- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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TULSA, Okla. -- Lauren Jackson looked ready to crawl into a semi-fetal position in the locker room. She just wanted to take a shower, fall asleep and begin to recuperate.
"The hardest thing in the world as an athlete is not having any energy and trying to play," Jackson said. "Because your legs are so dead."
Mind you, she said this even though she'd just had 24 points and six rebounds in 33 minutes of court time as her Seattle Storm won 83-72 over Tulsa, moving further in front of the WNBA's Western Conference with a 13-2 record.
Yep, that's ol' dead-as-a-doornail Jackson. On a "wish I coulda stayed in bed" day, she still had what for any player would be considered a very good game.
The official diagnosis for Jackson was that she "felt like crap." Well, that's close enough. She guessed it was food poisoning or some kind of stomach distress combined with a missed-connection, turbulence-filled trip from Washington state to Oklahoma that got the Storm to their downtown Tulsa hotel around the witching hour Saturday, with an afternoon game Sunday.
Then two minutes into the game at the BOK Center, Sue Bird -- dealing with back pain, the seriousness of which we'll get to in just a bit -- exited and spent most of the remainder of the contest watching from the locker room. So she had plenty to say when her teammates came in at halftime down 40-30 to the team with the worst record in the WNBA. Several of the Storm players, in fact, had something to say.
Thus, coach Brian Agler really didn't have to say that much just stress strategy, such as the Storm focusing on making shorter passes against a Tulsa team that relies on foes inadvertently playing into the Shock's need for "disruption" to work as both a defense and an offense.
Patience and perseverance helped Seattle close the gap. Then talent prevailed, and the Storm opened up the gap again -- in the opposite direction. Just a standard story of first-place team beats last-place team despite two-plus quarters of hiccupping? No, not exactly.
The Storm had plenty of good excuses to lose this game. Bird was out. Jackson was under the weather. Seattle was on the road for a Sunday afternoon game two times zones away from a physically taxing victory against Indiana at home Friday night. And even though the Shock are in such bad shape now that the only thing they seem to be beating (they hope) is the staph infection that hit the team, Tulsa still provided enough of a challenge to topple Seattle.
If, that is, the Storm had the mindset that would have allowed it to happen. But Seattle doesn't have that. Just the opposite.
"People are going to just see the score, and they're not even going to realize how tough a game it was," Bird said. "And people might look at our record and think we haven't had any close games. But, aside from a few, almost every game we've had to work. We've often had to come back. That's the resiliency of this team."
What the Storm are concerned about, though, is the resiliency of Bird, who has shown that trait countless times in her career. Bird suffered a left knee injury on June 20, and in a season in which prominent names/faces such as Candace Parker and Candice Wiggins already have been lost to injury, WNBA followers prepared to collectively throw up at the horrid notion that the longer-tenured Bird might be gone, too.
But it was not as severe as feared -- she said it "hyperflexed" -- and Bird had 16 points in 35 minutes against the Fever on Friday. In the locker room before Sunday's game, she sat hooked up to a machine designed to warm and relax her lower back. Then she prepared for the game, but soon realized she couldn't play.
"Recently chronic," is how Bird wryly described her back issues, adding, "It's only been in the last couple of months. Between my L-4 and L-5 [vertebrae], I have a disc issue."
Bird was to be examined Monday, and thus, there was more breath-holding and finger-crossing going on. And not just among Storm fans. Bird is universally popular as one of the game's top performers and spokeswomen. Plus her importance as a point guard to the U.S. national team is all the more highlighted as the Americans have lost center Lisa Leslie to retirement and now post player Parker to injury.
It would seem downright evil on the part of hoops karma if Bird -- whose durability for the Storm has been fantastic through knee issues and broken noses and the myriad aches and pains of her profession -- were to be lost for any significant time this season.
Because this has more and more been feeling like it could be the Storm's year -- to make the WNBA finals, at least. The rest of the West teams are all having problems. Some, like Tulsa, are for obvious reasons. Others, like Phoenix, are harder to pinpoint.
But in Seattle, the puzzle pieces appear to be back together in championship-level form. The Storm won the WNBA finals in 2004, and in the celebratory moments after that, one might have expected another title (or two) would follow in the ensuing five seasons.
However, important role players departed, there was a coaching change and -- most crucially -- Jackson was hobbled by various injuries. Seattle has lost in the first round of the playoffs every year since taking the title, with Jackson unable to play in the past two postseasons.
Now, she is feeling about as good as she has in a while (not counting the exhaustion and nausea of this most recent trip, that is).
"My back still flares up occasionally and I have some Achilles tendinitis. But nothing I can't handle," Jackson said. (Although one suspects if she were held together entirely by steel rods and screws and took an hour to get through airport security each trip, she'd suggest it was nothing she couldn't handle, as well.)
"In terms of my body, compared to the past few years, I think I'm in the best condition I have been. Hopefully, it doesn't change. Because I really feel pretty great. I like feeling like this."
The Storm need her to keep feeling that way, and for Bird's back to be just cranky, not truly compromised. Which is not to suggest, by any means, this is a two-woman team. It's not, as Sunday's game -- including a 21-point performance by Svetlana Abrosimova off the bench -- proved.
Camille Little's nine points and nine rebounds were supplemented as always by the defensive versatility that Agler values greatly. Fellow starter Tanisha Wright played just less than 38 minutes, handling a lot of the point guard duties and getting 10 points and 10 assists.
Swin Cash, who like Jackson feels she's in almost blissfully good physical shape compared to some of the trials she has been through in previous seasons, had 11 points. Le'coe Willingham, whom Agler praises for her upbeat adjustment from starting for WNBA champion Phoenix last season to being a Seattle reserve this season, encouraged her teammates while on court and from the bench through the whole game.
Jana Vesela, whom Agler really hopes to get more playing time, made the most of her nearly 11 minutes Sunday. Including a steal and layup with 5½ minutes left in the game that tied the score. It was, Agler thought, the play that truly got Seattle over the hump. Then, with the finish line in sight, the Storm sprinted full-out.
"One thing we didn't have last year as much was the depth on the bench," Jackson said. "The way that Svetlana, for instance, stepped up today she's proven herself, a long time ago. But it's amazing when someone brings that much energy how it can help everybody else rally.
"Everyone can really play. Our chemistry is so amazing, and everybody contributes. Which is something that happened today."
Bird was forced to watch, though, and her health, obviously, can be the difference between Seattle continuing a sunny summer or needing to again try to do things the hard way: without a key player/personality.
Bird doesn't tend to show how worried or not worried she is, and that was the case Sunday. Suffice it to say, if her body allows, she fully intends to do everything possible to get her second WNBA title.
"What's so great about having veterans and mature players is we never get down emotionally and we never give up," Bird said of this Seattle squad. "Bringing in Le'coe and Svet was huge, because they are both capable of having big games when needed.
"And sometimes, regardless of personnel, it's about fitting and clicking. Hopefully, that's what we have here."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
Talent will win plenty of games. But a tough mindset is equally important when injuries and intangibles test a team, like they did to Seattle on Sunday.