- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Lauren Jackson talks about playing Liz Cambage and being proud of her Storm teammates' rally at Tulsa.
TULSA, Okla. -- Some stuff is left unsaid, whether things are going well or not. It's the difference between comfortable and uncomfortable silence. The Seattle Storm had some of the latter after a 74-50 pounding at Los Angeles last Sunday during which the Sparks were looking like the "Showtime" Lakers.
But the WNBA defending champion Storm had also had plenty of words used and thoughts exchanged during the course of their 2-2 start. Realistically, that should be no big deal. However, considering the WNBA has a 34-game regular season and the Western Conference is looking much more perilous this year than last, it's understandable that some flickers of concern had begun smoldering.
"It's no secret we'd been struggling a little bit -- offensively and having breakdowns defensively," Seattle point guard Sue Bird said. "It's not just losing, it's how we were losing. We had meetings, we talked about it, and we have a group here that we know what it feels like when we're playing well. And we hadn't been feeling that."
Tuesday was a trip to Tulsa, which somewhat improbably -- considering the teams' disparate fortunes last season -- had handed the Storm one of their six losses in 2010. The Shock were coming off their first victory of this season, having beaten Washington last Saturday, and there was an anticipated Aussie versus Aussie duel of Seattle's Lauren Jackson against Tulsa rookie Liz Cambage.
Not that Jackson, fierce a competitor as she is, was thinking about it in exactly those terms as the teams warmed up at the BOK Center. A decade older than Cambage, Jackson acknowledges she has a protective instinct toward her young Australian national team counterpart.
"I love that girl," Jackson said. "Before the game, when they had all the intro stuff [on the JumboTron], I was looking at it thinking, 'She's a gorgeous person,' and you just want the best for her. She'll be fine; she's just 19. I think she's a star."
Nonetheless, when it was time to play, Jackson was ready to mix it up. Then, as the Storm got off to a slow start, Jackson and Cambage locked legs in a battle for position and Jackson felt a pop in her left hip. She exited the game in the second quarter and wouldn't return. Jackson in recent days had already received a cortisone injection in that hip for some pain she was dealing with.
So Jackson was on the bench for the rest of the night, and the Storm were trailing an energized-looking Tulsa team. More doom for Seattle? Actually no. To the contrary, the Storm started looking like the "real" Storm again, the one we saw last summer win even when they weren't playing well. Seattle cut Tulsa's lead to six at halftime.
Then the third quarter was a Storm highlight reel, as they scored 30 points and essentially gave themselves enough padding to withstand a Shock fourth-quarter rally, winning 82-77.
Storm coach Brian Agler said afterward, "I had been talking to them, saying, 'You know, at some point, you guys are going to get tired of playing the way you're playing. You're going to get [ticked] off and decide to start playing.' I guess tonight was the night.
"In all honesty, it's not that they've been playing that bad, it's that we've been shooting the ball so poorly. And it gets frustrating for them. That's natural for basketball players. I think tonight we finally showed a little bit of our character and our heart that we had last year."
Now, the Storm will have to continue to show those things without Jackson. She has a strained left hip, the true severity of which remains to be seen. Seattle hasn't projected how long she might be out, calling it the proverbial day-to-day situation. She won't play Friday as her teammates attempt to avenge an 81-74 loss June 9, when Minnesota came to Seattle and nearly ran the Storm out of KeyArena with a surreal 22-0 run to start the game.
That ended the Storm's lengthy winning streak at home and signaled just how improved the Lynx were for 2011. Which certainly was not unexpected, with Minnesota adding No. 1 draft pick Maya Moore and having a feeling-better-than-ever Seimone Augustus. Rebekkah Brunson is also off to a terrific start for the Lynx, averaging 14.5 points and 13.3 rebounds.
Whether or not the Storm can slow down the Lynx on Friday, the overall attitude for Seattle is still cautiously improved. The "cautious" part because there is Jackson's injury to worry about. But the schedule might help a bit, as after facing the Lynx, the Storm won't play again until starting a three-game Eastern Conference road trip on July 1 at Connecticut.
The biggest difference between the Storm's five consecutive first-round playoff losses from 2006 to 2009 and the WNBA title in 2010 was Jackson being healthy throughout last year. She culminated her season with an especially strong playoff performance. So it can't be overstated how important it is to get her back.
Yet at the same time, this is a Storm team with some of the more intensely focused winners you will find in the WNBA. A collection of tough nuts to crack that got even tougher when veteran guard Katie Smith came to Seattle this season via trade.
"They played awesome, and that's what we needed as a team," Jackson said of watching her teammates find a way to victory without her Tuesday. "I think it was a mentality, 'Let's just get it done.'"
Credit for that was spread around the whole Storm locker room. Bird and Cash had led the way with a combined 38 points and 10 assists -- Cash also had nine rebounds -- but everyone who got into the game contributed something for Seattle.
Camille Little had 11 points and seven boards, Le'coe Willingham had 10 and four. Smith scored eight points. Ashley Robinson, who sometimes goes stretches without seeing much playing time, came in for 10½ minutes with Jackson out and filled in the gap defensively.
And then there was Tanisha Wright, the guard whom all with Seattle would say symbolizes the team's inner grit as much as anyone. With 45 seconds left, Tulsa -- whatever the team's flaws, on this night the Shock played very hard -- had rallied to within three points. Then the Shock did something that's rare: effectively trapping Bird and nearly causing her to lose the ball. Instead, the taller Tiffany Jackson forced a jump ball with Bird.
The Shock were bound to win that, right? Well, Jackson did win the tip, but Wright still raced to the ball and took it in for a layup, providing a five-point cushion the Storm would maintain. It was the hustle play of the game.
"The third quarter is exactly what we are supposed to look like," Wright said afterward. "Turning our defensive stops into easy scores. I think it's a mindset for us to play hard every night. Tonight we got into a mode where we started playing a lot harder than we've been playing."
The Storm's path will be harder, of course, the longer Jackson is out. But there was something about their performance in Tulsa that seemed to symbolize more than just one victory.
"Every year is different -- your role, your approach, your identity, they all change at least a little," said Smith, who watched the Storm's run to the 2010 title while she was in Washington. "So far, this season has been about finding our way.
"I just feel like we're starting to share the ball more, get out in transition more, crash the boards. Just overall, I feel like the energy and vibe are way better. And we can work with that."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.
In a more competitive Western Conference, it's clear Seattle isn't going to run over the rest of the league. But the Storm are starting to play more like the resilient team that won the 2010 title.