After the Seattle Storm got smashed in the first half against the Minnesota Lynx in their first meeting at KeyArena this season, tonight's 65-55 win is obviously a sign of progress of some sort.
"We lacked a lot of energy, I think they jumped out early," Lynx wing Seimone Augustus said. "It is the tale of two games - the last game, we jumped out early and got the lead, and the roles were switched. They jumped out early, had the fans behind them, and they played with a lot of energy and we never did quite get going."
In addition to much-improved energy, one of the biggest signs of improvement occurred on offense with just under seven minutes in the game when the Minnesota Lynx were playing an extended zone.
Thus far this season, any time the Storm have been confronted with a zone defense - against the Indiana Fever, Los Angeles Sparks (especially) or the Phoenix Mercury - their offense has come to almost a complete standstill. Tonight against the zone, they patiently kept their spacing, moved the ball and got a layup, a jumper, and free throw attempts that forced the Lynx out of the zone.
Although it might not show up in the final score, it was among the most impressive stretches of play we've seen from the Storm this season against a formidable opponent that has looked much better than anyone else in the early season.
Moreover, they did it with Lauren Jackson injured.
And Sue Bird didn't even have to completely take over the game, instead picking up a game-high eight assists to go with a quiet seven points, all of which came in the first quarter.
Camille Little led the Storm with 16 points and five rebounds, while Swin Cash had a team-high nine rebounds and 13 points.
The Storm's defense has been strong all season. But that their offense stepped up without Bird having to take over in Jackson's absence is a refreshing sign for a team that has looked nothing like the dominant champion they were last season.
"There is no making up for Lauren's absence - no one can be Lauren," Bird said. "They can just play the way they know how, and I think they did that. Of course you're going to miss a player of Lauren's caliber, but what Camille (Little) and Le'coe (Willingham) bring is different. They were able to play to their strengths and show what they can do."
A lot of the offensive improvement was indeed shots just starting to fall for the Storm after being one of the poorest shooting teams in the league prior to this game - the Storm shot 46 percent from the field and had four assists on six made baskets in the decisive fourth quarter, which is a good sign of ball movement.
But the intangible factor is exactly what we saw in their handling of the Lynx's zone defense: patience, faith in their teammates, and looking much more confident in taking what the defense gave them.
The improved shooting efficiency helped them take advantage of a strong fourth quarter defensive effort.
"I think they picked up the defensive intensity and we kind of struggled with that a little bit," said Augustus, whose team only shot 25 percent in the fourth quarter. "We started to miss shots I think we shot 25% tonight, very low percentage. And hats off to their defense because they really picked it up."
Although Seimone Augustus led the Lynx with 17 points and six rebounds, the Storm's ability to hold rookie Maya Moore to only four points, point guard Lindsay Whalen to only three assists and four turnovers and most of all Rebekkah Brunson well below her double-double average with two points and seven rebounds speaks volumes about their defensive ability this season.
"I just think our team made a better effort of boxing the entire team out," said Little about the team's defense of Brunson. "They are a great rebounding team, and she is the main reason for that. A lot of times, it wasn't just the post players boxing her out - it was one of us and a guard or two guards. That's something we tried to really focus on and make sure she didn't get too many o boards. I think we did a pretty good job tonight.
The question is whether they can keep making progress offensively without Jackson.
Tonight was definitely an encouraging step toward proving that they can, to their fans and themselves.
"We have a lot of people in her who can put up points and score," Bird said. "I think we're just getting through the kinks in our offense, but it's nice to have that defense to anchor us. It's always going to give us a shot in games, no matter what our shooting percentage is."