It's hard not to identify the Chicago Sky debacle as something of a turning point or "wake up" call for the 7-1 Seattle Storm.
One of the most noticeable changes has been the Storm's shooting numbers: through the Storm's first five games ending with the loss in Chicago, the Storm were shooting 40%. In the three games since then against San Antonio, Atlanta, and last night against Los Angeles, the Storm have shot 48.35%. And really, if you excuse the fourth quarter letdown against the Sparks last night, through 2 ¾ games they were shooting 49.7% which is almost 50% which means we can just round up and say they were shooting 50%. Considering how well this team has done with offensive rebounding and turnovers for most of the season, the idea of them also making half of the shots they take is actually frighteningly efficient for opponents.
However, another perhaps more subtle development for the team over the past few games is the ongoing acclimation of guard Svetlana Abrosimova, who the Storm picked up as a veteran free agent this season. Based on Chasing the Title's plus/minus statistics - a number that describes how well a team performs when a player or lineup is on the court - Abrosimova has been effective at both the 2 and 3 positions in these last three games playing alongside either point guard Sue Bird or Bird and guard Tanisha Wright.
So what's so important about Abrosimova getting acclimated? She might not be putting up particularly huge numbers at this point, but aside from playing solid defense she also gives the Storm one of the best ballhandling reserves they've had in years. Down the line, that could hold part of the answer for decreasing Bird's playing time.
Ever since Abrosimova first arrived in camp, Agler has described her repeatedly (usually with a smile) as something of a high-risk, high reward player - a player who makes mistakes while taking risks, but also makes big plays as a reserve due to that risk taking mentality. Patrick of the Chasing the Title blog elaborated on that after the Atlanta Dream game.
Chasing the Title: Game 7 vs. Dream
Svetlana Abrosimova really looks like the best acquisition of the season by Coach Agler. She is settling in at both ends with regards to the system, and still bringing the extra oomph she has always had as a player. She seems to have a natural instinct for knowing when something needs to happen and then making it happen. It can't be taught, but it is precisely the kind of edge the Storm have needed in the past but just not had. Sheri Sam filled that role back in 2004, but I think Abrosimova is more well rounded as a player and has been more effective in that role than Sam was that year.
On the defensive end, that translates to Abrosimova coming in to defend players like Dream forward Angel McCoughtry, who was the league's leading scorer at that time who the Storm contained relatively effectively. While she sometimes gambles on steals or giving a player too much or too little space, she's active and is playing better within the team's scheme by the game.
Offensively, she gets into the flow of the game very well off the bench and as Patrick alluded to, she takes risks with a very good feel for knowing when something needs to happen and then trying to make it happen. That was evident in last night's game against the Sparks. After a timeout with 2:33 left, she scored on a pass from fellow reserve forward Le'coe Willingham, made a beautiful pass to forward Swin Cash for an assist, and then Cash returned the favor with an assist for a three at the end of the quarter. She can do a little bit of everything off the bench and in spurts like that it gives the team a little boost - just knowing that bench players can come in and help maintain the lead is huge for the Storm.
"I'm getting more comfortable and I'm just trying to bring that energy off the bench because the starting lineup plays a lot of minutes and they need help," said Abrosimova after the Atlanta game. "I'm just trying to be as aggressive as possible."
However, her bigger impact on the team might be as a playmaker. During last night's game, that pass to Cash was a perfectly timed entry pass as Cash was cutting to the basket - it wasn't an easy pass from the top of the key into traffic, but again, she recognized the opportunity and made it happen.
Although Abrosimova only averages 1.6 assists per game this season -- with a season-high of 5 in Phoenix against today's opponent - she's been an outstanding facilitator from the wing this season. While her playmaking numbers have been down considerably over the past two games, she's been even more efficient as a passer than a defender.
Her assist rate - the percentage of possessions on which she gets an assist -- has been right around 20% for most of the season, which puts her in the lower end of the league's distributors, which is actually impressive for a shooting guard. In addition, she's kept her turnover percentage under 5% all season, which is probably even more noteworthy for a guard who's willing to take a few risks. That means her pure point rating - how well a player balances the risk of creating turnovers with the weighted reward of an assist, in keeping with the risk/reward theme- is at 2.79, which again makes her one of the more trustworthy playmaking shooting guards in the league.
These numbers don't necessarily mean Agler should go all in and make Abrosimova the backup point guard. However, what they do mean is that it gives Agler an option for giving Bird a bit more of a rest, especially as Abrosimova gets more acclimated.
"It just happens," said Abrosimova when asked about her role as a distributor after the Atlanta game. "When Sue is off the court - and she's such a great point guard that she controls the game - so when she's out [Wright] has to step into her shoes."
The plus/minus numbers simply will not show this very well because as Abrosimova said, Bird controls the game so well that any time she comes off the court there is a dip in productivity - it's hard to find a true "replacement" for what Bird does anywhere in the world meaning nobody is going to come in and have a higher plus/minus. However, having two players on the floor who can make plays for others -- Abrosimova on Wright -- is a huge asset for the team as part of the answer for lessening Bird's minutes, as well as Wright's.
Last season, Bird averaged a career-high 35.5 minutes per game whereas this season she's back down to 33.3 minutes per game (coincidentally, .01 less than she averaged in 2004). It might seem like only 2 minutes different, but over the last four games when Abrosimova's minutes have increased, Bird's minutes have fallen further to 28.75 minutes and Wright hasn't played more than 30 since the last Phoenix game.
Part of that is certainly that the Storm haven't played in much of a tight game since the last Mercury game. But another part of that has to be increased trust in having Abrosimova out on the court as she continues to make plays. For all the talk about needing to find a back up point guard, Abrosimova may be part of the solution - not the whole solution, but one part of it.
"I'm just helping - you know, I'm not a point guard but I can still handle the ball and I see what's opening in front of me," said Abrosimova after the Atlanta game. "I don't feel like it's something new for me. So, it's ok - I like it."