It seemed pointless to ask Seattle Storm coach Brian Agler about bench minutes again after Friday's practice as the team prepared for the Phoenix Mercury because his response has been clear and quite consistent since the beginning of the season.
"Well, let's see," said Agler after the Storm's 81-67 win over the Sparks in which four starters played 35+ minutes. "We've got one practice before the next game. And then we've got two practices before the third game. And then I think we have a week. So if you look on the schedule, if you see us having 3, 4, 5 straight days of practice, then -- it's always played out the last two years -- then you'll see our team really start really improving. And we've got another to go before we can get there. So we've gotta try to weather the Storm, see how much we can go -- see how many wins we can get to get to that point -- and then hopefully get better."
So while it might be extreme to say that the team is "ahead of schedule" after getting big contributions from their bench in their 95-89 road overtime win against the Phoenix Mercury last night, it is a promising sign that the Storm bench not only got minutes, but also managed to be quite productive in those minutes as they continue to learn the system.
"We've got five new players and we're sort of trying to learn how to use all these people," said Agler. "So it's getting better -- Svetlana played big minutes tonight. Le'coe would've played big minutes but got in foul trouble. So we're sort of going through a learning process in that way."
Wing Svetlana Abrosimova showed the kind of versatility she can provide off the bench scoring 7 points, but more importantly adding 4 rebounds and 5 assists, showing the ability on a few occasions to force the defense to shift and creating an opening for a scorer. Forward Le'coe Willingham came off the bench to shoot 3-4 and grab two offensive rebounds, which doesn't sound very impressive except for the fact that she had an offensive rebounding percentage of just over 20%. Ultimately what the increased bench production means is that Agler now has the luxury of giving his starters some rest.
"Our starters played big minutes but we also played five extra minutes too," said Agler. "So Svetlana really gave us huge minutes through the course of the game, giving people rest. We've got to see how we can get Sue a little bit more rest, but I think we'll get that figured out here."
Part of getting point guard Sue Bird rest will depend on figuring out how to use rookie point guard Alison Lacey, who has shown signs of acclimating in practice. The dilemma now is more a matter of figuring out who she fits best with rather than an inability to play the game.
"Alison Lacey only played two minutes, but got two steals," said Agler. "So she's somebody that we're eventually going to get in there we just gotta figure the right people to put on the floor with her when she goes in for Sue. And we gotta figure that out."
Storm statistical MVP: Lauren Jackson
Jackson is the statistical primarily on the strength of scoring (team-high 25 points) and offensive rebounding (team-high 4), but her defense on Mercury forward Candice Dupree was certainly a key to this win.
"A lot has to do with Lauren," said Agler of Dupree's 7 turnover performance. "Lauren is so long and athletic that she can affect people down there. They threw it into her -- they wanted to play through her like they have been. And she obviously hit some shots for them. But we didn't mind that matchup down there one on one."
It's only 3 games in, but it's hard not to consider Jackson a strong candidate for defensive player of the year right now.
Mercury statistical MVP: DeWanna Bonner
Bonner was by far the most productive player of any for her team (she was responsible for 41% of the team's total output) and Seth Pollack already elaborated on that. However, one additional thing to note about Bonner is her ability to get to the free throw line -- she was 9 for 11 last night with a free throw rate of just under 92%. For whatever concern there is about the Mercury's 1-1 start, Bonner is a certainly a bright spot as a second year player.
Key player: Sue Bird
Other players put up far better shooting numbers, but nevertheless, it's hard to imagine this team winning without Bird, which of course is the reason why the joint concerns about resting her and Lacey's development carry so much weight.
"Sue -- you know, Sue almost had a triple double tonight," said Agler. "She was like 8, 8 and 9 -- she just didn't shoot the ball very well. But she was extremely effective tonight -- she sort of controlled the game and we need that from her."
Key stat: turnovers
While Dupree's 7 turnovers and Taurasi's 6 turnovers might be discouraging for Mercury fans, Storm fans should be just as encouraged by the Storm's lack of turnovers.
"The thing we've been doing a good job of is we don't turn it over very much so we get a lot of opportunities to shoot," said Agler. "So I think we shot 94 times tonight which might be a record, I don't know, but there was a lot of shot attempts."
While the Storm's 10% turnover percentage is impressive on its own, through the first three quarters, the Storm had 8 turnovers and they only had 2 between the fourth quarter and overtime. The ability to manage possessions so well -- which certainly helps to create 28 shots more than the opponent -- is a definite reason for excitement about this Storm team. The question over the course of the season is when -- or perhaps whether -- they can maintain such efficient possession management when Bird is not in the game.