- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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Ask an obvious question, get a statistically relevant answer.
How important, Seattle Storm coach Brian Agler is asked, is the return of star center Lauren Jackson to his team's lineup for the stretch run of the WNBA season?
"In my five years here, we are 35-29 without her," Agler replied. "With her we are 66-24. There is a drastic change when she is on the court."
That being said, Agler has coached plenty of games without Jackson, the Australian star and three-time WNBA MVP, on the floor. And he'll coach a few more.
As the Storm resumed the season Thursday with a home victory over Phoenix, Jackson was in Australia preparing for a home-country celebration this weekend. Jackson, who became the all-time leading scorer in Olympic women's basketball history earlier this month in London, won't report to Seattle until early next week and could miss anywhere from two to four more games.
When she does return, Jackson is going to need time to settle in, Agler said.
"I think she's going to be tired," he said. "It's a lot of travel."
But Seattle has 14 games remaining, including nine at home at KeyArena. And the Storm appear to be on the upswing.
After an uncharacteristic 1-7 start for the 2010 WNBA champion, Seattle found its momentum heading into the Olympic break, winning seven of its past 10 games to move solidly into fourth place and the division's final playoff spot.
"I talked to the team after we were 1-7 and I told them that I always felt we could still really do a lot of good things," Agler said. "I asked them to get eight wins before the break and we got ourselves to nine."
Now it's time to close the gap on the top teams in the West -- Minnesota, San Antonio and Los Angeles -- though the coach admits winning a conference title is likely out of reach.
"I think it would be really tough to overtake all three teams, I can't see them all faltering," Agler said. "But I think we could overtake one or two."
Jackson, who hasn't been on the floor with her Storm teammates since the end of last season, returns to a changed team. While there are familiar faces such as Sue Bird, Katie Smith and Camille Little, the roster no longer includes Swin Cash or Le'Coe Willingham. Jackson will find herself playing alongside rookie Shekinna Stricklen, as well as two of the league's most veteran post players in Tina Thompson and Ann Wauters.
"Lauren is a big part of this team and having her back is great," Thompson said. "Everyone is excited for her return and getting her acclimated with the offense and working on our cohesion."
Jackson played with Wauters last year in Valencia, Spain. She has played with Thompson in Russia. Agler thinks that will ease Jackson's transition.
"She will definitely take our team to another level," Thompson said.
The Western Conference is a tough place to play catch-up, however.
San Antonio comes back from the break on a nine-game winning streak.
Defending champion Minnesota righted the way after a four-game losing streak showed the Lynx to be vulnerable for the first time in a long time.
Los Angeles made its own statement with five straight wins heading into the break.
Seattle wants to prove that with Jackson and U.S. Olympian Bird it is still a big factor in this league. Last year, after Jackson returned to the lineup from an injury with 10 games to go, Seattle won nine of those contests. The Storm are looking for a repeat of that kind of impact.
"Having both of them back is going to be really good for us," Thompson said. "It definitely takes our team to another level. We are pretty happy about the fact that we kind of changed our picture as far as the WNBA season goes and pulling it together going into the break, so we want to use that momentum going into the second half."
After playing the first half of the season without its three-time WNBA MVP, Seattle looks forward to the return of Lauren Jackson.