Sue Bird has already given Seattle Storm fans a couple of game-winning plays on offense this season.
Tonight she added to her MVP credentials with a game-saving defensive play to secure a 63-62 win against the New York Liberty at KeyArena.
Just like their first meeting at the Prudential Center, the final play of the game began with Essence Carson being tasked with containing Bird. And she actually got the job done again.
Carson stepped in front of a sideline inbounds pass intended for Bird and raced the other way for a game-winning fast break layup attempt. Bird stayed with her nearly step for step and just as Carson was about to go up for the shot, Bird knocked it out of her hand out of bounds as the clock expired.
"I'm not going to lie - if she had gone up with it, I probably would have fouled and tried to make her earn it on the free throw line as opposed to getting a layup," said Bird. "But once I saw the ball, I just went for it and knocked it out."
There was definitely some debate on the court about whether Bird fouled Carson on the decisive play, but Liberty guard Cappie Pondexter focused on the late-game mistakes that set up that play instead of the final outcome - the Liberty gave up unanswered 3-pointers to Bird and Katie Smith within a minute of each other that allowed the Storm to take the lead.
"Both teams are defensive oriented for the most part and at the end of the day it's about executing and who can get the last shot, who can execute down the stretch," said Pondexter. "We made two defensive mistakes in the last minute and gave them the lead."
Nevertheless, the pair of defensive plays was a fitting end to a game that featured outstanding team defense by both teams, with neither team shooting over 40 percent despite considerable star power, including the return of star center Lauren Jackson for the Storm.
"Super. Amazing. No one but a great athlete can do that," said Liberty coach John Whisenant of Jackson's return to action. "I was afraid that she wouldn't show the rust because she and Sue (Bird) and Swin (Cash) and the core group have played several years together and last year winning the championship. But it's still tough to come back and not lose rhythm."
Although the Storm coaching staff limited Jackson to just under 22 minutes, she finished with a game-high 20 points in addition to tying forward Swin Cash with a game-high seven rebounds. It was by far the best game of her limited season, as she set a season-high for scoring and tied her season-high in rebounding.
"Any time you're coming back from an injury, the hardest part is your wind, your conditioning, and just kind of getting back into the swing of things," said Bird. "I think for her it's a step in the right direction. Hopefully as the season winds down and into the playoffs, she'll just get better and better."
Most significant for a team that has struggled to get to the free throw line at times this season - and particularly in their first meeting with the Liberty - Jackson added 5-for-5 shooting from the free throw line as part of a strong 16-for-18 free throw shooting effort for the Storm.
But she's still looking at areas of improvement.
"Defensively, I'm still one step slow, and that's something we're going to have to work on as a team, because there's nothing I can do about it," said Jackson. "It's just a matter of getting used to it again and not protecting it as much as I do. I think it's a really good start and I'm pretty happy with that start."
From a team standpoint, the most impressive aspect of the Storm's performance was that they kept their turnovers to a minimum - despite three turnovers in the final five minutes, the Storm only committed 14 team turnovers for the game. Their primary ball handlers of Bird, Katie Smtih, and Tanisha Wright combined for 10 assists and five turnovers while Bird finished with four assists to only one turnover in addition to 14 points and her big play at the end.
Forward Plenette Pierson led the Liberty with 15 points while Carson and Cappie Pondexter added 12 apiece in addition to a game-high six assists by Pondexter.
It was neither a great win nor necessarily a must-win game for the Storm, but in the context of a season of erratic play it was an encouraging performance on the night of Lauren Jackson's return from injury with the playoffs not far away.
"Take a step back here and remember last year," said Storm coach Brian Agler. "The majority of our games that we won, we were behind in the fourth quarter. We've had a lot of games like this. It's nice to come out on the winning side. We've had a couple of games like this lately that we didn't. We're going to be playing a lot more games like this. We just have to be ready. I was proud of the kind of mental toughness we showed defensively down the stretch."