The consensus among those most familiar with the Seattle Storm was that their 78-71 victory against the Phoenix Mercury in their regular season opener last Saturday was markedly better than last year's first outing.
That's after a game last week in which star forward Lauren Jackson took only one shot in the first half, Tanisha Wright had a sub-par shooting performance, and Katie Smith playing in a Storm jersey for the first time; Jackson eventually woke up, but Smith and Wright combined to shoot 4-for-16 from the field.
So while the Storm played well enough to overwhelm an out-of-sync Mercury team in their first game, they are already making adjustments this week as Kevin Pelton of StormBasketball.com wrote yesterday. As those adjustments begin to take hold, this reigning WNBA championship team only stands to improve.
And as a team coached by a defensive stickler like Brian Agler, one might expect defense to be at least some part of that.
Not to suggest the Storm's defense was bad in their first outing - defense was probably a large part of what helped them extend their lead to as many as 19 points in the fourth quarter against the Mercury.
In addition to holding the the typically explosive Mercury offense to 71 points in Saturday's win, the Storm limited them to 21.1 percent shooting in the third quarter, controlled the boards for most of the game, and after allowing Mercury wing Penny Taylor to score nine points in the first quarter held her to only four in the entire second half.
Yet for all of that apparent defensive success, the Storm are also aware that there's room for defensive improvement: guard Tanisha Wright called the team's defense a "work in progress" and Jackson echoed that sentiment.
"I still think that we have a lot of stuff to learn and we will," said Jackson, when asked about the team's defensive performance.
While the Mercury's eventual fourth quarter rally was due in large part to the perfectly understandable inability to contain the likes of Mercury star Diana Taurasi, the Storm expect to finish games better as a championship contender. And part of finishing games will be playing better defense - although holding the Mercury without an offensive rebound is praiseworthy, they also allowed them to shoot 64.3 percent in the final period.
"I just think we have to get used to playing with each other," Agler said when asked about what it will take to reach peak form defensively this year. "It's sort of like the offense - there's a chemistry you have to have and we have to get on the same page. We're still learning a bit about how to defend."
With the Storm returning their entire starting lineup for the third consecutive year, learning how to defend is simply about getting re-acquainted after spending the WNBA off-season playing ball in various places around the world and simply getting back to doing something they build their identity around.
The Storm were the best defensive team in the Western Conference last year giving up a conference-low 95.44 points per 100 possessions. Jackson is a former WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, Wright is among the league best guard defenders, Camille Little is a versatile defender on a very balanced defensive team, and Cash often draws the Taurasis and Taylors of the world.
However, for newcomers, that learning curve can be steeper. Last year during training camp, a consistent theme among the younger players was that adjusting to Agler's defensive schemes was something different than they'd seen in either college or playing in Europe. Agler was careful not to imply that he thought his schemes were better than anything they'd seen before, but also acknowledged that his rotations require a level of communication, quickness, and timing that most people aren't accustomed to.
This year, Storm rookie Ify Ibekwe is going through a similar adjustment process, even entering the league as a versatile defender at Arizona who won 2011 Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year.
"In the beginning it was really hard," Ibekwe said after seeing her first game action on Saturday. "I'm playing with amazing girls and just listening to them and seeing what they've done, I'm learning day-by-day. So it has gotten better and it has gotten easier for me, but it's still, like, hard."
But Agler has also noted that the speed at which players pick up his schemes also depends on the individual. And veteran newcomer Katie Smith is one of those for whom the defensive adjustment is perhaps easier than most.
"Defense is the easy part," said Smith, who saw her first game action in a Storm uniform after missing their preseason games due to injury. "It's individual - if you don't know the schemes in the situations and what not you just kind of work with people. It doesn't always go according to plan but you just gotta work with it. But honestly, it's my first time really playing with these guys and I've been in and out of practice a bit.
"But first time, it's doable and we can clean up some stuff."
Of course, Smith is used to playing for teams that define themselves on the defensive end, which might make her adjustment a bit easier.
Smith comes to Seattle from the Washington Mystics, who were about as stingy a defensive team as the Storm in 2010 on their way to surprisingly finishing with the best record in the Eastern Conference. Prior to that, she had won two titles in her four years with the Detroit Shock, which were unsurprisingly among the best defensive teams in the league during that period as a team led by former Detroit Pistons "Bad Boy" Bill Laimbeer.
Although she's known as a scorer, her defense is part of the reason why success seems to follow her around the league.
"She plays great defense on Dee (Taurasi)," Mercury coach Corey Gaines said after the game. "She holds her a lot, but be that as it may, she’s a great defender."
Part of what makes Smith a great defender is her versatility. She guarded both Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor at different points on Saturday, but has also strong enough to guard small power forwards and lead ball handlers as well. At 37-years-old she may not be able to do the full range of things she once did, but as she suggests she's just one more person out there capable of enhancing the team's defensive chemistry.
Holding the Phoenix Mercury to 71 points is a feat on its own; doing it without much help from Lauren Jackson makes it both more impressive and a sign of even more to come. But the thought that this team could actually get better on both ends of the court after what everybody considered a more impressive opener than last season is almost hard to accept after their historic 2010 season.
But it all begins with their emphasis on continual improvement and intense defense.
"Overall, I thought it was good," Smith said. "Breakdowns a little here and there, schemes, when to switch, when not to. It's just kind of a work-in-progress. But I thought overall, people were locked in, boxing out, rebounding. So I think it was a good first test for us against a team who can really light it up and has a lot of scorers. But one down, 33 more to go and we're looking forward to Minnesota in the next one."