Sue Bird knows how it goes. Win a championship and the expectations, well, they change. It's both the blessing of success and the curse of trying to repeat it.
This time last year, the Seattle Storm had everything pretty much nailed down. A playoff spot. Home-court advantage for the entire postseason. Seattle was the undisputed best team in the WNBA on the way to a title.
"Last season was rare," Bird said Thursday as the Storm prepared to play Friday night in Tulsa, looking to lock down the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference behind Minnesota and earn home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. "What we are going through now, where it's probably going to come down to the last game of the year, that's more normal."
The Storm have not been the dominant force they were a year ago. Losing star center Lauren Jackson for 20 games with a hip injury was damaging. Struggling on the road (4-11) thus far has also been a big issue.
Seattle, which finished 28-6 in the regular season in 2010, is 17-13 heading into the final four games. The Storm could clinch their eighth consecutive playoff spot as soon as tonight. They are dueling with Phoenix (17-12) for the second-place spot in the West, with one game separating the two in the loss column and a big matchup coming Sept. 9.
Bird, the Storm's All-Star point guard, said she is "not deterred" by the fact that this season is not like the last one.
"We've gone through adversity and we still have a chance to finish second," Bird said. "And in the playoffs anything can happen. There are seven other teams that can say the same thing, but I think we really just want to end up second, get that home court in the first round, and from there we are trying to peak."
Bird has been playing in the league long enough to understand how memories can play tricks on the mind.
"You win and you felt like it was the easiest thing ever, but it wasn't," Bird said. "The year we won in 2004, I think we had a five-game losing streak just before the playoffs and we finished second, and we won a title. You go through the playoffs and you see what happens."
Indiana and Connecticut lost Tuesday night, yet both ended up with Eastern Conference playoff berths thanks to Chicago's loss to New York. But the two teams will scrap for the East's top playoff spot in the final nine days of the season.
In the meantime, Atlanta is solidifying its hold on the final Eastern Conference spot, playing some of the best basketball in the WNBA right now. The Dream are 8-2 in their past 10 games and have won three straight.
Minnesota remains the only Western Conference team guaranteed a playoff spot. A Phoenix win over San Antonio on Thursday night would clinch a spot for both Phoenix and Seattle.
Call it small consolation for a Washington Mystics team that has had a rough year, with the second-worst record in the league behind Tulsa and a current nine-game losing streak.
Monique Currie is returning Thursday night after recovering from an ACL injury suffered while playing in Turkey last winter.
Her loss, coupled with another season-ending injury to guard Alana Beard, made it a difficult year in Washington for new head coach Trudi Lacey and her team.
ESPN2 reported the highest viewership numbers for its WNBA schedule since 2005. WNBA telecasts averaged 270,000 viewers – up 5 percent from 2010. The 12-game schedule produced a 0.2 household rating.