Second title even sweeter for Storm
Seattle becomes fourth team to go unbeaten in playoffs en route to title
ATLANTA -- What became evident fairly early in this WNBA season was proven ultimately true Thursday night: The 2010 Seattle Storm was, indeed, a team to remember.
And a big part of the reason why was that Sue Bird never forgets anything.
"I can take you play-by-play of every playoff loss of the last five years," Bird said in a triumphant Seattle Storm locker room Thursday at Philips Arena. "It really was annoying. I had to constantly talk about it and hear about it, and it was irritating. To finally be able to put that aside is a relief."
The Storm weren't a team that was dominant in the sense that it throttled all its opponents. To the contrary, the Storm made rallying an art form this summer. And it was not a team that was "unbeatable" -- Seattle did lose six games in the regular season.
But the Storm were a team that always seemed to figure out how to get the job done whenever it really mattered. A squad of brains and brawn. A mixture of players who had won it all before and others who had been aching for a long time to do that.
With Thursday's 87-84 victory over the Atlanta Dream, the Storm became the 2010 league champions. And one of those players who had spoken of how much she wanted a title after not winning one in college, Camille Little, hit two crucial free throws with 6 seconds left. That forced the Dream to attempt a tying 3-pointer. Atlanta missed two chances at that, the buzzer sounded, and the Storm could then start celebrating. The coronation -- the franchise's second title, following the 2004 championship -- was complete.
"It came way too close," Bird, ever the perfectionist, said of the clinching game being as down-to-the-wire as it was. "It's been a long time since 2004. To get back to win, to go undefeated in the playoffs I couldn't be happier."
Her longtime teammate -- the other part of the Storm's iconic pairing -- Lauren Jackson spoke of a different emotion. Sure she was happy, but
"I'm actually kind of sad right now," Jackson said, "that it's all over."
The Storm finished a 3-0 sweep of Atlanta -- a statement that doesn't really do justice to how good a team the Dream were and how difficult they made it for Seattle. And how terrific a team Seattle had to be to make it happen.
"I've to commend the Atlanta Dream," Seattle coach Brian Agler said. "They are a very, very competitive group of people."
But so are the Storm. And the head-on meeting of these two teams produced a series in which it felt as if Seattle was walking a tight rope between winning and losing and never fell off.
The first two games were decided by a total of five points. The third and decisive game was a battle, too, but the Storm secured their title far from home. Which is fitting. Because as much as the KeyArena advantage was highlighted this season, with the Storm going 21-0 at home, Seattle was also very good on the road.
After the buzzer sounded here at Philips Arena, [Sue] Bird looked for [Lauren] Jackson. Jackson looked for Bird, who jumped into the Aussie giant's arms in jubilation.
Seattle became the first team to go through the WNBA postseason undefeated since the Los Angeles Sparks did it in 2002. The Storm, the first team to go 7-0 in the postseason (the Sparks and the 2000 Comets were both 6-0; the 1997 Comets were 2-0), started this playoff run with the Sparks, then had to go through last season's champion, Phoenix.
Seattle really appeared well on its way to losing Game 2 against the Mercury, but rallied from a 19-point deficit.
"All season long, we've been in situations where, you know, we've been down and people start to put a gap on us," Jackson said. "And we've had players step up and hit big shots. That's been the magic of our team really all year."
Bird wielded the magic wand in that series-winning comeback against the Mercury, hitting a 3-pointer in the closing seconds. Then, it was "déjà-Sue" in the first game of the Finals, as Bird got the last dagger again, a two-pointer to beat the Dream by a basket and set the tone for this last series.
"They were tough, and they did what they had to do to win," Atlanta coach Marynell Meadors said of the Storm.
When the Storm won the 2004 title, the league still had a best-of-three finals. Seattle still had an NBA team. Atlanta didn't have a WNBA squad.
Bird was only 23 -- she turned 24 four days after the Storm won the championship -- and still the heir apparent as the league's best point guard, but not quite there yet.
Jackson had already won a WNBA MVP award, in 2003. We knew she was a great player then, but we had to wait to see just how great. That has been answered: one of the greatest ever. She won her third WNBA MVP award this season and then was named 2010 WNBA Finals MVP on Thursday after a 15-point, nine-rebound performance gave her 67 and 24 for the series.
Six years ago, Swin Cash was still basically happy in Detroit, having won a WNBA title there in '03. But as the Storm played Connecticut in the 2004 Finals, Cash was facing rehab for a knee injury suffered near the end of the regular season. In front of her were also back problems that would require surgery. She would have a long climb back as a premiere player, and she has done that. Cash had 18 points on Thursday, including two critical third-quarter 3-pointers that came back-to-back and erased the Dream's last lead of the game.
In addition to winning the franchise's second title Thursday, the Storm also set a record for most wins in a season. Seattle's 35 victories (28 regular season, seven playoffs) topped the previous record of 34 held by the 2001 Sparks. The Storm are the fourth team to go unbeaten in the playoffs, but the first to win seven games.
Oh, and Tanisha Wright was a senior at Penn State in 2004. Little was a sophomore at North Carolina. Wright's Penn State team was upset in the first round of her final NCAA tournament. (That 2005 loss to Liberty, frankly, was followed by many things unraveling with the Penn State program.) Little's Tar Heels went to the Final Four in both 2006 and 2007 but she was bugged by not winning the NCAA championship.
And when Little stepped to the line Thursday night for her free throws, she knew the magnitude of what she was doing.
"I was just praying on those," said Little, who actually should take some credit -- she went from being a 52.5 percent free-throw shooter as a rookie in 2007 to making 71.1 percent this season. "I've taken big free throws before, but not for a championship."
Bird and Cash, of course, come from one of the best college programs in any sport, and they won two national championships at UConn. But both of them still burn over the 2001 title that they didn't win.
It's worth looking back on all this because of what it says about the resolve of Bird and Jackson, in particular. They are what remains of the Storm from 2004. The league changed, the length of the finals series changed, Seattle's coaches changed, the Storm's ownership changed, as a group of businesswomen refused to lose the WNBA franchise and kept it in place even though the SuperSonics were taken away to Oklahoma City.
And, yes, Bird and Jackson changed some, too. All changes for the good. The best point guard-center combo that the WNBA has known got better, individually and as a duo.
Jackson was asked during the Finals if, after nine seasons of playing with Bird, there had ever been times when they got irritated with each other. She shrugged. Rarely, it happens in practice.
"Then we just look at each other," Jackson said, "and it's over in like 2 seconds. When my career is over, I'm sure I'll say she's the best teammate I ever had."
Bird had to do a lot on her own in the postseason in 2008 and '09, as Jackson was injured and couldn't play. Bird carried so much weight in the second half of the 2008 season, she got some well-deserved league MVP votes.
It was in 2008 that Bird talked about looking in the mirror and thinking she was seeing a player who wasn't really living up to her potential. As good as Bird was then, it says something about how hard she was willing to judge herself that she saw such a need for improvement.
And it bothered Bird tremendously that Seattle lost in the first round of the playoffs each of the past five years.
"I judge myself as a player based on winning," Bird said. "And to not win in five years, really, really hurt."
The thing is, the Storm did win lots of games during those years. In fact, it was no small feat just to make the playoffs each of those seasons. But for Bird that wasn't nearly enough.
This WNBA season, much like her mindset during her perfect senior season at UConn, Bird felt a sense of intense purpose and yet reassuring calm, believing that a championship was again in Seattle's grasp with Jackson healthy.
After the buzzer sounded here at Philips Arena, Bird looked for Jackson. Jackson looked for Bird, who jumped into the Aussie giant's arms in jubilation.
Six years after they won it all, they did it again. They had a new supporting cast and coach with them. And the second time around, it was even sweeter.
"I feel like I could cry," Jackson said, "and I'm not a crier. I'm completely elated."
Bird's eyes were sparkling but not with tears. With extreme satisfaction at climbing back to stand on top again.
"When you first win a championship, you can take it for granted," Bird said. "You don't realize how hard it is. Believe me, we're going to enjoy this."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.
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