Better defense could key turnaround
SEATTLE -- With two new starters and a revamped lineup, coach Anne Donovan could accept the bumps in May and early June. But not in July, and not with the defending WNBA champs playing just .500 ball.
In a league where parity is the rule -- nine of 13 teams at the All-Star break were at or above .500 -- Seattle was the shocking exception.
Seattle entered the weekend at 8-10 and having lost six of seven, but rebounded to beat last-place San Antonio on Friday, and Los Angeles on Saturday to get to 10-10. Still, no one had a specific answer for the Storm's struggles.
"We're not helping each other out and we're not playing Storm basketball,'' All-Star Lauren Jackson said. "I don't know what it's going to take.''
Seattle is integrating five new players into the seven holdovers from the team that put together a remarkable playoff run last year to win the WNBA title, the city's first professional sports crown since 1979.
Seattle started strong, winning four of its first five. Things changed June 7 in Connecticut, when All-Star guard Sue Bird broke her nose.
Bird missed four games, and while her absence gave rookie Francesca Zara an opportunity to gain experience, it came at a difficult time.
Jackson was still recovering from offseason ankle surgery. She struggled early to find her shooting touch and build her conditioning. Australian reserve Suzy Batkovic didn't join the team until early June, and forward Iziane Castro Marques and center Janell Burse were learning their roles in the starting lineup.
Those factors, combined with a brutal June road schedule, sent Seattle spiraling.
"Personally it makes me mad when people compare it to last season,'' said Bird, who now plays with a protective mask. "We don't have the same team back. This is a new team with new goals. We have the talent in this room, we're just not putting it together the way we should.''
Donovan firmly believes Seattle's problems lie at the defensive end, and many of the numbers back her argument.
The Storm are at the bottom of the league in points allowed and field goal attempts allowed, and near the bottom in turnovers forced and rebounds allowed. Teams are getting extra offensive possessions against Seattle and taking advantage.
"That's the only way we're going to get back into the hunt, if we start defending better,'' Donovan said.
Causes for the slump aren't isolated to the defensive end. Seattle's 3-point shooting hovers just above 30 percent after the team led the league last year.
There has also been times of inconsistency among Seattle's top three scorers.
Jackson's scoring is down three points from last year, in part because of the constant triple-teams she faces. Bird's scoring and shooting percentage have dropped since being forced to wear the mask.
And Betty Lennox has struggled to find the playoff form that netted her the WNBA Finals MVP award.
"I don't know if it has really sunk in to a lot of people,'' Bird said. "We're struggling. I don't know if people are taking it as seriously as they should.''
Donovan isn't ready to panic, yet. Seattle plays eight of its final 14 games at home, where the Storm were 18-4 last year. Step one, she says, is to get above .500, then worry about the playoffs.
"We've got to get back to high intensity, smart basketball,'' Donovan said. "I truly believe it's things we can correct.''
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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