Commentary

Storm still setting pace in WNBA

Parity rules East, but even back-to-back losses won't derail Seattle in West

Originally Published: August 4, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

TULSA, Okla. -- The comparison that might come to mind about Tuesday's Shock-over-Storm upset is that of a spelling bee in which one competitor has a more limited vocabulary and understandably might have given up awhile back -- yet didn't. And on this night, the latter speller kept getting the right words and/or making the right guesses.

[+] EnlargeLauren Jackson
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonLauren Jackson and the Storm (22-4) already have clinched the top spot in the West.

Meanwhile, her counterpart was inarguably more talented and was fully expected to win -- yet didn't. On this night, to her great annoyance, she got tripped up by words she normally handles with relative ease.

Or try this analogy: Seattle, the team with the best record in the WNBA, is like a gleaming speedboat, while Tulsa, the team with the worst record, is like a beat-up aluminum boat with a 15-horsepower outboard.

There's no way that humdrum craft with a glorified egg-beater propelling it should really challenge the spiffy bigger vessel … but on this night, that's what happened. Because sometimes even the best motor has mechanical trouble. And the less-than-average-looking boat actually has more gumption than you'd think.

The key phrase in both comparisons, though, is "on this night." Because that's how it is this season in the WNBA, even when it comes to the likes of trying-to-get-off-the-ground Tulsa.

Most nights -- and days, for that matter -- Tulsa hasn't won. The Shock, with their shifting personnel as coach Nolan Richardson made his various deals, quickly plummeted to the Western Conference's cellar.

Seattle, with MVP candidate Lauren Jackson as healthy as she has been in awhile (save her recent thumb injury) and the league's gold standard of point guards, Sue Bird, still running the show, just as quickly climbed to the top perch and stayed there.

The Storm -- which clinched its playoff spot in July -- have been so far ahead in the West that you wondered if even a group this intensely focused could really keep that sharp game in and game out for the duration of the regular season.

Now, after a 72-71 loss at Minnesota on Sunday and Tuesday's 84-75 upset at Tulsa, the Storm actually might be kind of relieved, albeit in an irritated way. They had potential small cracks in the armor exposed. After 13 consecutive wins -- including a perfect July -- they had to swallow a couple of spoonfuls of that gross, foul-tasting "it stinks to lose" medicine.

And that really isn't such a bad thing for a highly motivated group set on winning the franchise's second WNBA title.

"Every team that I've played on that's had success has gone through something like this," Bird said. "It's normal. It's somewhat human nature. It's better to see these things now and fight our way through it. I'm confident we're going to come out the other side and be better for it.

"We really do feel as if a lot of what happened these last two losses has been in our control. And I'd rather have that problem."

[+] EnlargeLindsay Whalen
David Sherman/NBAE/Getty ImagesLindsay Whalen and the Connecticut Sun have lost three straight, but are still only four games out of first place.

She's right, of course. Turnovers, defensive lapses, some sloppiness, mental mistakes and a bit of lethargy seemed to bother the Storm in the defeats. And all of those things are decidedly uncharacteristic for this group.

Even terrific teams have rough games. Bird's 2002 UConn squad didn't actually lose once, but that's not to say the Huskies didn't sometimes feel glum after victories because they didn't play like their normal selves and they knew the potential danger in that.

And it's very dangerous in the WNBA. Because with 12 teams and 11-player rosters, talent is dispersed enough to have at least the possibility of anybody beating anybody on a certain night.

In an Eastern Conference where parity is so strong that it borders on the absurd, this means that teams will go on little streaks but no squad has really gotten the upper hand.

A week ago, Washington was fading (having lost four of five), Indiana was surging (five straight wins) and we were unsure if New York really was on the ascent. Now, the Mystics have won three in a row, the Fever have dropped three straight, and the Liberty are indeed on their best stretch of the season with four consecutive wins. But what will we be saying next week?

Atlanta, meanwhile, had its third stretch of the season with at least four straight wins come to an end Tuesday … at home against Washington. Because that's the other thing about the East this season. Home-court advantage hasn't necessarily proven to be much of an edge.

Leading to Connecticut coach Mike Thibault's theory that, more often than not, the team that's the most "desperate" on any given night seems to win. (And desperation should be what his Sun are feeling now, having lost three straight and dropped into fifth place.)

However, none of that has really mattered in 2010 when it comes to the Storm. With very few exceptions, Seattle has been the anvil to everybody else's Wile E. Coyote all summer long.

Tuesday, it really wasn't "desperation" that was motivating the Shock. Tulsa came into the game having won just four times all season, and not at home since June 4. The only other victory since then had been at San Antonio on July 16. You might guess Tulsa left behind "desperation" and settled into "despair" quite awhile back.

Except there's a reason these players are professionals. Every woman in this league has had some significant impact at some point in her basketball career. Maybe it was back in college, but it's not as if anyone in the WNBA hasn't been very, very good at some level.

And that pride doesn't just evaporate. Maybe it gets bruised and battered -- and it certainly has for the Shock players this season -- but it's still there. And when an opponent that appears a little mentally tired and perhaps is in a small emotional rut gives a struggling team an opening … well, the pride comes to life.

That's basically what happened with the Storm and the Shock on Tuesday. One still lives in the high-rent district and the other is still in a tenement. One game didn't change that, of course. But on this night, each briefly saw how the other one lives.

It was great for the Tulsa players and fans, who've had to get by on crumbs. This franchise wants to be in the city long-term. The Shock needed a night like Tuesday to show that while they don't reside in the same neighborhood as the Storm this season, it's not like they're on different planets.

"I think it was definitely validation of what we've been saying after every loss," said Scholanda Robinson, who led Tulsa with 21 points against Seattle. "We're not as bad as our record at all. We've been in games, but not able to pull them out. And tonight, we put it all together."

And the Storm had one of those rare occasions when they were fragmented.

"We're going through a little bit of a lull right now," Jackson said. "But we'll definitely come out of it."

In fact, look for that on Thursday (ESPN2, 9:30 p.m. ET), when the Storm will be boosted by what surely will be a particularly encouraging Seattle crowd. Going into that lion's den will be Connecticut, which has lost three in a row and five of six.

"I think records are deceiving. It really doesn't matter what our record is. All it means is we've clinched a playoff spot," Bird said. "And we've love to clinch home-court advantage throughout. But if you look at games at this point in the season, forget the records. It's about who's playing well.

"In the WNBA, even a team like Tulsa that doesn't have many wins still has talent. It really is about who comes out and plays better. And we just want to get back to that."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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