When faced with the decision of who to keep on the Seattle Storm's shortened 11 player roster, coach Brian Agler decided to keep 6-4 center Ashley Robinson as a defensive presence on the bench to help the team match up with Western Conference opponents.
Robinson had been a minimally productive player in her first five seasons with the Storm and quite a few people wondered if she even deserved a spot in the league. After getting no more than 11 minutes of mostly garbage time early in the season, perhaps the dissenters felt validated.
However, the Storm's early season success that kept Robinson on the bench might have been the best thing for her: with more consistent minutes once the Storm began resting their starters at the end of the season, Robinson has looked increasingly comfortable on both ends of the floor culminating with a performance in Saturday night's 76-75 win over the Los Angeles Sparks -- who they will face in the first round of the playoffs on Wednesday -- that might have epitomized what Agler hoped she would bring to the team.
Robinson used her athleticism and long frame to aggressively challenge shots, hit the boards with a bit more tenacity than usual, and generally played with more intensity in the paint than Seattle fans had seen throughout the season. Although she didn't take a shot on Saturday night, she had two assists including a beautiful pass with just the right touch to elude the hands of defenders on a high-low play that led to a Lauren Jackson layup that cut the Sparks' early lead to two with 4:31 left in the first quarter.
To dispel any notion that the performance was just a pre-playoff fluke, her impressive play against the Sparks was far more the culmination of steady improvement throughout the month of August rather.
Earlier in the month she scored a season-high ten points against the Tulsa Shock on a combination of cuts to the basket and short jumpers. She followed that with an eight point performance against the Connecticut Sun in which she flashed a turnaround jumper that looked as smooth as a move someone had possessed for their entire career.
With not only more minutes but also more consistent minutes in the month of August - 13 minutes per game in 10 games compared to 5.5 minutes through her first 20 games - Robinson looked more comfortable and thus more confident playing meaningful minutes with the team.
Robinson wasn't the only reserve who exhibited improvement in the month of August. Forward Jana Vesela -- who could certainly make a case for the 2010 WNBA All-Rookie team - demonstrated the same sort of increased confidence that has been building all season as she's earned more time, albeit in her own understated way. Late in the first quarter she drove hard toward the middle of the court to get the defender on her heels and then stepped back and pulled up for the jumper. Later in the second half, she head faked a defender while close to left corner, drove baseline and shoveled a beautiful pass to Camille Little just as the help defense rotated over to stop her.
In last night's game, part of the reason why Robinson and Vesela saw increased playing time is that reserve forward Le'coe Willingham didn't play. The fact that they not only showed flashes of improved confidence and overall performance since the beginning of the season is certainly a positive. More positive is that Robinson and Vesela had two of the three highest plus/minus ratings of anyone on the team. For a Storm team whose depth on the bench is often considered a weakness, their performance and Agler's noticeably increased trust in them is a huge bonus as they head into the playoffs. It adds a dimension to the team that was perhaps lacking previously: a legitimate 8-9 player rotation that Agler is willing to use.
"I thought Ashley, I thought everybody helped us," said Agler after the game. "I thought everybody had some good stretches for us."
Really, the improvement is indeed happening across the roster: although rookie reserves Abby Bishop and Allison Lacey are probably not expected to play much, watching them in a game of three-on-three today after practice, it was obvious that they too are generally more confident with the WNBA style of play.
Yet as much as Robinson and Vesela demonstrated improvement, the Los Angeles Sparks might have improved even more this season and done so in a considerably shorter period of time.
There were long stretches on Saturday night where the Sparks looked nothing like the team that got blown out by 22 points in their last visit to KeyArena on June 11.
Rather than stagnantly looking for three pointers and relying on one on one play, the Sparks were reversing the ball quickly, coming around ball screens, cutting to the basket, and getting shooters open for good looks. With a point guard like Ticha Penicheiro who seems to have a sixth sense for how to navigate a court space and facilitate plays for others as soon as the gaps in a defense open up, the Sparks looked as fluid in KeyArena as they had all season.
"We understood that they were trying to really use the shot clock and sometimes you can kind of get lethargic because they keep passing, passing and then as soon as they make a mistake kind of capitalize on the opportunity," said Storm forward Swin Cash. "They obviously have gotten better and you can just tell that they understand who's going to take what shots and what they're looking for. So they just really have been executing and just really wearing you down in the 24 second clock. And not even getting out in transition - they want to get you in the half court game."
The Sparks' improved performance on Saturday night is part of a trend that Agler and Storm players have commented on all season: although the Storm got off to a hot start, the competition has closed the gap to some extent and might have a little bit more continuity on their side.
"It's just like anything else - we've talked about it - all the teams get continually better, things get tightened up at the end of the year," said Agler. "Two weeks ago or a week ago we kind of took a step back with our rotation - we tried to rest people. We've spent this week trying to get more continuity back and that will be a process going into the playoffs too."
To say that everybody else has improved more is not at all a slight against the Storm -- to the contrary, it's a testament to the fact that you start out 23-2 it's hard to get a whole lot better. The Storm returned their entire core, added veterans to their bench, and were simply much more ready to go when the season started.
While the Storm were afforded the luxury of relaxing a bit by clinching a playoff berth in July and then home court throughout the playoffs with five games left, other teams around the league started slow for a variety of reasons and then came together late.
But what might be most impressive for the Sparks is that they've improved dramatically without superstar forward Candace Parker, who was lost for the season in June due to a shoulder injury.
"As the season goes on, as it progresses, you definitely find what works for you as a team," said Storm point guard Sue Bird. "Every team's going to do that. For them, what's unique for them, is that they had Candace, what, three of the four times we faced them? So I think they kind of got over that hump of figuring out how to play without her or, with the team, who the go-tos were going to be, all those different things. So you're seeing more of just a complete team I think.
"When a player goes down it can be hard to figure that out and you kind of get over that hump and you just keep going. So for them, they've definitely figured that out."
It's not just one player that has stepped up for the Sparks either - it's a combination of their veteran stars like Penicheiro, DeLisha Milton-Jones, and Tina Thompson as well as guard Noelle Quinn, who dropped 18 points on 7-9 shooting on the Storm on Saturday. It's not just a case of players "stepping up" by doing more of the same, but the team's entire tendencies - especially for players like Quinn - have changed in positive ways.
"They had too many people trying to do too many things earlier in the year," said Agler. "Now they're down to [the point] where they really understand what their roles are and they don't try to do too much and they let their key players make plays and they take their time doing it. They do a great job of conserving their energy and they're a good team."
With Parker out of the lineup and the team forced to look for other ways to create offense, they simply shared the ball differently on the perimeter and did a much better job of attacking gaps after the Storm rotated on defense rather than setting themselves up for one on one plays or low percentage shots. Part of that is the simple principle of taking advantage of what the defense gives you - as Cash described - but another part of it is changing the way the ball moves around offensively.
"I've watched how that team has matured and sort of come together over the course of the year," said Agler. "They're starting to play through Ticha and Tina and DeLisha. And everybody else is saying, ‘I'm gonna space out here. If I get a shot, I'm going to take it. If not, then fine. I'm good with it.' Whereas I think early in the year they had Candace Parker and went through her. And DeLisha and Tina weren't quite as big a factor in their offense like they are now. Now was that the right thing to do then? Probably so. But the dynamics have changed now and I think their role players are playing more to their roles than they were earlier because I think sometimes some of their players were trying to do a little bit too much. When they do too much, that means the stars aren't getting the basketball. Well they're playing through their stars right now."
Where the improvement of the Sparks' unit showed up the strongest was the fourth quarter, when they arguably outplayed the Storm. They shot 45% from the field compared to the Storm's 26.3% and held the Storm without a free throw in the final period. Fittingly, it was the Sparks' veterans with championship experience that led the way for them: Milton-Jones had 4 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, and a block while Thompson had 6 points and 4 rebounds.
Despite the Sparks committing 4 turnovers and being handled on the offensive boards (the Storm missed 14 shots), it was ultimately the poise of their veterans that allowed them to outplay the Storm in a tense fourth period. That's a considerable change from the fourth quarter narrative Storm fans are used to seeing unfold at KeyArena - even with a win, the Storm have typically been the ones to demonstrate late game poise.
"That wasn't a typical game," said Agler of Saturday's game. "We usually close games better. We ended the game, obviously - we had to make a play or two to do it. We had a series of missed shots at the rim, we came down the floor and they had a couple good looks against us - we had a couple lapses defensively. We had a turnover or two. I'm going to watch it and probably not enjoy it very much. Hopefully it's something we can get better from."
As much as Saturday's win was a celebration of the Storm completing their regular season 17-0 at home and tying the record for most wins in WNBA history, it was just as much an indication that the rest of the league is closing the gap on the team with home court advantage throughout the playoffs. As the Storm prepare for the playoffs, the fact that they had a rough fourth quarter against an improving first round opponent is not exactly a reason for panic, but definitely a sign that the road ahead is a bit more perilous that some people might give it credit for.
Ultimately, all the regular season hype won't mean anything in the playoffs.
"We try to talk about respecting our opponents," said Agler. "We take it game by game and we talk with our team that after the regular season's over, now, it goes back to Ground Zero -- everybody's record is 0-0 right now. And I think, to me it did anyway and I told our team this on Saturday, that LA definitely got my attention after that game and I think all the players would agree with that."
For more on the Saturday's night and a matchup to watch: Storm vs. Sparks: A Battle Of Point Guards Fully Capable Of Winning Without Scoring