Things were pretty much business as usual at Seattle Storm practice.
Point guard Sue Bird playfully raced over to the media so that she could get out first, just to tell us pretty much the same thing we always hear: there's still work to do, even after a wildly successful road trip.
"You know the good and the bad about this road trip: the good is that we won the games," said Bird, referring to going undefeated during a stint in which they played 5 of 7 games on the road. "I know we have the best record in the league and all that stuff, but teams are getting better and you can sense it. Especially on this road trip, you really could. So the good is that we were able to win some tough games -- on the road, we had to grind some out, the triple overtime. The bad is that I think we saw some things in our team that we really want to improve on and that's always good -- hopefully we can be mature enough to learn from these wins the way you would learn from a loss."
Not that there was an evident problem with their MVP candidate's shooting.
While waiting to interview coach Brian Agler, 6'5" post player Lauren Jackson drained three pointer after three pointer, prompting comparisons among media and staff -- who have been around Seattle basketball longer than Swish Appeal has existed -- to watching former Sonic Ray Allen shoot before games. She normally hits so many in a row that her post-practice that the monotony of the ball falling through the net just becomes background noise. We came together and watched her hit 20+ straight jumpers after someone jokingly pointed out that she had actually missed one.
Yet with all this talent and desire to improve, listening to Agler describe the entirety of this fantasy situation, you might not even know they were ahead of the second place Phoenix Mercury by 10 games.
"Trying to just put ourselves in the best position possible for the playoffs now," said Agler matter-of-factly, as though there's a looming risk that they won't have the best position possible. "That is to try to get as much home court advantage as we can. In the first round, trying to get a first round home court advantage. Then try to get first and second. And then try to -- we still have a chance -- to get all the way through. That doesn't guarantee anything, but it just, you know, if you look at history usually people with home court advantage come out on top, if you can stay healthy."
What's evident by now is that attempts to ferret out any sort of arrogance and anxiety, distress or excitement, doubt or overconfidence among this group will be met with a smile and polite dodge. And it's not necessarily a matter of the Storm putting on a dramatic re-enactment of the 1980's San Francisco 49ers "act like you've been there before" ethic -- the demeanor they show the media after practice is the same demeanor that allows them to survive triple overtimes, fourth quarter deficits, or trying to persist despite needing rest while playing the 5th of 7 games on the road.
"I think we weren't as efficient as we'd like to be playing on the road after the All-Star break," said Agler. "But if you think about it, we really only had one quality practice after the All-Star game. And even then we had to rest people because they didn't get rest during the weekend. Like Swin came back -- she was exhausted so we gave her the day off. Then the next day we gave Sue a day off. I think it's important you do that though -- I think you have to stay as fresh as possible. And to stay fresh means you have to cut back or eliminate practice."
So let's just pause for an attempt at understanding: they just played 5 of 7 games on the road, inefficiently won all of them in the midst of a 10 game winning streak, and they only had one "quality" practice?
The thought of them getting practice time, rest, and playing at home is frightening (for opponents, not for the KeyArena fans).
If it feels as though there is something surreal about the whole thing -- a team that continues to win no matter what the circumstances and suggesting none of it really matters -- that makes sense. At the same time, the unflappability that they show in practice is also what allows them to stay focused on the things they have to do to get better even when complacency would seem like the path of least resistance when there is likely no realistic chance for Western Conference challengers to catch them in the standings.
"Like I was saying about the bad -- in terms of that road trip -- that won't allow us to be complacent," said Bird. "We really have a lot of work to do. Because these teams -- and I think all along we knew that was going to happen because it happens every year -- teams get better. And just San Antonio alone -- from the first time we played 'em to now -- we saw a completely different team. And they were better. So we have to be ready for that as well."
Agler reluctantly shared some insight about what some of those "bad things" are alluding to a problem that might not be immediately obvious.
"I think we just got away from the way we play the best and I don't think it's anybody's issue because a lot of it has to do with having the ability to regroup, watch yourself on film, get some things worked out in practice," said Agler. "I think we give up too many second chance points. We're one of the better rebounding teams in the league but people get too many quality second opportunities against us."
Yet even when identifying a negative, it can be turned into a positive. Yes, they give up the most 2nd chance points in the league at 14.23 a game (through June 20th), but it's not a generalized problem on the interior -- they give up the third least points in the paint (27.85) and then counter their opponents' 2nd chance points with a league-high 15.46 of their own. The point being that while they aren't flawless, they don't exactly have gaping holes that they need to fill in order to embark upon what is starting to feel -- for fans at least -- like an inevitable run to the Finals.
Of course, with the trade deadline coming up on Monday, the second place Phoenix Mercury have filled a need of their own, acquiring Kara Braxton from the Tulsa Shock in a trade announced earlier today. While Braxton is not necessarily a dominant offensive rebounder this season -- the type that would lead to second chance points -- her strong defensive rebounding could help contend with the Storm's league-leading 2nd chance points and give them an extra edge.
"I think that's a great pickup for them," said Bird. "Kara Braxton is a player who - gosh - she can do a lot of things on the floor. When she wants to be great, she can be great. And for them, they haven't really had that low post presence, so it'll be interesting to see how she fits into the running game, but in terms of the things that she does bring just the essence of who she is, she adds a lot to their team."
However, for the Storm's part, although it's standard procedure to keep an open mind with regard to trades, it does not sound like anything is imminent on the trade front. Or rather, Agler did not reveal anything today, not that one would expect him to.
"I think you're always looking and waiting and seeing if you can improve," said Agler. "If we were going to do something, we'd have to do something that we knew would make a difference for us. That's where we're at right now. Phoenix obviously did something that they felt would make a difference for them. So I think most teams are like that right now."
Sitting three games away from claiming the best start to a season in the history of Seattle professional sports -- MLB, MLS, NASL, NBA, NFL -- the Storm remain cool, calm, and collected.
"I never know these things," said forward Swin Cash chuckling. "I think it's pretty cool. I think when you talk long-term and legacies you always want to be something that's either the first or that's going to be around for a long time. So that would be a nice accomplishment for us."
It really isn't just resilience that this team is showing in winning all those games on the road, but more broadly an apparent security in who they are as a unit that allows them to remain level even when the accolades and weight of potential accolades seem to pile up. Legacies are for later -- for now, they're still focused on doing the things necessary to win a title.
"I think those kinds of things will be special five years from now when you look back on it," said Agler. "I just think in reality, you have to stay in reality, you know? We'd like obviously to win as many games as we can, put ourselves in the best position. And I know those are kinds of things that you guys like to talk about and write about, which is obviously nice. But it doesn't really get anything for us -- it doesn't win the first round. It does help you secure home court advantage the more wins you get obviously. So I think we're just trying to keep our focus on what can we do now that can help us in late-August or September? And just keep our focus right there."
So perhaps we can conclude that the key to the Storm's success is staying focused on reality if, that is, you don't regard this season as more of a dream.