It's amazing how much more confidently the Seattle Storm have played with in two games with center Lauren Jackson back from injury, even if she's only playing limited minutes.
Everyone has looked more decisive, the offense is more dynamic with guard Tanisha Wright both posting up and driving to the basket with Jackson drawing post players out of the key, and passes into the pain that most players would never catch suddenly look good when they fall inside the 6-foot-6 center's reach.
Down the stretch of tonight's game against the San Antonio Silver Stars, all of that was on full display as the Storm woke up from a two quarter slumber to pull away and win 63-55. After the Silver Stars cut the Storm lead to two points with 4:34 left, the Storm rallied behind typical Jackson plays to subdue the visitors' run.
"I thought we started playing with a purpose at the end," said Storm coach Brian Agler. "I didn't think we played with a purpose early in the game. I think Lauren made a couple of Lauren Jackson plays - turnaround jump shots, drop steps, things of that nature. We got to the free throw line a little bit in the second half."
Most encouraging in the context of this season, the Storm committed only one turnover in the fourth quarter and only 11 for the game after committing five in the first period against a team that forces a high rate of turnovers. With the offense running a bit more smoothly and Jackson's ability to create scoring opportunities, the Storm shot 53.84 percent from the field in the final 20 minutes to help them withstand the Silver Stars run despite being held to only one offensive rebound in the second half against the league's lowest ranked rebounding team.
"(Jayne) Appel got some offensive boards on us - I thought we did a poor job in that area, but I think they've gotten better as well," said Agler. "So if you take the turnovers which we had, we didn't have a lot of them, but they still scored points off those, and second chance points, that's where they hurt us."
In just under 25 minutes in her second game back from injury, Jackson again matched her season-high with seven rebounds in addition to 13 points. Storm guard Tanisha Wright led all scorers with 16 points and 7 rebounds in addition to leading a defensive effort that held Silver Stars guard Becky Hammon to four points on 2-for-10 shooting.
"We really focus in on her and make her give the ball up and let other people make plays," said Wright of Hammon, who tied Bird with a game-high five assists. "We get tons of help from our post players. They do a good job of forcing her to make the next pass and then recovering. They have a bigger assignment than we do. Our job is to try to stay in front of her, but they help us a lot."
Sophia Young led the Silver Stars with team-highs of 14 points and eight rebounds, but as further testament to the Storm's defense they held Young to only four second half points. The Storm held the Silver Stars to 29.2 percent shooting in the third quarter, but still found themselves down 42-41.
"I thought we did a lot of things we'd hoped we would do - we outrebounded them and things like that, but the reality was we needed a fourth quarter that could separate us," said Hughes. "But they went to (Lauren) Jackson and (Sue) Bird a little bit, and (Tanisha) Wright hurt us, all in the fourth quarter, which gave them the separation."
With the win, the Storm not only move a 1.5 games ahead of the fourth place Silver Stars in the Western Conference, but will also win the regular season series giving them the tie-breaker if it comes to that.
"We need to finish those easy buckets that we had, keep rebounding the ball and run the floor to get some transition buckets, so easy things like that will be beneficial for us winning," said Young. "Obviously these next couple of games are important for us to win so we have to get it in our minds that it's a must-win."