If there was a post-Olympic break award for MVP, Sue Bird would have it all wrapped up.
Not only is she turning in spectacular performances, but with the Storm’s 70-62 win over the Sky last night she has also led the team to a 3-1 record after the break and a 6-3 record without reigning MVP Lauren Jackson. And although she insists that she hasn’t changed her game at all in Jackson’s absence, she’s clearly become more of a scorer.
But aside from Bird’s heroic fourth quarter performance last night that helped the Storm clinch a playoff spot, what really struck me was the Sky’s collapse. It seemed like they were in complete control and then just fell apart in the fourth quarter as Bird took over, scoring 13 points including three 3 pointers. From ESPN.com:
"This is very frustrating," Sky forward Candice Dupree said. "We had control of the game until the fourth quarter. That's what hurts the most."
To be accurate, the Sky lost control in third quarter. With 2:42 seconds left in the third quarter, the Sky were up 9. At that point, the Storm went on a 16-1 run and almost exactly 5 minutes later, the Sky were down 4 points.
But what made the run interesting is that it wasn’t necessarily the result of outstanding Storm defense or increased offensive efficiency. The Sky literally just stopped scoring. And the difference -- almost without a doubt -- was that the Sky rested all of their starters at once.
This is not going to turn into another case of armchair coaching where I question the decision to sit the starters – the Sky also sat the starters for a period spanning the first and second quarters and it worked to actually increase the lead. Sometimes there’s just not much a team can do to stop a superstar like Bird when she gets in a zone as she did in the fourth quarter.
Nevertheless, I think there is reason for optimism after this game. As nice as it would be to see the Sky in the playoffs, it’s equally important that they begin laying the groundwork for the future. Earlier in the season, I thought they needed improved point guard play in order to move forward as a team, but now it’s clear that they have a starting lineup that can play with almost any team in the league.
The question is how do the Sky move forward? How can they maintain the momentum and offensive synergy that they showed in the first and third quarters without wearing out their starters?
Well the first big test will come tonight when the face the Connecticut Sun. How will they bounce back? Will they find a way to maintain the intensity that had them up by 11 in the third quarter against the Storm?
The Sun will be tough to beat, especially if they Whalen comes back, but I think that if the Sky can find a way to stick to what works (guard penetration and post play) they might have a shot against the Eastern Conference’s best team.