Photo via Swish Appeal.

Seattle Storm Vs. Tulsa Shock: Storm Clinch Playoff Berth WIth 78-72 Win

The Seattle Storm are on the road tonight to face the Tulsa Shock for the fifth and final time of the 2011 regular season. With a win the Storm will sweep their regular season series with the Shock and, more importantly, clinch a playoff berth. The game will tip-off at 5 p.m. PST. It will be broadcast online at WNBA LiveAccess and on the radio at KPTK 1090. Click here for more on the Western Conference playoff race. For more on the Storm, visit our Seattle Storm section. For more on the WNBA in general, visit SB Nation's women's basketball site Swish Appeal.

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Seattle Storm Vs. Tulsa Shock Final Score: Storm Clinch WNBA Playoff Berth With 78-72 Win

Sue Bird didn't exactly hit a game-winning shot tonight, but her 3-point shot with 37.4 seconds left essentially sealed a win and clinched a WNBA playoff berth for the Seattle Storm tonight against the Tulsa Shock.

Bird led all scorers with 21 points and tied for a team-high five assists as the Storm held on for a 78-72 win in Tulsa.

After being down by as many as 15 points late in the third quarter, the Shock used another strong rebounding effort in the fourth quarter to make a 6-0 run to get within four points with just under two minutes left. Bird's three stole hope from the Shock as it put them down by seven points with under a minute left. From there it was only a matter of time before the Storm got the win.

Storm center Lauren Jackson finished with 20 points and five rebounds, but the Shock's ability to contain her for stretches helped them stay in the game and actually prevented her from having a bigger game. A combination of rotating defenders on Jackson to keep her off her spots and Jackson starting to rush her shots a little helped the Shock hold her to only one field goal in a nine minute stretch spanning the third and fourth quarters. But once she adjusted and found her comfort zone she scored six in the fourth.

The Shock were led by outstanding shooting from their wings, with Jen Lacy scoring a team-high 18 points on 4-for-4 3-point shooting and Amber Holt adding 17 points, including 3-for-5 3-point shooting. The Shock were without guard Ivory Latta, who was in street clothes tonight after having some of her best point guard performances of the year in their previous five games.

The Storm now head to San Antonio tomorrow night to finish a three-game road trip a half game ahead of the third place Phoenix Mercury.

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Seattle Storm Vs. Tulsa Shock Halftime Score: Storm Weather Hot Shock Shooting To Take 40-34 Lead

Sue Bird has carried the Seattle Storm in their previous trips to Tulsa and that continued in the first half tonight.

Bird led all scorers with 14 points while Lauren Jackson added 10 points as the Storm took a 40-34 halftime lead against the Shock at the BOK Center.

The Storm shot 57.1 percent in the half to counteract hot 3-point shooting early on from the Shock. Amber Holt and Jen Lacy have combined to shoot 5-for-6 from the 3-point line for the Tulsa Shock, who shot 5-for-11 for the half and led the Shock with a combined 21 points.

Jessica Lantz of SB Nation's Swish Appeal added from the BOK Center, "The Storm went on a 13-0 midway through the 2nd, so I don’t think the Shock can feel too bad being within six at this point after that stinker three minutes."

The Storm's ability to shoot so well was the most significant factor to taking the lead, but turning the ball over only five times also helped significantly.

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Seattle Storm Vs. Tulsa Shock: Three Keys To Clinching A Playoff Berth In Tulsa

There's every reason to believe that the Seattle Storm will sweep their five-game regular season series with the Tulsa Shock tonight and clinch a spot in the 2011 WNBA Playoffs when the two teams meet at the BOK Center tonight.

The Shock's 3-26 record speaks for itself to an extent, their 96-74 loss in Tulsa to the Phoenix Mercury on Tuesday doesn't exactly do much to change perception, and the Storm have won going away in the last three meetings between the two teams.

But the Shock are also a hard team to figure out game to game.

In a season with changes to the coaching staff, personnel, rotation, and style of play it's just hard to know what to expect from them right now.  Despite Tuesday's loss to the Mercury, though, the Shock have been playing noticeably better and earned themselves consecutive wins over the Connecticut Sun and Los Angeles Sparks last week.

So although the Storm beat the Shock on the night before their win in L.A., Storm coach Brian Agler had seen signs of improvement as quoted by Kevin Pelton of StormBasketball.com.

"I could just sort of tell the way they were starting to play they were going to wreak some havoc the rest of the way," Agler said after Tulsa put together a winning streak. "I can't tell you this is it for them. They're playing much better. They're playing with a purpose. They're going to be competitive."

The Shock's two wins were essentially the Shock's best two-game stretch of the season - if not much to go on - and hold some insight into what the Storm need to do to avoid being their next victims.

Three keys for the Seattle Storm

  • Pressure their guards: The one consistent theme for the Shock lately is that they've shown much better ball control and ball movement in the last four games than they have for most of the season. That starts with vastly improved play from guard Ivory Latta who is running the show for them, but also includes more efficient play from the wing in guard Amber Holt who has also been looking to make plays for others lately. The Storm's rotations and physical play gave the Shock problems in their last meeting at KeyArena though.
  • Respect their shooters: The Shock are the second worst 3-point shooting team in the league, but shot a scorching 73.1 percent in the second half against the Connecticut Sun, including 4-for-5 3-point shooting. Naturally, they fell back to earth against the Mercury on Tuesday shooting only 5-for-18 (27.8 percent), but they shot 41.6 percent in those two wins over the Sparks and Sun. A lot of that was a matter of the Shock moving the ball better to find open scoring opportunities combined with some defensive lapses by the Sparks. But sustaining the level of shooting efficiency for an entire half that they showed against the Sun is impressive for any team, 26 losses or not. Although it's out of character, it was one of the more surprising elements of those two wins.
  • Match their energy on the boards: Pelton described the problems the Storm had containing Tiffany Jackson last week and she was arguably the MVP in the Shock's win against the Sparks last week with a double-double. But the Shock have started to establish something of an identity of outrebounding opponents recently and Jackson probably exemplifies that while the four boards that 6-foot guard Karima Christmas got against the Connecticut Sun probably epitomize it: they crash the boards hard and don't stop working, despite a difficult season and the odds stacked against them every time they step on the court. 
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Seattle Storm Vs. Tulsa Shock: Another Chance To Clinch A Playoff Berth On The Road

As the Seattle Storm's leading scorer this season, point guard Sue Bird has had a number of big scoring performances, whether it be over the course of a game, a quarter, or just a game-winning shot.

But her biggest scoring outbursts have surprisingly not come at KeyArena, but at the BOK Center against the Tulsa Shock (3-26).

In the Storm's (17-13) two games at the BOK Center this season, Bird has averaged 25 points per game on 16-for-24 shooting (66.6 percent) as well as shooting 12-for-14 from the free throw line. Of course, that's not exactly bewildering given that the Shock are currently the lowest rated defense in the league this season, but it's an impressive footnote to a MVP-caliber season.

Tonight's game in Tulsa will also mark center Lauren Jackson's first game at the BOK Center since injuring her hip there on June 21. And as if the Shock won't already have their hands full with Bird, Jackson has been even better since her return from injury.

In five games back from injury, Jackson has averaged 15.2 points on 42.9 percent shooting and 1.2 blocks, all well above what she was averaging prior to her injury. But where the Storm might need her to make a particularly strong contribution is on the boards.

In their two recent wins over the Connecticut Sun and Los Angeles Sparks , Tulsa has been solid on the offensive boards when in counted, literally just outhustling their opponents. Leading the Tulsa rebounding effort is forward Tiffany Jackson, who is having a career-year with a team-high 8.2 rebounds and 12 points per game.

Meanwhile, prior the Storm's loss in Los Angeles on Tuesday, they'd struggled to keep opponents off the offensive boards with Jackson getting the first two since her return from injury against the Sparks. Rebounding has not necessarily been the decisive issue for the Storm, but it has been how the Shock have routinely kept themselves in games this season.

Although the Shock are playing for little more than pride at this point, they also have nothing to lose and every reason to want to prevent the Storm from clinching a playoff berth in Tulsa while sweeping the regular season series.

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Seattle Storm Have Plenty Left To Play For Beyond Clinching A WNBA Playoff Berth

The Seattle Storm are only one win - or Los Angeles Sparks loss - from making the 2011 WNBA Playoffs, which begin on September 15.

And with two of their final four games at home and already owning the tiebreaker over the fourth place San Antonio Silver Stars, the Storm are likely to avoid a first round meeting with the first place Minnesota Lynx and face the Phoenix Mercury. Yet even though the Storm seem to have had the Mercury's number in recent years, getting second place would give them an even bigger advantage.

Click here for more on the Western Conference playoff race. For more on the Storm, visit our Seattle Storm section. For more on the WNBA in general, visit SB Nation's women's basketball site Swish Appeal.

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