2013 WNBA playoffs preview: Heart won't be enough for the Storm to beat the Lynx

Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

The fourth-seeded Seattle Storm face the top-seeded Minnesota Lynx in the first round of the 2013 WNBA playoffs.

Most regular readers of this site know that it was launched with me covering the Seattle Storm.

The Storm were the first team I had ever seen in person in part because I recognized Sue Bird's name and Lisa Leslie's team was in town. Then I found out about the woman whose style of play was reminiscent of, if not entirely similar to, Dirk Nowitzki. Didn't take too long for me to get hooked, first on the Storm then on the WNBA as a whole.

Even since moving away in 2011, I still find myself rooting for the Storm. Fandom sort of grows on you that way: for no rational reason, you find yourself wanting to yell when your team misses shots or feeling good when they begin to come back. It's fun. It's the energy that fuels this whole SB Nation operation.

Yet I'd also say my Storm fandom isn't particularly deep either: you do not under any circumstances want to be in my presence when the Golden State Warriors or San Francisco 49ers lose. I'm miserable (which means there was a lot of misery for me for about a decade-long span around the turn of the century, almost two decades for the Warriors alone but they've righted the ship). Win or lose, I usually move on well from Storm outcomes.

This year, something changed slightly.

I had zero expectations for the Storm's season, as in if they had finished last in the league I wouldn't have been surprised. Losing Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson was just a lot to overcome and even though I appreciated the offseason moves I didn't think they'd be enough to make the playoffs. Then the first game of the season arrived and they got demolished by the Los Angeles Sparks, confirming what I and everyone else believed: that this would be a great year to begin the rebuilding process organically to strengthen the team for the future.

Because every basketball junkie awaits the opportunity to suck before being competitive again.

However, as the season really got going and they started to find their rhythm, what began as a situation in which demoralization would be a justifiable and, possibly, rational response became a showcase for what it means to play on pure heart. Early in the season, Seattle Times columnist Jerry Brewer wrote a great piece about the blue collar attitude of this team and, whether down 30 or ahead by 1, that attitude never seemed to waver. Storm games haven't been the prettiest thing to watch in 2013 - though much better than a recent Niners game - but it was almost impossible for me not to find myself pulling just a little bit harder for this team that was laying everything out there on the line under circumstances that could have pushed them the other way.

None of this is to say that the Storm aren't talented: Tanisha Wright is one of my favorite basketball players, period. Shekinna Stricklen has taken steps toward realizing her potential this season. Camille Little remains one of the most versatile blue collar players in the league. And Temeka Johnson's forays into the paint at 5'4" have bordered on inspiring. But it's also fair to say that this unit not only exceeded expectations but is almost certainly greater than the sum of its parts, buying into the system laid out for them by coach Brian Agler and literally gutting out wins in games that the numbers suggested shouldn't even have been competitive.

The irrational fan that produced that little personal narrative wants to believe that this team can somehow rain on the Minnesota Lynx's parade to a third consecutive WNBA Finals. The realist knows that all that heart that the Storm have shown this season won't be enough to stop the juggernaut.

Seattle Storm

Team MVP: Tina Thompson, F (MVP rating: 8.80)

Tina Thompson had some low points with the Los Angeles Sparks that had me somewhat surprised that she didn't retire after 2011 instead of signing with the Storm. Yet the Storm have given her new life and this year was the perfect way for her to finish an outstanding career.

Largely playing a reserve role in 2012, Thompson posted the second-highest scoring efficiency of her career (57.5%), including a career-high 42.7% 3-point percentage. But those accomplishments were somewhat muted by the fact that she was playing a career-low 19 minutes. She was less efficient in her 28.71 minutes this season, but still finished with a TS% above her career average and a strong 20.96% defensive rebounding percentage. And just for kicks, she shot 38.9% from 26+ feet on a league-high 72 attempts from that range, almost as a way to mock the notion that a longer 3-point line would be a challenge - people are not really joking when they say you have to account for Thompson when she crosses halfcourt.

Thompson still has the ability to score inside and outside and at times looks like she could easily play another year or two at an above average level. But most of all, she answered one of the major questions for the Storm entering the season: where the scoring would come from.

Strengths: Shooting efficiency, post defense, depth

The biggest question for the Storm entering this season might have been how they'd create shots and, indeed, they ended up with just a mediocre offensive efficiency this season. Nevertheless, they were a solid shooting team with an effective field goal percentage of 47%, which was fourth in the league (and, unfortunately, the Western Conference). But most important as they look toward the playoffs is that they had a 48.45% eFG% in the second half of the season, meaning they're improving on that front as well.

Defensively, it's noteworthy that the Storm gave up both the second-least points in the paint (28.71) and second chance points (9.88). There are two things that figured into that: first, the Storm also play at the slowest pace in the league, so teams are just going to average less points against that defense win or lose. But second, and more interesting, is that Storm opponents only took 28.9% of their shots from 1-5 feet, well beneath league average and the lowest in the Western Conference. So the Storm's defense really succeeds by denying attempts from close range, which is a good thing: opponents shot a league-high 61.1% from the 1-5 foot range against the Storm.

Still, this is a defense that is probably better than their numbers suggest in that they can force teams out of their comfort zone, which - regardless of defensive statistics - is the primary strategic objective of any half-decent defense. And as a team that regularly goes 9 deep, fatigue doesn't have to be a concern as much as it has for other teams - they can maintain that effort b getting bodies in and out of the game.

Weaknesses: turnovers, offensive rebounding, post scoring

However, the Storm were also victimized by turnovers this year: they had a league-high turnover rate of 18.8%. That's not good for a team that doesn't rebound well either - their 25.9% offensive rebounding rate was the second-lowest in the league, which contributed to a league-low 9.32 second chance points.

In other words, they neither extend nor protect possessions very well, which is why hitting threes is so crucial to what they do since they don't look to score from the post very often.

Team Pre-All-Star

eFg%

FTA/FGA

Oreb%

Tov%

Adj Synergy

Sea

45.53%

28.16%

25.23%

19.03%

0.15

Opp

47.11%

32.15%

28.90%

16.89%

0.31

Weighted

eFg%

FTA/FGA

Oreb%

Tov%

Mev diff:

Sea

-0.16

-0.08

-0.15

-0.18

-17.09

Team Post-All-Star

eFg%

FTA/FGA

Oreb%

Tov%

Adj Synergy

Sea

48.45%

32.53%

26.65%

18.66%

0.27

Opp

46.53%

29.43%

27.27%

14.72%

0.42

Weighted

eFg%

FTA/FGA

Oreb%

Tov%

Mev diff:

Sea

0.19

0.07

-0.03

-0.33

-10.49

2013 regular season Four Factors statistics for the Seattle Storm.

X-factor: Tanisha Wright, G (MVP: 8.42)

Tanisha Wright had a solid season but performed much better in Storm wins than she did in losses: she shot 50% in wins and just 38% in losses, including 34.8% from the 3-point line in wins and 21.7% in losses. In addition, her free throw rate dropped from 42.77% in wins to 27.71% in losses.

Sticking to the theme, she shot just 40% in the Storm's four losses to the Lynx this season, including 0-for-4 from 3-point range. So yes, Wright needs to shoot well. And even then, they'll have a tough time.

But Wright also needs to be an efficient ball handler: the Lynx are not afraid to pick on Temeka Johnson by posting her up and trying to take her out of the game. If that happens, Wright needs to be able to take the lead as the team's distributor.

In short, Wright is one of many players they'll need to be outstanding to compete in this series.

Key to winning: shoot and make a lot of threes

The Storm have a roster of players that can get hot from deep and rain shots on an opponent, which is just really difficult to defend. They're capable of putting a lineup on the floor with 3-4 3-point shooters. If they can move the ball, make the defense work, and find the open shooter they'll be able to put themselves in a good position.

But even then, they'll need the Lynx to have an off game in some area in order to notch wins.

Why to root for the Storm: Tina Thompson's last hurrah

If some part of you somewhere deep down doesn't want to see Tina Thompson lead the Storm to a deep playoff run in her final playoff appearance after the outstanding season she has had, then I can only assume that you like to kick puppies, dump motor oil in streams, detest moonlight in Vermont, and hate the movie Hoosiers. The Storm are going to play hard every moment of every game and it would be a fun ride.

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