The Seattle Storm's 26-point halftime deficit against the visiting Minnesota Lynx on June 9 still stands out as both one of the most surprising moments of the 2011 and a rather jarring example of increasing parity as the league celebrates its 15th season in existence.
The Lynx raced out to a 22-0 lead in the first meeting between the two teams, holding the Storm without a point through the first seven minutes of play. In a stunning display of dominance through 20 minutes at KeyArena, the Lynx seemed to have no interest in a peaceful shift in power in assuming the mantle of top team in the WNBA.
Put simply, nobody is supposed to walk into KeyArena and beat the Storm, much less have the nerve to blow them out in front of their exuberant fans - the Storm hadn't lost a regular season or playoff game at home since losing to the Sparks in the first round in 2009. They have had by far the best home court advantage in the league since 2003. Returning all five of their starters for the third year in a row, many considered the Storm the favorite to earn the franchise's third WNBA title.
Of course, that the Lynx were likely to challenge for the Western Conference title this season was never in doubt - nobody can argue with the talent of a team with four 2011 All-Stars, number one pick Maya Moore, and two other lottery picks stuck near the end of the rotation by default. Yet even with all that depth depth and the addition of rookie phenom Maya Moore, nobody could imagine them treating the Storm that way in their own house.
Whether due to star center Lauren Jackson's off-season injury or puzzling shooting woes for the Storm - or some perfect storm of both - the Storm looked to have lost something during the WNBA's long off-season.
"We had a rough start obviously in the first half, but we like our chances going into July and August knowing that we have home games and we're going to try and go on the road and get better and close out games," Storm forward Swin Cash told reporters after the 2011 WNBA All-Star game last weekend. "We've had opportunities on the road but we haven't been able to close them out and that's been our biggest thing. Now the focus shifts to Seattle and to getting into the playoffs and then making a run."
When the Storm meet the Lynx in Minneapolis tomorrow night, it will mark both the midpoint of the Storm's 34-game regular season schedule and the final meeting between the two teams. After such a disappointing first seven minutes of this series, the opportunity to leave this series behind them at two games apiece could be seen as fortunate.
As perhaps anyone might have expected after watching their first meeting, the Lynx have risen to first place in the Western Conference and have the best record in the WNBA at 11-4. Meanwhile, after stumbling out of the gate, the Storm are 9-7 after winning two straight to ensure that they'll remain above .500 halfway through their season. Although they currently sit in fourth place in the Western Conference, beating the surprising San Antonio Silver Stars and Phoenix Mercury might be an encouraging sign that the team is on its way up.
Tomorrow night's game against the Lynx isn't necessarily any more a must-win than beating the Mercury and Silver Stars, who sat just ahead of the Storm at second and third place respectively entering last weekend's All-Star break. However, with this series and the Storm's first half coming to an end, it is in fact a perfect moment to review the Storm's first half - in more ways than one, the narrative of the first three games of this series closely reflects the narrative of the Storm's season as a whole, which each game embodying both defining struggles and successes in 2011.
Game 1: Lynx 81, Storm 74 (Seattle, WA) - It's Sue Bird's Year
The first half of the Storm's first meeting with the Lynx was forgettable, to say the least.
They struggled to hit shots for most of the game and the bench only came up with four points (perhaps ironically given the outcome, all in the first half) in a game where the starters seemed to need all the help they could get.
And then Storm point guard Sue Bird was there to help you forget as quickly as possible.
After 2011 WNBA All-Star MVP Swin Cash helped catalyze a shift in momentum in the third quarter, Bird set aside her role as facilitator and took over with a 16-point fourth quarter, including 4-for-7 3-point shooting that stands out as more significant now than it did then given the Storm's extended struggles from beyond the arc.
Bird wasn't the only reason the Storm got back into that game, but her fourth quarter performance against the Lynx did foreshadow two enduring themes of the Storm's first half. First, with Jackson struggling while in the lineup and the Storm bench with the lowest scoring output in the WNBA, Bird has carried the team to a ridiculous extent at times and is a strong candidate for her first league MVP award this season. But second, in doing so, Bird has been far less of a "pure point guard".
SB Nation's Tom Ziller recently wrote a piece about point guard purity in the NBA, describing why impure point guards aren't necessarily a bad thing. Long story short, applying Ziller's purity scale to the WNBA, Sue Bird is a far less pure point guard this year after being among the purest distributors in the league last season. A large part of that is that she's averaging a career-high 15.5 points per game while her 5.3 assists per game are just a tad under her career average.
Whether that has been good or bad for the Storm this year might be subject to debate - on the one hand, Bird is showing that she's good enough to carry a playoff team, which is something that's easy to overlook when she's busy setting up Cash and Jackson. On the other hand, the Storm have arguably been better with more balanced efforts.
Game 2: Storm 65, Lynx 55 (Seattle, WA) - Coping with the loss of Jackson
About two weeks after that initial debacle against the Lynx, the Storm reinforced the notion that the 26-point halftime deficit the first time around was something of an aberration.
This time it was the Storm jumping out to an early lead, building an early 16-4 advantage.
After seemingly struggling to make anything through their first five games of the season, the Storm shot acceptably in first and fourth quarters to beat the team that had nearly embarrassed them in front of their home crowd before. More importantly, the Storm showed how well they could play with a less Bird-centric performance - Bird wasn't one of the four players who scored in double figures, but was a far better distributor with eight assists and seven points.
Most significant though is that the Storm's second game at KeyArena against the Lynx was also the first game without Jackson, who suffered a hip injury against the Tulsa Shock on June 21. And somehow, the Storm fared better against the Lynx at home with Jackson than without the 2010 WNBA MVP, which helps in dispelling one of the biggest myths of the Storm's rough 9-7 start to the season.
It would be ridiculous to say that the Storm are in any way "better" without Jackson in a general sense, but Jackson's absence hasn't been the problem this season either.
The Storm were technically 3-2 with Jackson in the lineup. However, when Jackson left the Storm's game in Tulsa with a hip injury, the Storm were down and staged a comeback behind a third quarter performance that still stands as one of their best of the season, albeit against a struggling opponent that later fired head coach Nolan Richardson. On top of that, those two losses with Jackson - which included that first half against the Lynx and a 19-point loss to the Sparks in L.A. - were arguably two of their worst of the season.
Whether we chalk it up to bad luck or Jackson's off-season injury, the Storm were struggling without Jackson and have improved even in her absence. Of course, the team will welcome Jackson back with open arms once healthy, but people cannot simply cite their 6-5 record without Jackson without taking into account the poor start with her and they would have had to step up regardless.
Adjusting is just what good teams do and the resilience to do so - albeit in arguably less trying circumstances - was one of the defining features of the Storm's 2010 run.
"Whether it's me standing out in the corner for an open three having more time to shoot, just being able to play my game around her is something that you're used to," said Cash about Jackson's absence after the All-Star Game. "Really, you have to play kind of what (Storm coach Brian Agler) always says - you have to forget about it. Something in your game may suffer because you're having to do more. You can't do everything and that's just the biggest change I know for me. It's just having to do more and not worrying about whether it's perfect."
Game 3: Lynx 69, Storm 62 (Minneapolis, MN) - Trying to find answers on the road
It was arguably in the midst of what became a less than perfect road trip that the Storm began to show signs of adjustment and improvement.
The Storm's first visit to the Target Center on July 16 was the second loss of a disappointing 0-3 road swing. However, it wasn't without bright spots either.
Guard Tanisha Wright shook off a sluggish start to the 2011 season to lead the team over the course of the Storm's four games prior to the All-Star break, showing increased aggression to disrupt the team's bad habit of standing around and shooting themselves out of games with long jumpers. In taking over more of the scoring load, the Storm not only gained another scoring option to balance their attack, but also allowed Bird to function in more of the distributor role that has made the team most effective this season.
The Storm also started to see something resembling bench production, with veteran reserve Katie Smith finally finding her shot despite a 2-for-11 performance against the Lynx on the road. Of no small significance was the steady emergence of reserve center Ashley Robinson, who was arguably among the most valuable players to the team in that stretch and has started in the three games since, in which the Storm have gone 2-1. Robinson's impact against the Lynx was mostly felt on the defensive end, but in her first start in a loss to the Sky she shined with a career game of 14 points and 10 rebounds in a season-high 10 rebounds.
There are plenty of candidates for the 2011 WNBA Most Improved Player award this season, but Robinson is undoubtedly among the top candidates - she is looking like a far more confident player than she has been in the previous seven seasons in her pro.
"I don't think we've played our best basketball yet and I'm so happy to see how Ashley Robinson's getting her confidence, she's starting to play," said Cash. "If we can get that production from her with Sue and I being more consistent...I think a lot of people are going to be surprised with the second half of basketball we are going to play."
Having won two games in a row before tomorrow night's first half closer against the Lynx, the 9-7 Storm are not only building some momentum, but starting to show a defensive intensity that has completely knocked the two contenders immediately in front of them completely off their game, for whatever reason. Although the Lynx's defense has helped make them one of the most well-rounded teams in the league, the Storm's defense has been well ahead of their offense all season as they were allowing the fewest points per possession of any team in the league entering the All-Star break with the Lynx in second.
That gap between the Storm and Lynx that existed in the first half on June 9 has diminished at the very least, even if the Lynx currently stand as the team to beat in Western Conference. And with tomorrow night's game in Minnesota, the Storm have an opportunity to send a message to the league that they're not quite ready to hand over their title.
If you wanted to get real cheesy, maybe you could even start talking about the whole heart of a champion thing.