Sue Bird, Seattle Fans the Key to Storm Success

. Tuesday, June 9, 2009
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The storyline that has captured the headlines about the Storm’s home opener Sunday night is reasonable enough: Lauren Jackson plays in Key Arena for the first time since last July and starts the game with a personal 8-2 run to lead the Storm to an 80-70 victory over the Monarchs.

It feeds off of the summer drama of a big name free agent who ultimately decided to stay loyal to the franchise that made her a star. Great story.

And yet, I saw something different Sunday night in Key Arena.

The most impressive thing about the Storm’s home opener against the Sacramento Monarchs Sunday night was not the individual performances of their stars as much as the way they channeled the fans’ energy into their basketball performance.

There was plenty of reason for fans to be excited Sunday night, aside from the standard excitement about a home opener. Of course, much has been made of the fact that Sunday night was the tenth anniversary of the Storm's founding. About ten minutes before tip, city council members Jan Drago and Bruce Harrell presented Storm president Karen Bryant with a proclamation that declared June 7th, 2009 Seattle Storm Day.

All of that was background to Lauren Jackson’s actual introduction where she was greeted by an almost deafening roar of applause and cheers as she came down the aisle through a mob of excited fans. By the time the game started, the crowd was so hyped up that a Monarchs win would have just seemed…wrong…

I mean, c’mon… you can’t beat the Storm at home with Jackson returning on the first Storm Day…it’s just not right…

Certainly, one could argue that all this talk of the Storm riding a wave of crowd-induced momentum is a bunch of nonsense – after all, the players did have to play the game. But Jackson’s start to the game only reinforces the idea that the crowd sort of lifted the team to victory.

In fact, at first it looked like all the emotion and energy would backfire and force the Storm into a chaotic frenzy -- Jackson picked up her first foul on a reach just after tip while trying to steal the ball and get out on a fast break. However, after getting that reckless play out of her system, Jackson settled down and channeled that energy a bit more effectively.

Jackson got to the free throw line and hit the Storm’s first basket allowing the crowd to sit down and with us sitting down, she proceeded to show us all the full range of her talent. She hit a lay-up off a post up from the block, a three, and then a jumper from the elbow. She also grabbed an offensive rebound or two and blocked a shot. After verbally thanking the fans for all of their support just prior to tip-off, it was as though her play to start the game was simply a reminder that there is more yet to come. Jackson was hyped, the fans got more hyped, and next thing you know it’s 17-4.

It’s always fascinating to watch players draw upon the energy of a spirited home crowd. For the Storm in particular, it is really difficult to deny that a large part of their home court dominance last season was the lift that Seattle fans give them from pre-game introductions to finish. The fan atmosphere at Key Arena is a key ingredient to the Storm Basketball mystique. That momentum absolutely carried them to victory Sunday night.

However, while Jackson got all the headlines for her return performance, it was Sue Bird’s ability to manage the game that kept the momentum going for the Storm. Bird was in full on attack mode from start to finish and when she decides to take on the role of the aggressor, she is among the most difficult players to stop in the WNBA.

While many people judge Bird’s effectiveness by her scoring, it was her ability to control an otherwise sloppy and frenzied game that was most impressive Sunday night.

Bird is much better as an aggressor

At times at the beginning of last season, it seemed as though Bird would be passive to the point of disappearing – it was as though she was deferring to others on a team of all-stars in order to make sure the team’s chemistry was in tact.

After a game against Lindsay Whalen and the Sun, I wrote the following:

Whalen is aggressive, gutsy, and plays with a lot of passion. Her strong build and balance allows her to do things other points cannot (rebound and withstand contact on a drive). She’s a player who can will a team to victory (I still think her Final Four run at the University of Minnesota is one of the greatest tournament performances of all time).

In contrast, Bird is more of a finesse player who plays the role of facilitator, especially on a talent-laden team like the Storm. She’s not necessarily a “pass-first” point guard as she takes some questionable shots and has been a good scorer throughout her career. In fact, she took a number of contested shots and at least two shots before even passing the ball. But what strikes me about Bird – and what probably gets her the label of “pure point guard” -- is that she makes the right decision to set up her teammates and racks up the assists.
Towards the end of the season, that changed and Bird became much more of the gutsy aggressor that I had previously described Whalen as. And when she aggressively attacks the basket and looks to set up her teammates, the Storm become very difficult to stop.

But then there are the other little things Bird does for the team that I think people sometimes overlook – during that 17-4 start, it was Bird getting the team out on the break, orchestrating the half-court offense, and creating turnovers on defense. She knows how to make the right decisions to get her teammates involved and put the team in the best possible position to win given the match-ups. It’s as though Bird was single-handedly responsible for channeling and distributing all of that fan energy to the rest of her teammates.

And it’s not just a matter of dictating the tempo of the game that makes her important. At times she just simply shredded the Monarchs’ defense.

On a particular series of plays in the fourth quarter with about five minutes left in the game, Bird just seemed to be toying with the Monarchs’ defense. First, she recognized a double team and simply dribbled out of it to keep the offense moving. On the second, she was doubled on the wing, split the double before they could set themselves, and hit a one handed floater from the baseline. The next play, she got the team out on the break saw Janell Burse and floated a perfect lead pass to her for the layup and a foul.

Jackson is a force in her own right, but I would argue Bird is the engine that quietly keeps the Storm moving when they hit lulls. When Bird leaves the game, there is a noticeable drop-off in the Storm’s performance and that seems like it is something that has to be addressed. The Storm simply cannot play the same game without Bird running the show for them, regardless of whether Shannon Johnson is healthy or Tanisha Wright is improving. The whole team stagnated without Bird on the floor.

This team is probably deeper this year – especially in the frontcourt – but they will only go as far as Bird takes them. And it’s not necessarily good to be so dependent on one player. What I wonder is how they can figure out to either hold themselves steady at times when Bird has to rest or perhaps change their style of play to accommodate her absence. If the team loses ground every time Bird leaves the floor, they will be in trouble down the line.

Bird and fans deserve co-MVP honors for the Storm

If the Storm are to re-establish their home court dominance this season, it will be important for them to find some way to manage the game while Bird is out of the game. The fan energy will be there and players like Bird are necessary to maintain the momentum on the court that results from that initial burst of fan energy.

But I cannot say enough about Storm fans – it’s truly an amazing environment to watch a game and it gets to a point where you cannot help but root for the Storm once you step in the building, even if you aren’t a die-hard.
During one of the Storm Vision vignettes during the game, Lin Dunn commented, “That’s what’s great about the Seattle community – they’re committed, they’re loyal, and they’re great fans.”

So what on earth is going on in Key Arena that people so fiercely support their team? Part of it is simply the venue

Regardless, the atmosphere in Key Arena is always amazing. And if Seattlites continue this trend, the rest of the league might as well mark an “L” next to their calendar on the dates they visit Seattle.

Related Links:

Snapshots of Opening Night

Transition Points:

Courtney Paris looked much better in her second trip to Key Arena than she did in the first. She looked much more patient in the post and did a better job of finding spots within the offense to score. It will take time for her to figure the WNBA out...but I think Sacramento fans should remain hopeful..