Everyone in the veteran-heavy locker room of the Seattle Storm recognizes that every game means a bit more than usual In the three game playoff series format in the WNBA.
"Every game in a short series like this is very important," said Storm coach Brian Agler after the Storm's 79-66 win in Game 1 against the Los Angeles Sparks at KeyArena. "Someone asked me before the game if this was a must win and they're all must wins in a short series. They're all extremely important. We like playing here at home, but we've also had a lot of success on the road so we're looking forward to going down to LA on Saturday."
However, the difference this season for the multiple veterans on both sides that have won championships in the past is that the league changed its format from a 1-2 format to a 1-1-1 format. Although that swings the travel advantage to the higher seed who doesn't have to travel for the first game of a series at the risk of a letdown putting them on the brink of elimination, Sparks forward Tina Thompson comes into Game 2 confident in their chances to push this series to a third and deciding game back at KeyArena. If the fourth-seeded Atlanta Dream's surprising rout of the first-seeded Washington Mystics means anything, anything could happen in a one game elimination scenario.
"I think this is the way it should have been the entire time," said Thompson, a veteran who won four WNBA championships with the Houston Comets. "I mean, teams play the entire season to get home court. It's not necessarily home court when you have to play away initially. In most professional sports, when you win home court you play at home first. So I definitely think going home will put us back in the series and going into Game 3, if there is one, then we're basically evenly matched and everyone will have a bit of nerves. So I don't have a problem at all with the series this way -- I think it should have been this way the entire time."
Nevertheless, the Storm are ready to head into Staples Center and finish the series without coming home.
STORM: Storm's Mentality Won't Change in Game 2
The last two seasons, the Storm split the first two games with Los Angeles. Both teams won at home, but because the Sparks hosted Game 1 this is the first the Storm has led in a series since 2006, also against L.A.
"I applaud the WNBA," said Cash. "This is one thing I can say that they really got right because for so many years it was a struggle for players. It's a mental struggle to have home court advantage and then go back home and you're down. That's always tough. I'm happy that we got to this format and I think it's going to be a plus for us. The way we look at it is we take care of business at home and then try to steal one on the road."
If Wednesday's Game 1 victory at KeyArena is any indication, this should be another physical contest with the Sparks. And that's exactly how Agler wants it.
"You know, we shot the ball well at times," said Agler after Thursday's practice. "But playoff games are going to be ugly -- you scout each other so much, you know each other's tendencies so well, that you sort of muddy up the waters for your opponents, make it difficult. So for somebody that liked watching us play early in the year, they're not going to see a lot of consistent just up and down smooth play. And in all honesty, we like our defensive end to be muddy -- we like to clutter things up down there. So the main thing is for us is to get stops and play a little bit out of transition and if we don't get that we have to execute."
In addition to executing better -- which would seem difficult given that the team ended up shooting a franchise playoff record 56.1% for the game on Wednesday with 5 of their 13 turnovers coming in the second quarter -- the Storm could probably be expected to do at least a little bit better on the offensive boards. The Sparks -- who were the worst rebounding team in the league during the regular season -- held the Storm to four offensive rebounds on Wednesday, which was the lowest of the Storm's 2010 season. If the Storm do better on the offensive boards, they could be expected to get more than seven second chance points, which could help them win this game in a hostile road playoff environment.
On the other side of things, the Sparks had 6 of their 13 turnovers in the first half in what Thompson attributed to anxiety of starting the playoffs. Although the Sparks gave up the third most points of turnovers during the regular season, if they can continue to play the way they did in the final three quarters, they'll certainly have a better chance to push this series to three games. However, something not likely to change is Lauren Jackson beating the Sparks in the paint -- the Sparks tried to make up for their size disadvantage in the paint by switching and double-teaming Jackson, sometimes leading to leaving shooters open, like rookie forward Jana Vesela who went 3-3 from behind the arc in the second quarter. On the positive side, they managed to keep the Storm off the boards with this strategy, holding Jackson without an offensive rebound in the game. On the negative side, they weren't able to rotate and cover Storm on the perimeter who shot 7-16 from the three point line. Better rotations by the Sparks or colder shooting from the Storm could change the course of the game.
Ultimately, although one might expect Game 2 to look considerably different than Game 1, the Storm are hoping for a similar outcome and hope to finish out the series in LA and avoid third and final game in KeyArena.
"I'm not going to say I'm more confident, I just think it makes the way you prepare a lot easier than going on the road first," said Cash, who won two championships with the Detroit Shock. "I expect them to come out [with energy] -- it's do or die. I don't expect anything less. They have some veterans - Tina and DeLisha (Milton-Jones) -- that have won championships obviously and have veteran leadership. But for us, I think we're going to come out just as energetic. We don't want to bring back to the Key -- I mean we love our fans, but we don't want to back on Tuesday. As much rest as possible, as much practice time as we can get is always a good thing going to the next round."
For more, see SBN Seattle's Storm Playoff Push storystream: Seattle Storm WNBA Playoff Push: The Quest For A Title Continues In LA