- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Coaches sometimes can make things seem more dire or mysterious than they actually are. But when Seattle's Brian Agler says of the Storm, "I really don't know how good we are," there's no reason to doubt him.
How would anybody know that about this year's Storm? It's fair to say they'll be a work in progress right up until the day their season ends.
Realistically, most are figuring that end will come against defending WNBA champion Minnesota. The Storm and Lynx open their first-round series in Minneapolis on Friday (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET). For Seattle to advance to the Western Conference finals, the Storm will have to win at least one game at Target Center, where the Lynx's only loss in 2012 came July 7 against Connecticut.
Seattle finished the regular season 16-18, and had three-time league MVP Lauren Jackson for just nine games because of her Olympic-team commitment to Australia. Her performances have been an uncharacteristic mixed bag because she has not only dealt with joining the Storm so late in the season, but has been dealing with injuries, too.
Jackson played at least 20 minutes just twice during the Storm's six games in September, and was limited to 11 and 12 minutes in her past two games.
"She is feeling better," Agler said earlier this week. "I don't know where we'll be [for Game 1] with the amount of minutes she can play. When she's healthy and engaged and hungry, she's a great player. She's proven that. Is she at that level now this season? She hasn't been yet, because we haven't been able to play her enough."
The only Seattle player who has appeared in every game this season is forward Camille Little, who's averaging 11.3 points, second on the team to point guard Sue Bird (12.2).
Bird again had the extra duty this year of being the U.S. Olympic team point guard, but she has still played in 29 of the Storm's games and once again has been the franchise's rock.
"Sue has been injured a lot more than people know, and played through it," Agler said of Bird's durability during her 11 WNBA seasons. "She's found ways to stay on the court. There's no question that's the one consistent factor in the five years I've been here in Seattle. Sue can elevate her game and make others around her better."
Bird, the quintessential pragmatic point guard, knows the Storm are at their best when she doesn't have to be their leading scorer along with primary playmaker. In Seattle's championship seasons, Bird was second (2004) and third (2010) on the team in scoring.
Both of those years, Jackson was the primary point producer, and she was relatively healthy and got a lot of minutes. How much can Jackson still summon this WNBA season from what has to be a depleted tank? That's a big part of the "Do the Storm have a chance?" narrative going into this series.
That said, the Lynx consider Seattle dangerous, especially when taking into account how much playoff experience there is among the various Storm veterans.
"We're preparing for a Storm team that's played great," said Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve, whose Lynx won the season series 3-1 against Seattle. "Those moments with Lauren Jackson in the lineup, with them playing [well], they didn't have a lot of moments like that. But that's who we're preparing for."
Minnesota guard Seimone Augustus, while fully understanding Jackson's potential impact, still knows it's possible for the Lynx to lose to the Storm even if LJ isn't involved. She wasn't with the team when the Storm beat Minnesota 65-62 on June 17 in Seattle.
"They're a dangerous team with or without Lauren, but they're that much more dangerous when she's there," Augustus said. "The best thing we can do is come out and match their intensity and be aggressive on the defensive end."
Actually, the Storm will have to do the exact same thing, and defense is a particular challenge against the Lynx, the best and most versatile offense in the league.
In an up-and-down season, the Storm know everything from here on out is an uphill climb as the No. 4 seed in the West. They'll have to find answers pretty quickly. But there is something the Storm should take pride in regardless of how this series goes: Seattle has made it to the postseason for the ninth year in a row.
"We got off to a slow start this season and dug ourselves a deep hole," Agler said of the 1-7 beginning for the Storm. "I'll give our players credit: They hung in there, and we've put ourselves in position to be in the playoffs. We'll just try to play the best we can. We're still an improving team."
The Storm have been a bit of a mixed bag this season. But will their work in progress peak at the right time in the first round against defending champ Minnesota?