4 start stood in stark contrast to their 4-0 win streak. During their 4-0 win streak, the team showed dramatic improvement (nearly 14%) from the three point line and turned the ball over less, making them a much more efficient team. There is certainly a chicken and egg debate to be had about it, but Fowles was no small part of that success during that early season winning streak -- she shot nearly 70% from the field, 77% from the free throw line, and she cut her turnover percentage in half. As Cash alluded to, when she's playing like that there's very little that a defense can do to contain her.
While the spotlight will certainly be on the battle between Fowles and Jackson, it will take an effort from both the interior and perimeter defense of the Storm to remain undefeated at home. But win or lose, it's an opportunity for Seattle basketball fans to see two of the best post players in the world go head-to-head: Jackson's face up game versus Fowles back-to-the-basket game.