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Key Arena Preview/Game Thread: Abrosimova & Storm’s versatile bench focus on stopping Showtime

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Seattle Storm forward Svetlana Abrosimova at last week's media day.

Stay with us during the game time for our game thread.

It is probably predictable that the Seattle Storm closed yesterday morning's practice with a chant of "defense".

It's no secret that although the Storm's two most recognizable players are often lauded for their offensive ability, primary focus is defense of the Storm head coach Brian Agler is unmistakably the team's defense. In her remarks to the team at the close of practice, assistant coach Jenny Boucek described the additional significance of playing defense against with the Los Angeles Sparks in town for tonight's 6 pm season opener at Key Arena.

"They're trying to bring showtime back to LA," said Boucek. "So I know they're going to come in here, they know you guys are a great team...this is going to be a big battle for them so be ready."

While Agler prioritizes defense and fans often focus on All-Star power forward Lauren Jackson's health, another key development for the Storm as they embark upon their 2010 campaign is a much improved bench.

No team relied upon its starters more than the Storm in 2009 and while they didn't make a whole lot of splashy trades, they have pretty much cleaned house on the bench returning only one player from last year's team (center Ashley Robinson). As described by Scotter yesterday, the bench improvement started with the acquisition of free agent forward Le'coe Willingham from the 2009 WNBA champion Phoenix Mercury.

Yet the even bigger theme of this bench is versatility - not only the increased lineup versatility that Agler will have with a bench that he trusts a bit more, but also the individual versatility of the players. "Versatility" has been a consistent theme among coaches and general managers we've talked to all off-season and when asked for his thoughts on the Storm's final roster after yesterday's early practice, that's what Agler highlighted.

"I like our versatility," said Agler in a brief post-practice chat. "We've got good size on the perimeter. We still have a really strong core group of players that play well together. I think we've got us some people who can stretch the defense, I think we've added some size, and I think we've added some toughness."

While Willingham may represent increased depth on the whole, the player who might best represent the team's newfound versatility is Svetlana Abrosimova. The 8 year WNBA veteran who last played a full WNBA season in 2007 for the Minnesota Lynx and was drafted to the Lynx by Agler. While watching the game last year, she decided she wanted to come back.

"I took a year off," said Abrosimova during last week's media day. "So for me, I looked at this league and the way it was played last year - as a fan - and I saw a lot of things and I realize that I was missing that feeling of playing here. And I'm very excited to be back and I really want to win a championship. That's why I'm here and I feel like this team has those group of players who are willing to do anything to win and they already did it."

Her transition to the Storm is made easier not only by her familiarity with Agler's defensive focus but also her familiarity with the Storm's UConn players -- saying "basketball is universal", she highlighted after the first week of camp that even without knowing the plays or all the faces, just her familiarity with some of the players helps. Yet her expectations for what she wants to contribute in her first game wearing her new Bing jersey are clearly in line with the game plan put forward by the coaching staff.

"I'm ready to go," said Abrosimova about the coaches' expectations of her in her first game. "Whenever I get in the game, be aggressive, play good defense and I think that's the main focus right now: be really tough defensively and not let them play a little ‘show off time', you know, what they like to do...but for me I'm still in the learning process so I just don't want to make mistakes."

For players coming off the bench like Abrosimova, of course the ability to be aggressive and give the team a spark off the bench is important. However, making mistakes - especially for a player like Abrosimova - is not necessarily a bad thing to Agler. Occasionally, the willingness to take a risk will lead to a player making plays.

"She's a risk taker on defense which we have to try to corral at times, but that's the negative part of it- there's a positive side to that too because she makes things happen," said Agler at the Storm's media day for newcomers last week. "She can really move up and down the floor with the ball or without it. She can get to the rim, she can shoot the three, gives you size on the perimeter."

As described by Tulsa Shock head coach Nolan Richardson after yesterday's loss to the Minnesota Lynx, sometimes what the bench needs to do is make plays that shift tempo rather than carry the team. But most of all, coaches needs to trust that when they look to their bench they definitely won't lose momentum. The versatility of players like Abrosimova who can be used with different combinations to score and defend is therefore a huge asset for any team.

Keys to the game from practice

  1. Stop Candace Parker on the offensive boards

Although she was Parker's teammate this off-season in Europe, it's not exactly as though Abrosimova will provide a scouting report that will neutralize Parker. She might just have a better idea of how good she is.

"Sometimes on the court she looks really mean, but at the same time she's a really nice person," said Abrosimova after yesterday's practice. "She showed what kind of player she is - in Russia there were some games she scored 30 and some games she scored 40 points. So she's a true player. Everybody knows who she is."

Given that Parker is able to show up and have a big game on any given night, what Agler focused on after practice was preventing Parker from beating them on the boards.

"Early in the possession - even if we think a shot's coming - we have to start thinking about [blocking her out]," said Agler to the team huddle at the close of practice. "That's a huge part of what she does: offensive board, stick back. Offensive board, stick back."

  1. Stopping penetration and finding shooters

While Parker is a familiar face on the Sparks, former Sacramento Monarchs point guard Ticha Penicheiro is a new wrinkle. Agler noted her craftiness in finding open shooters and the need to both stay in front of her and recognize who the Sparks' shooters are. Put simply, if a scorer is left open, Penicheiro can find her.

"They definitely have a floor general now," said Agler after practice. "Penicheiro can get people in the right spots, she's a tremendous passer, good leader. So she will help them."

Of course, Penicheiro only played about 9 minutes yesterday with a sore Achilles tendon, but if she does play she's the type of player who can cause problems for a defense.

  1. Stay focused

If you have not been to Key Arena on opening night, it can be a high energy environment - the crowd may not yet be in playoff form, but they're ready to see their team again after a long hiatus. There's an introduction with the players running down the aisles around the arena and crowd cheering the anticipation of a new season. So even though they're at home, Agler emphasized staying focused.

"Tomorrow - this can happen - opening night, you get caught up in the introductions thing and it can be a distraction," said Agler in the huddle. "Focus in on what we do. Focus in on ourselves."

Of course, while the team has clear defensive expectations and a solid core, exactly what the 2010 identity is will evolve. And as with any coach, Agler still sees plenty of room for improvement heading into opening night.

"You never think you're ready for a first game and prepared," said Agler after in a brief chat after practice. "But we're doing our best and trying to get people acclimated and trying to keep getting better as a team. We're still in the process of getting better and improving. It's going to be an exciting day - opening night is always exciting. We're going to have a big crowd there and we've got a lot of history here with LA in recent years. So we'll see what happens."