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Seattle Storm Vs. N.Y. Liberty: Lauren Jackson Scores 20 In Victorious Return From Injury

The Seattle Storm host the New York Liberty at KeyArena at 7 p.m. PST tonight to finish off their two-game regular season series. The Liberty beat the Storm 58-56 in their first meeting, primarily with their defense. Storm center Lauren Jackson will be returning to the court tonight after missing most of the season due to a hip injury, although how much she'll play remains uncertain. The Storm enter this game in fourth place in the Western Conference and for more on the playoff implications, see our 2011 WNBA Western Conference playoff race storystream. For more on the Storm's season, visit our Storm section. For more on the Liberty and the WNBA in general, visit SB Nation's women's basketball site Swish Appeal.

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Seattle Storm Vs. New York Liberty Final Score: Sue Bird Secures 63-62 Win With Game-Winning Defensive Play

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."

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2011 WNBA Playoff Race: Minnesota Lynx Clinch, Lauren Jackson Makes Immediate Impact For The Seattle Storm

While the Minnesota Lynx clinched a playoff berth with their big 87-68 win over the Los Angeles Sparks tonight, it might not even be the most intriguing news in the Western Conference tonight.

In a Seattle Storm win decided by only one point against the New York Liberty tonight, it's hard to dispute that center Lauren Jackson's return from injury had a significant impact and might continue to have a significant impact on the standings moving forward.

"She got a lot out of her minutes, didn't she? She played well," said Storm coach Brian Agler after the Storm's 63-62 win tonight. "We're a different team, obviously. I've got to give everybody credit for keeping us competitive without her, but we can be much better with her. She was a factor tonight."

And given the Storm's remaining schedule, Jackson's timing was perfect.

The Liberty were one of the toughest remaining matchups for the Storm, who entered the night in fourth place in the Western Conference. But even if they had lost tonight's game, they would have had a good shot at making the playoffs and even moving up in the standings.

"I'm sure as a unit they're 60 percent of what they'll be in three or four more games," said Liberty coach John Whisenant. "They'll be awesome in three or four more games. I just wanted to steal this one before they get that much better. Lauren was amazing."

So this win could be considered a nice bonus for the Storm that could give them a little more breathing room as the 2011 WNBA Playoffs draw near. With the win, the Storm improve to 14-12 and move up to third place in the Western Conference with the San Antonio Silver Stars' 87-81 road loss to the Phoenix Mercury.

Yet while a road loss to a second place team wouldn't normally be a big deal, the Silver Stars' loss tonight was somewhat discouraging for their playoff hopes and perhaps ironically the most significant outcome of the night.

As reported by Odeen Domingo of the Arizona Republic, Mercury star and WNBA leading scorer Diana Taurasi was a game-time scratch tonight due to back spasms; in a way, it was a great opportunity for the slumping Silver Stars to pick up a win. But having lost seven of their last nine, losing to a team missing its starter is not particularly encouraging with one more road game against the Mercury remaining.

"Obviously, Diana is a big part of their team and they won without her tonight, so that says a lot about their team," said Silver Stars forward Sophia Young, who had 11 points and eight rebounds. "But for us, it just says we need to work harder and we can't send them to the free-throw line like that. It's the little things we can and have to do to
win."

Counter to what the final scores suggest, that Silver Stars loss actually makes the beating the fifth place Sparks took in Minnesota look mild: even though the Sparks do have to rack up a number of wins to make the playoffs, their remaining schedule could still offer seven or eight more wins and it would've been a stretch to assume that they would beat the first place Lynx on the road to begin with.

The Sparks are now three games behind the fourth place Silver Stars after tonight's loss, but they're also done with the Lynx for the regular season. In contrast, the Silver Stars have back-to-back games against the Lynx after playing the Storm at KeyArena, which was the scene of one of their worst losses of the season just before the All-Star break.

After those three games, it's not unreasonable to think that the Silver Stars might end up having lost 10 of 12 games. With the Sparks looking considerably better with Candace Parker in the lineup, tonight's blowout notwithstanding, it's not hard to imagine that it's the Silver Stars who are most in danger of falling out of the playoffs.

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Seattle Storm Vs. New York Liberty Halftime Score: Lauren Jackson Returns Strong As Storm Take 32-27 Lead

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While some players struggle just to find a rhythm when returning from an extended injury absence, Seattle Storm center Lauren Jackson not only made her presence felt but also played arguably her best nine minutes of the season against the New York Liberty tonight.

In her first game back from a hip injury that has sidelined her since June 21, Jackson started and scored a game-high 10 points in nine minutes to lead the Storm to a 32-27 halftime lead over the visiting New York Liberty at KeyArena.

Jackson showcased her trademark versatility, scoring in the post, from the line, hitting two 3-pointers, and showing complete confidence both banging inside and taking long jumpers. However, with Jackson still playing limited minutes, the Storm were plagued by familiar problems that helped keep the Liberty in this game.

After getting out to an outstanding 17-3 start in the first quarter with Jackson scoring five early points, Liberty guards Essence Carson and Cappie Pondexter started to get hot to keep them in the game with a team-high seven points apiece. Consecutive jumpers by Carson cut the lead to 17. After playing basically even from that point on in the first period, the Storm started to beat themselves in the second period.

Falling into their unfortunate pattern of settling for jumpers and turning the ball over with Jackson out of the game, the Storm went without a free throw and committed four turnovers in the second quarter as they were just outplayed by the Liberty in the second quarter. Swin Cash added eight points and a game-high four rebounds, but the combination of the Liberty's aggressive defense and rushed decisions offensively led to the Storm shooting 27 percent in the second quarter.

With the initial excitement of Jackson's a thing of the past, this is turning into the defensive battle that might have been expected now as the Liberty only shot 29 percent themselves in the second quarter.

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Seattle Storm Center Lauren Jackson Will Return From Injury Against The New York Liberty Tonight

Seattle Times reporter Jayda Evans tweeted earlier tonight that Seattle Storm center Lauren Jackson will be making her return to the court tonight at KeyArena after being out due to a hip injury for about nine weeks.

However, it remains unclear whether Jackson will start or enter the game off the bench* - although Evans said she will come off the bench, the Seattle Storm have tweeted that Storm coach Brian Agler was unsure about whether start. Agler chatted with Kevin Pelton of StormBasketball.com earlier this week about the pros and cons of starting her compared to bringing her off the bench.

"That's part of the issue - is it better to get her playing when she's warm right after warmups?" said Agler. "Because it's easier to manage minutes when they don't start. She's going to have limited minutes. What that limit is, we're still gauging. If there's a plan on paper that I can give you, we don't have that, but there are a lot of generalities that we're discussing."

Jackson has been out since the second quarter of the Storm's first game in Tulsa on June 21 where she suffered a hip injury. After an initial evaluation, the word was that she'd be out 8-12 weeks so returning tonight is within that rather wide window of what the Storm expected.

Also as expected, Storm guard Tanisha Wright will be back with the team tonight after missing their previous game in Phoenix for family reasons.

*Update: Evans is now tweeting that Jackson will start tonight.

For more details on Jackson's injury, visit our storystream.

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Seattle Storm Vs. New York Liberty: Three Keys For The Storm

Regardless of whether center Lauren Jackson returns, the biggest key for the Seattle Storm's game tonight against the New York Liberty is obvious after their first meeting.

  • Limit turnovers: In their first meeting, the Storm turned the ball over on just under a third of their possessions in the first half and should have been considered lucky to only be down by three points at halftime. The Liberty continue to lead the league in points off of turnovers with 19 per game and have forced turnovers about twice as often since the All-Star break. A lot of the Storm's turnovers come from forcing passes and holding the ball on the perimeter too long, which could be attributed to the absence of Jackson to get the ball to inside. But against a team that likes to feed off of their defense, the Storm have to find a way to keep those live ball turnovers to a minimum.
  • Move without the ball to score early in the shot clock: The first meeting between these two teams at the Prudential Center was a perfect illustration of how perimeter oriented the Storm can get at times: they shot 8-for-21 from the 3-point line for the game, but only shot 3-for-11 in the second half when the game was particularly tight. Compounding that was that they only shot 6-fot-7 from the free throw line and had none in the first half. Regardless of whether Jackson plays, the Storm will have to do a better job moving without the ball in the half court and quickly moving it around the perimeter to find high percentage scoring opportunities either on drives or cuts to the basket.
  • How do they contain Cappie Pondexter? This is a question any New York Liberty opponent has to find an answer to, but it's not easy. Getting Tanisha Wright back in the lineup after missing Tuesday's game against the Phoenix Mercury for personal reasons would definitely help in this regard, as the Storm will have a hard time finding someone to stick with Pondexter without her on the court.
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Seattle Storm Host New York Liberty: Lauren Jackson Cleared To Play

The Seattle Storm host the New York Liberty at KeyArena at 7 p.m. PST tonight to finish off their two-game regular season series.

The Liberty beat the Storm 58-56 in their first meeting, primarily with their defense.

Storm center Lauren Jackson has been cleared to play after missing most of the season due to a hip injury, although whether or how much she'll play today remains uncertain.

The Storm enter this game in fourth place in the Western Conference and for more on the playoff implications, see our 2011 WNBA Western Conference playoff race storystream.

For more on the Storm's season, visit our Storm section. For more on the Liberty and the WNBA in general, visit SB Nation's women's basketball site Swish Appeal.

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