After a wildly discordant WNBA season, Brian Agler has herded his cats into one spot for one good win, from which he hopes to claw to a second.
"We know we won our last three because we kept a focus on improving, not worrying about the (regular-season) record -- nothing more than that," the Storm coach said by phone from his hotel room in Minneapolis Wednesday. "If we play good basketball, we can do this."
In several ways, this has been the toughest of Agler's five Seattle seasons, and one of the worst by the franchise's standards. But even at at 16-18, the Storm made the playoffs for a league-record ninth consecutive time and have the talent for the upset of the top-seeded Minnesota Lynx (27-7), the defending champs.
Whether they have the health and will, no one knows.
Agler said his two stars, Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson, will start Friday (6 p.m., ESPN2) in the best-of-three opening round series that moves to KeyArena Sunday. But they are managing lingering injuries, a hip flexor for Bird and a hamstring for Jackson, largely the product of age and the cruel demands of women's international basketball.
"In the limited minutes she's played, Lauren's done well," Agler said. "We've had her around 10 minutes, which is better than no minutes. We're putting our best team out there and we'll see what happens."
If that doesn't sound like a clarion call to storm the castle, it's hard to blame Agler. He's had Bird and Jackson together for just five games, and even then the record was 3-2 because neither was at full throttle nor well integrated with players new to the Storm.
Beyond the almost month-long break for the Olympics that is difficult for all WNBA teams, Jackson took off the first half of the season to train with her mates on the Australian Olympic team in hopes of finally beating the U.S. That didn't work out, but the Olympic flag-bearer for her nation was summoned home for a week of honors anyway. By the time she returned in mid-August, she was out of game shape, new to the team and sore.
"In my five years, we've had to go without her for close to 50 games," Agler said. "We're about .500 in those games. With her, we've won about 70 percent. Just her presence alone makes a big difference. She's really worked hard to get herself back for the playoffs."
Her absence was the biggest part of why the Storm started the season 1-7, from which it is only now recovering. Bird too was inconsistent prior to the break, then during training in London, went through the emotional ordeal of the death of her mother's longtime partner.
Knowing the roster would be depleted, the Storm added veterans Tina Thompson, the WNBA's all time scoring leader, and Ann Wauters, both of whom had midseason injuries that cost them games and conditioning. And rookie Shekinna Stricken, the draft's No. 2 pick, got off to a slow start before becoming a steady contributor off the bench late in the season.
The travails also had an impact on attendance. The Storm's average of 7,486 was seventh among the 12 teams and down 13.5 percent from the 8,659 average a year ago. It was even steeper than the league-wide downturn, where the average of 7,457 was down 6.3 percent from a year ago and lowest since the WNBA began in 1997.
None of that matters at the moment to Agler, who has his has a full plate against an opponent, led by Olympian Maya Moore, that has been 58-14 over the past two seasons. The biggest Storm hope has been a teamwide improvement on Agler's bedrock demand of quality defense. The Storm held three of its last four regular-season opponents to 60 points or less.
"The last few games we've started to develop a defensive mentality," Agler said. "It's a good beginning for us."
Unfortunately for the Storm, the development is happening at the end of the season. No one will know if it's in time until late Sunday night.
SEATTLE STORM 2012 FINAL REGULAR-SEASON RESULTS
|5/18/12||vs. Los Angeles||L||66-72||0-1|
|5/22/12||at Los Angeles||L||61-74||0-2|
|6/3/12||at Los Angeles||L||65-67||1-4|
|6/9/12||at San Antonio||L||67-80||1-6|
|6/22/12||vs. San Antonio||W||82-76||4-7|
|6/30/12||at New York||L||59-77||6-8|
|7/7/12||at Los Angeles||L||59-83||7-9|
|8/18/12||vs. Los Angeles||L||71-82||10-11|
|8/26/12||vs. New York||W||84-66||11-13|
|9/14/12||at San Antonio||L||66-90||13-17|
|9/21/12||vs. San Antonio||W||84-75||15-18|