- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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SEATTLE -- Storm veteran Katie Smith knows how tough it is to try to repeat as WNBA champion. She came close to doing it with Detroit in 2006-07, but the Shock lost the latter year in a five-game series with Phoenix.
So Smith has been keeping an eye on defending champion Minnesota this season, watching to see how the Lynx are doing with the mental grind of attempting to win two titles in a row.
"Watching them play, from the outside, they haven't relaxed," Smith said. "You see there's not a lack of intensity. People are diving on the floor; against Atlanta [on Sept. 7] they went two overtimes and gritted that out. They take pride in what they do. It tells you they've got their minds on business. It's not, 'We're the champs and we can walk out and just win.' They go out and prove it."
The Lynx did that in Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinals, beating Seattle 78-70 Friday at Target Center.
Smith and the Storm, while acknowledging how hard it is to beat Minnesota, also felt frustrated. Because they knew they had at least a realistic chance of winning the game. The Storm were within six points three times in the last three minutes.
"We had a game plan that we were really comfortable and confident with," Seattle point guard Sue Bird said. "We knew we'd have to play really well to beat this team, especially on their home court. We had the right recipe."
Smith added, "I'm not saying we feel good about this game, because we know a couple more shots or stops [and] the game could have been different. But we just need to execute and get things done. Good effort, and we will get one on Sunday."
In fact, the Storm have to win Game 2, or their season is over. Nothing has come easily for Seattle this summer. So it's fitting that if the Storm somehow upset the Lynx to win this series, it will be done with their backs having been to the wall. Because it has kind of felt like that for Seattle from the start.
"I think we were trying to figure out who we were, identitywise, for a long time," Smith said. "It was kind of cool, though, that we kept fighting. We put ourselves in position to be in the playoffs. So it's been hard, and of course you want it to be easier. But these are the cards we were dealt. We managed and stayed above water as well as we could have."
The fact that Seattle has made the postseason for nine years in a row is an admirable mark of consistency that also has an inevitable catch, if you will. It means the Storm have had just one top-four draft pick -- Shekinna Stricklen at No. 2 this April -- in the past 10 years. They got that via trade.
"Without having quality draft picks, when you're not in that category, you have to find other ways to build the roster," Seattle coach Brian Agler said. "With us, it's been through free agency, making trades, bringing in international players. We have to be creative. It's hard to maintain that success without help from the draft, and every year that streak goes on, it gets harder. We hope to find a way to keep sustaining it."
With this year's 16-18 record -- "bad" by Storm standards -- Seattle still didn't even come close to missing the playoffs and being in the draft lottery. Count Seattle followers among those who were less than happy that Phoenix at some point seemed to let this season go, and ended up in the lottery. The Mercury won the grand prize, the chance to draft Baylor center Brittney Griner. Seattle is slotted to pick No. 6 next April.
The last time the Storm had a No. 1 draft selection, it was Bird in 2002. Seattle had the top pick the year before that, too, with Lauren Jackson. Both, of course, are still with Seattle, where they've won two titles.
Bird will be 32 in October, Jackson turned 31 in May. They had Olympic duties this summer; in Jackson's case, that kept her away from the Storm for the first half of the season as she trained with the Australian team.
Bird and Jackson aren't "over the hill" by any means, but right now in this WNBA season, they do look like they are climbing uphill. Meanwhile, Smith is 38, Tina Thompson 37, and Ann Wauters nearly 32 (in October).
In fans' eyes, that might put additional urgency on Seattle needing to rally in the series. The Storm can't look at it in an emotional, sentimental way, though. They have to be as all business as Minnesota is.
"They have the type of players who can take and make big shots," Bird said of the Lynx. "So of course we don't want to get in a hole against them [Sunday]. Historically speaking, when we have gotten off to good starts, we've had success.
"But there's a lot of things we can control: missed free throws, turnovers. If we'd taken care of those, then [Friday] could have been a different game."
For the Storm, Sunday will have to be.
The Storm know how hard it is to beat Minnesota. But they also know they blew a realistic chance to win Game 1. Now, with the season on the line, Seattle must be as all business as the Lynx are to even the series Sunday.