Seattle Storm center Lauren Jackson made a huge impact in her return from injury on Saturday, but her 5-for-5 free throw shooting might have been the most significant factor in their 63-62 win over the New York Liberty on Saturday. Photo by Craig Bennett/112575 Media.
It was perfectly reasonable to approach Jackson's return from a hip injury against the New York Liberty on Saturday with tempered expectations.
"The question when Lauren Jackson comes back is just the timing of everything," said ESPN commentator Rebecca Lobo, fittingly during the first meeting between the Liberty and Storm on August 9. "What will Seattle's offense be like? Will they try to run it through Lauren again? Will Sue start deferring again offensively? It's going to take a little bit of time to find their rhythm with Lauren."
On top of that, despite what you might hear from some fans and media, Jackson had not been playing well prior to the injury that kept her out for about two months.
As difficult as it is to ever suggest that Jackson is a non-factor in a basketball game, she certainly wasn't playing well even by standards we might hold lesser players to - she was averaging career-lows across the board and looked less than aggressive.
The Storm suffered two blowout losses to the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks with Jackson in the lineup and weren't terribly impressive in their wins. The Storm's turnover problems throughout this season could be attributed to Jackson in that they had to play differently to get things done offensively, but the turnovers were present even with her in the lineup as well.
And so with all of that as context for her performance in the Storm's 63-62 win on Saturday - the combination of her not playing well prior to injury and the legitimate concerns about how the Storm would adjust - it's noteworthy that it took no time at all for her to impact a game and arguably give the Storm the edge against an opponent that had beaten them just two weeks earlier.
What's more, it was by far her best game of the season.
Storm statistical MVP: Lauren Jackson scores a season-high 20 points, ties season-high 7 rebounds
To answer Lobo's second question, the Storm might not have run the offense through Jackson at all times, but they sure weren't shy about establishing her and Jackson wasn't exactly lacking for confidence in taking advantage of scoring opportunities all over the court.
In her first game back from injury, Jackson had a game-high 33.29% usage rate, indicating that her team relied on her for scoring more than either team relied on any player.
While averaging only 9 points prior to injury, Jackson had only accounted for less than 5% of the teams' overall statistical production, a far cry from her MVP play of last season. But in putting up season-high numbers against the Liberty, she accounted for 35.53% of the Storm's overall statistical production, which would be laudable by even a MVP-candidate's standards.
However, what's particularly remarkable about that performance is that she did all that in 21:43 minutes of play. If we look beyond just the fact that she scored 20 points in 22 minutes, the entirety of that level of performance is pretty remarkable in those limited minutes. Her valuable contributions ratio (VCR) - which is a per minute efficieny metric that approximates the quality of a player's minutes - was a whopping 3.23; that number represents a player who is not only playing starter or All-Star level basketball, but someone who is dominant while on the court. Considering that she was obviously not yet in game shape - both in terms of visible signs of exhaustion and fouling out for the first time in years - it's pretty remarkable.
And that's before even discussing her most significant contribution.
Key statistic: 18 free throws is significant for the Storm
While Jackson's team-high 81.96% true shooting percentage was probably the most significant individual contribution to the team given that the rest of the shot 14-47 (29.78%), her 5-5 free throw shooting (a free throw rate of 50%) is also something that gave the Storm possibly their biggest statistical advantage of the night.
In their first game against the Liberty, the Storm didn't get to free throw line at all in the first half and had a 9% free throw rate for the game. And it's been the logical consequence of something that has plagued them all season - without Jackson in the lineup, they not only became a very perimeter oriented team but also a far-too-often stagnant team that settled for jumpers more often than attacking the basket.
On Saturday, the Storm were far more aggressive, with a free throw rate of 28.1% compared to the Liberty's anemic 9.7% free throw rate (also interesting is that none of the Liberty's guards even had a free throw attempt, although some would argue that Essence Carson should have gotten 2 at the end of the game). Camille Little led the Storm in attempts with 5-6 free throw shooting, but that she and Jackson combined for 11 free throw attempts shows a needed shift in mentality with Jackson on the floor, which provides an indirect answer to Lobo's first question - the Storm immediately became a more balanced offensive team with Jackson on the court, in mentality as well as function and strategy.
Yet in answer to Lobo's third question, Sue Bird wasn't exactly deferring to anyone either.
Key player: More scorer than distributor, Sue Bird shot 6-for-18 from the field
Indeed it's still early to determine how Bird will perform in the long run with Jackson on the court for normal minutes, but she certainly wasn't shy about looking for her own shot just because Jackson returned either - Bird scored 14 points, including 1-for-7 three point shooting, and had a usage rate of 27.85%, second only to Jackson on the night and still pretty extraordinary considering how much the Liberty normally rely on Pondexter for scoring.
With Bird shooting so much, her role as distributor diminished a bit with her having an assist ratio of 17.06%, well beneath the threshold of what we might normally consider a distributor. So the lingering question, consistent with Lobo's question, is whether the Bird and Jackson can possibly co-exist as two high usage players once Jackson's minutes increase to something representing "normal".
That Katie Smith complemented Bird in the starting backcourt as an efficient distributor (team-high 33.33% assist ratio, 8.33% turnover ratio, team-high 4.90 pure point rating) was certainly helpful for the Storm to find some fluidity in their offense if Bird is to remain a volume shooter. And Wright has often been more efficient than she was on Saturday (team-high 33.78% turnover ratio, 22.52% assist ratio, team-low -9.82 pure point rating) and should be expected to do better after getting back into the swing of things after missing time to tend to (more important) family business.
But most important is that the Storm are extremely difficult to stop with both Bird and Jackson posing a threat to score and it suddenly opens up even more opportunities for people like Little, Smith, Wright or Swin Cash to score. There's no reason to expect Bird and Jackson to both maintain such high usage rates and they were at their best last season when shots - and efficient shooting - were distributed more evenly across their seven major rotation players.
So going forward with Jackson getting more minutes, this question of how Bird adjusts might be the biggest question.
Liberty statistical MVP: Cappie Pondexter had a game-high 6 assists and team-high 6 rebounds
While the ease with which Bird has transitioned to primary scoring threat from supremely efficient distributor is what makes her a MVP candidate, Pondexter showed why she's a MVP candidate even in loss on Saturday.
Despite having a sub-par scoring night with only 12 points, Pondexter was very efficient as a distributor (28.57% assist ratio, 9.52% turnover ratio, 5.40 pure point rating) and was quite strong on the defensive boards for a guard, with a nearly 20% defensive rebounding percentage. Although she's known for her scoring ability - and rightfully so as arguably the hardest perimeter player to guard in the league one on one right now - her ability to do more than score is what separates her as one of the best players the game has seen.
She could be critiqued for some of the off-balance contested jumpers that she took, but those are the kind of shots that nobody will complain about when they go down and a defensive-minded team like the Liberty just needs that sort of thing occasionally.
How far can the Storm go with Jackson back in the lineup?
But on a night where the usual suspects did end up shining the brightest, there remains something special about Jackson's performance.
It's rare that a player of Jackson's caliber will ever do something "surprising" or catch us off guard, but by any reasonable standard her performance on Saturday - and the way in which it influenced the team in multiple ways - at the very least gave us a fresh example of how great a player she is, if it didn't actually cause some surprise.
"No one but a great athlete can do that," said Liberty coach John Whisenant of Jackson's performance after the game on Saturday. "I was afraid that she wouldn't show the rust because she and Sue (Bird) and Swin (Cash) and the core group have played several years together and last year winning the championship. But it's still tough to come back and not lose rhythm."
But even if that is just what the great ones do, for once, she wasn't supposed to have that kind of impact in 20 minutes.
Should we expect Jackson to put up equivalent numbers in every game for the Storm down the stretch? Probably not and Lobo's right that the Storm will still have to go through an adjustment period, with the balance of Bird and Jackson's scoring perhaps being chief among them.