Elite Athletes rarely want to admit that a single game is bigger than any other, but it's difficult to understate the significance of the Seattle Storm's (9-7) game against the Minnesota Lynx (11-4) tonight.
After beating the second-place San Antonio Silver Stars and the third-place Phoenix Mercury in consecutive games, the Storm have a chance to move within 1.5 games of the top spot in the Western Conference by beating the first place Lynx. With a trip to Oklahoma to face the 1-16 Tulsa Shock on the horizon for tomorrow night, the Storm have a big opportunity in Minnesota tonight to move improve their position in the standings.
Tonight's game presents the Storm with an opportunity to build some momentum by winning three in a row with a good chance of building some confidence on the road tomorrow. But of symbolic importance, they have an opportunity to beat the three best teams in the conference in consecutive games and send a message that they're still a contender despite a rough first half of the season.
And yet for all of that significance in the standings, what might be most compelling for the basketball purists among us is the point guard battle between Storm point guard Sue Bird and Lynx counterpart Lindsay Whalen, a Minnesota native in her second year with her home team after spending her first six seasons with the Connecticut Sun.
As Kevin Pelton of StormBasketball.com describes, that matchup of lead ball handlers is the key matchup of the game. Of course, there will rarely truly be a "winner" in a battle of point guards and that might be especially true this season for Bird and Whalen - it's fair to say that the two canceled each other out in their first three meetings.
STORM: Insider Preview - Storm at Minnesota
Both had their best head-to-head effort in the first matchup, when Sue Bird scored 24 points to lead a Storm comeback and Whalen had a double-double of 13 points and 10 assists. Since then, Whalen has combined for 23 points and six assists in the last two meetings. Bird handed out eight assists in the Storm's lone victory.
So far this season, these two are illustrating that there's no one way to play the position as their teams demand two very different things from them.
Bird leads the Storm in assists (5.3), minutes (34.0), points (15.5) and steals (1.63) per game and has literally carried the Storm on multiple occasions this season, including a phenomenal 16-point fourth quarter effort against the Lynx in their first meeting at KeyArena. No point guard in the league carries a larger burden for their team's success than Bird.
In contrast, the strength of Whalen's game is in subtlety and facilitating the offense for a star-laden team. On many occasions she'll take a couple of dribbles and pass to the open player or make a quick pass to the wing to initiate the offense after crossing halfcourt. She is not only the most efficient starting point guard in the league to date, but the most decisive in simply wasting no motion. Nevertheless, Whalen is still second on her team in field goal percentage (54.4 percent), points (14.1) and steals (1.27) per game while leading the Lynx in assists (6.0).
While Bird might be more of a focal point for her team than any team in the league, Whalen is by far the most well-rounded point guard in the league. Determining who's better is not only difficult, but almost entirely dependent on their respective systems, taste, and what their teams demand of them.
And that's a large part of what makes it such an exciting matchup to watch, particularly given the stakes as teams jockey for playoff position.