Let's throw a check mark in those next two check boxes.
Beat regular season Western Conference Champions in a resounding fashion, reminding them and everyone else who the defending LEAGUE champions are...CHECK.
Secure home court advantage for the first round of the playoffs before the end of the season...CHECK.
This leaves Saturday as more of an emotional welcome back to Kamilla Vodichkova and a celebration of her receiving her championship ring. Kamilla did so much on the floor for this organization over its first 5 seasons, not least of which included several key jump shots in game 3 of last year's WNBA Finals. She means more to the fans than the numbers she put up while in a Storm uniform. She and Tully were the biggest emotional losses for the fans last year. They both had strange, though different bonds with the fans at Key Arena. Tully was the spark off the bench, always willing to throw her body on the floor for a loose ball, hit a key jumper, or harass the heck out of the opposing ball handlers. Add that to her winning off-court smile and the crowds predisposition towards Aussies, and Tully's standing with the fans is fairly clear. Kamilla's is harder to understand, she quickly became my favorite player and I am not quite sure why. She was all business on the court, you almost never saw her smile, though when she did smile it changed everything about her. She struggled with her English whenever a microphone was shoved in her face. She was generally consistent, but seldom spectacular. Still we really loved her, and though the team has not needed her, I think the crowd really misses her. This should be powerful tomorrow, especially considering we didn't get to watch Tully play after she got her ring.
That said, there are still things at stake with Saturday's 3:30 game against Phoenix. The Storm have the opportunity to match last years record, despite losing three starters and the #1 key reserve from that WNBA champion team. It is also of note that they are where they are at the moment, despite having had rookies start at one of the two guard positions for a number of games due to injuries to Sue Bird and Betty Lennox over the course of the season. Secondly, the Storm have the opportunity to set a franchise record for consecutive home wins. I don't expect Anne to play her starters normal minutes, but I don't expect her to surrender a W either. Phoenix will be fighting for their playoff lives since a loss will likely eliminate them from the playoffs. LA has two games remaining...if they beat the Silver Stars tonight then Phoenix MUST beat Seattle to stay in contention. They own the tie-breaker, but an LA loss merely ties the two teams. Phoenix will not know its final fate until after LA faces Houston Saturday evening. LA would have to lose both games for Phoenix to make the playoffs after a loss to Seattle. In other words, they are going to come out fighting.
Back to last night's game though.
Thanks to my Storm account executive for the two suite tickets. I am 100% certain, however, that I prefer being in my regular seats. The suites are too far removed from the action of the game and the emotion of the crowd. I am happy to be back in my regular seats for Saturday...and I will have both the boys since Amy is working.
14 points, 5 rebounds and 5 blocked shots. While the 5 blocks are impressive, the rest of the line is not that exciting for an MVP candidate. Neither statistic helps LJ toward overtaking the league leaders in those categories (Swoopes for scoring and Cheryl Ford for rebound). It was not the numbers that earned her the resounding MVP chants when she was forced to check out of the game with 6 fouls late in the second half. She earned those chants with how and when she scored her points. After struggling all night to get the ball on offense, and get position for rebounds, LJ caught fire right when her team needed her. She nailed a three to return the Storm to a double digit lead after Sacramento made a thrilling run to close in within 4 points of the Storm. She grabbed a key offensive rebound, looked around to pass, suddenly realized she had single coverage on the low block, (for perhaps the first time all game) turned and nailed her signature fade away jumper. Somewhere in there she came over from the weak side to swat a Monarch shot away from the hoop and into the hand of a Storm player. That was it for the Monarchs. LJ had made her point. She was not going to let her team's long lead and 49 point first half go to waste. She was not going to let Sacramento win in Key Arena. She was not going leave any doubt in anyone's mind who the defending champions are, or why they won that trophy. That is why the crowd did not miss a beat telling her, and the audience on NBA TV who the league MVP really is.
JB took advantage of the defensive focus on LJ down low to score 17 points and 7 rebounds. She could have broken 20, if she had just hit her free throws. Her 5-6 shooting, 1 turnover game was only spoiled by her poor 7-13 (53%) shooting from the charity stripe. That was made up for by her solid defense on Yo. JB, LJ and Suzy held the Monarch posts to a combined 7-26 (27%) shooting and limited them to 13 rebounds. Sue turned in a mostly solid 12 point, 2 rebound 5 assist evening, marred only by her 6 turnovers. She had a statement 3 early in the first and closed out the half with a brilliant slash to the basket, hesitation to drain clock, step through runner off glass that drew a foul making it a solid three point play with less than a second on the clock. Izzy had another solid game...scoring right out of the gate for the majority of the team's early points and finishing off the game with 13 points and 8 rebounds. Her defensive play on Nicole Powell is of particular note, Izzy held her to 5-18 (27%) Also of note, Powell went 3-8 (37%) from long range where she has shot a sizzling 42%. In fact, Powell's performance would have been noticeably worse except that she got rather lucky in the second half, finding herself open for a couple of shots during Sacramento's last run. Tanisha Wright did not score much last night, in fact she only took 2 shots all night. She did offer up an impressive 5-1 assist to turnover ratio against the toughest perimeter defense in the league. This is NOT a rookie performance. She passed to open players for scoring rather than be pressured into poor shots or turnovers. BRAVO Tanisha! She showed the fire of Tenacious Tanisha in the first half with a drive to the hoop that earned two points and a trip to the free throw line. She is steadily becoming a taller, more defensive version of Betty. Kudos for AD for recognizing the potential and HUGE kudos to Betty for embracing the mentorship role with such zeal. Tanisha has earned her spot in the rotation, and found herself on the floor in 3 guard lineups twice last night. Particularly impressive was the lineup of Sue, Betty and Tanisha midway through the first half.
The bench was solid. Betty added 8 points, 4 rebounds and an assist in 16 minutes. Suzy chipped in 7 points and 5 rebounds in 15 minutes. Zara followed fellow rookie Wright's example and took only one shot, earning no points, but chalking up 5 assists with only 1 turnover in her 15 minutes. Chelle chipped in 2 points 3 rebounds and an assist in her 7 minutes with a turnover. Simone made a token appearance for the last .9 seconds of the first half to get LJ an extra minute of rest.
The Storm played solid defense on the perimeter and in the post for most of the game. The forced turnovers, including bad passes, jump balls and a 30 second shot clock violation. Many of their defensive efforts will not show up on a stat sheet since their deflections and potential steals ended up in the Monarch's hands, sometimes for lucky baskets. The Storm out rebounded the Monarchs 35 to 27, they had 17 assists to the Monarch's 12, and they held the Monarchs to 33.3% shooting for the game. They also executed their offense with patience and skill throughout all but a few minutes of the game. They refused to let Sacramento's aggressive defense disrupt them until midway through the second half. Suddenly they started to get confused, turn the ball over and get sloppy on defense allowing Sacramento back with 4. They recovered, however, and walked away with the win.
Make no mistake, Sacramento's defense was present, the Storm had 20 turnovers, that is more than they had in the loss in Arco. The difference is that they kept their cool on offense for most of the game. I think partly this was due to Anne Donovan's new three guard lineup. While she introduced it in San Antonio, this was the first time we fans have had the opportunity to see it. It really opens up the offense with three solid ball handlers on the floor. They kept moving the ball around until they found the opening in the gimmicky Sacramento defense. They ran the break at top speed on steals and missed baskets by the Monarchs leading to easy lay ups or opportunities to launch their offense before Sacramento could set up its defense.
If the Storm want to win in Arco, they need to cut down on the turnovers. The Monarchs are not likely to shoot 33% as a team with Walker and Lawson back in the lineup. Their depth will be back to full strength, and there will not be the same spans of time to make offensive runs against their bench. If the rookies keep up this work, the bigs control the post, and AD continues with spurts of a 3 guard lineup, the Storm have a great chance to make it back to the WNBA finals this year.