The best thing that happened to the Seattle Storm in the fourth quarter of their 65-63 win against the Los Angeles Sparks last night was Kristi Toliver fouling Sue Bird and sending her to the free throw line for the game-winning free throws.
Prior to that point, they shot 20% from the field and had no answer for star Sparks forward Candace Parker down the stretch.
But the second best thing about that fourth quarter performance for the Storm was that they only turned the ball over twice. And if you're searching for signs that they might still have a chance to repeat as WNBA champions despite a tumultuous season, the turnover situation is a very good place to start.
Key statistic: Storm had a season-low 8 turnovers against the Sparks
One of the most significant impacts of Storm center Lauren Jackson's return after sitting out about two months with a hip injury has been that the team's turnovers have slowly declined even as they've played opponents that tend to force turnovers.
Seattle Storm turnover percentages since center Lauren Jackson's return vs the New York Liberty.
What's most notable about those last two games in the context of a season in which turnovers have killed the Storm is that the turnover percentage margin was arguably the most significant reason for their victories statistically. There haven't been many games this season that the Storm have won the turnover battle at all - particularly if you disregard the Tulsa series - and turnovers have been by far their biggest weakness of the season.
Part of the reason that the turnovers are going down is not only that Jackson is present, but also that she's playing much, much better than she was early in the season, accounting for an average of 26.78% of the team's overall statistical production; that's MVP-caliber production, even if it's still not Jackson at her best. With Jackson both demanding more attention from the defense and balancing the court with an interior threat, things have started to open up for the Storm meaning they haven't had to force things nearly as much to create scoring opportunities.
Perhaps more interesting is that while their turnovers are falling, it's not necessarily because Bird is becoming more of a pass-first point guard.
Key player: Sue Bird goes 6-6 from the line as she maintains a scorer's mentality
What often happens when Jackson returns to the lineup after an injury absence is that Bird transitions back to being more of a distributor than scorer. But that hasn't really happened this time year.
Although she shot only 2-for-12 from the field last night (40.98% true shooting percentage), she had a free throw rate of 50%, which any Storm fan can tell you is abnormal. Bird also turned in a solid defensive performance with season-highs of five steals and seven rebounds, but it's the scoring aggression that's been the most consistent trend lately.
Over the four games since Jackson's return, Bird has maintained a usage rate well above career average while having a below average assist ratio for a point guard. In other words, Bird has been far more aggressive in looking for her shot this year than at any point in her WNBA career. What makes that most notable is that the aggression hasn't just been due to Jackson being out of the lineup - with the exception of the game against Tulsa, she's maintained a scorer's mentality.
|Game||Usg Rate||Ast Ratio||PPR|
|v SASS||29.21% *||20.93%||3.70|
|v Tul||15.5%||33.33% *||6.66 *|
Sue Bird's passing/scoring rates since Lauren Jackson's return (* = team-high)
To be clear, although Bird is creating an assist less often than usual, she has still been an efficient ball handler, as her PPR numbers suggest.
But Bird's scoring aggression in four wins also highlights the value of guard Katie Smith to the team, even after some fans were howling about her being a bad acquisition during terrible early-season shooting: Smith has consistently been the team's most efficient ball handler during this stretch of games, with last night being an exception.
The combination of Smith's efficiency as a distributor and Tanisha Wright's development as a lead ball handler over the last few years makes the Storm a very difficult team to game plan for as they are an even more dynamic and balanced offense, with an aggressive perimeter scorer to complement Lauren Jackson.
Storm statistical MVP: The Little things Camille does add up to a strong game
With Bird and Jackson dominating the headlines for the Storm lately, it's very easy to miss what Camille Little does for the team.
She hasn't had quite the amazing season she had last season, but last night we saw flashes of what makes her so valuable to the team. Defenses have to respect her 3-point shooting ability, she possesses outstanding instincts that allow her to not only find scoring high percentage scoring opportunities but also get to the free throw line, and those same instincts make her a solid passer in the post as well. What makes her hard to guard is that she tends to be everywhere and nowhere at once, making her tough to guard even if the defense can find her.
The only thing she led the team in last night was her field goal percentage (a team-high 62.55), but she also had a free throw rate of 37.5% and a team-high pure point rating of 3.60 to boot (in case you needed further reminder of her versatility).
Sparks statistical MVP: Candace Parker helps Sparks finally out-rebound an opponent
But one area that hasn't improved for the Storm since Jackson's return is rebounding - they've been beat on the offensive boards in every game since Jackson's return.
They've obviously won four straight games in spite of their rebounding woes, but it's somewhat alarming given that they've played three of the four worst rebounding teams in that span (San Antonio, 12th; Tulsa, 9th; Los Angeles, 11th). Also noteworthy is that Jackson has had no offensive rebounds in her four games back in action, despite being rather strong on the defensive boards.
Perhaps more troubling is that Los Angeles allows the most offensive rebounds in the league, had been outrebounded in all six games since Parker's return and yet the Storm had no offensive rebounds in the first half. A large part of that appeared to be strategic: on a number of occasions the Storm just immediately fell back on defense instead of crashing the offensive boards, which forced a turnover prone L.A. team to execute against one of the league's best defenses. But another part of that has to be attributed to the work of Parker on the boards.
Parker had a season-high 14 rebounds to go with her game-high 15 points, including a dominant defensive rebounding percentage of 37.06%. For a team that has struggled mightily on the boards, Parker's boardwork can't be discounted as a major reason that the Storm lost the rebounding battle and she was arguably the game's MVP despite losing the game, accounting for 49.93% of the team's overall statistical output.
Parker did everything in her power to help the Sparks win that game, scoring nine points in the final six minutes down the stretch and showing what makes her a star worthy of the hype she's gotten, injuries notwithstanding - like Jackson, when she's on the court she's capable of things that most players in the history of the game simply aren't.
But the lingering question is whether Parker's efforts will be enough to help the Sparks sneak into the playoffs, particularly with San Antonio getting Danielle Adams back. Like many WNBA teams, the Sparks are best off when their production is more evenly distributed than one player accounting for 50% of their output.
The problem is that they're simply running out of time to figure things out and missing out on opportunities to steal a win from the Storm in KeyArena isn't helping them any.
"We need to win," said Parker after the game. "If we play like that, I feel like we'll win all the games. Unfortunately, we don't have a lot of games left, but I'm still hopeful."