West Is Best

by July 31, 2008

by Stephen Litel

As of the Olympic break, the Seattle Storm hold the second seed in the Western Conference playoff race. Although the amount of games before the playoffs begin are few—once the teams return, that is—positioning for the playoffs is far from over. All seven teams in the Western Conference still have a shot at one of the four spots, so time is of the essence.

“I don’t know if there really is a top to bottom,” says Sue Bird, Seattle’s point guard and America’s Olympian. “Every team right now is separated by a half game, one game or one-and-a-half games, so it’s really anybody’s Conference right now. San Antonio’s led, Los Angeles is up there and we’re up there, but then you have teams like Phoenix, Minnesota, Houston and Sacramento who are right there, lurking and waiting for their moment to creep up in the standings. It’s been hard because you know every game is literally a playoff game.”

As is the case for their male counterparts, the Western Conference is much more competitive. For example, the Minnesota Lynx currently hold the sixth “seed” of the seven teams in the West with a 0.500 record of 13-13. However, in the Eastern Conference, the current fourth seed, the Indiana Fever are 12-14 and would end up with a spot in the postseason.

“This is no knock on the East at all because the East has had WNBA Championships in the past, teams that have had the best record in the league and whatnot, but generally speaking, the teams to beat have been in the West,” continues Bird. “It’s always been the toughest Conference since I’ve been in the league. I mean, who knows? That’s the way the cookie crumbles sometimes, that’s the way the players are dispersed, but it’s definitely that way this year.”

“At this point, I think the West is very, very competitive. The teams are really good and the records kind of indicate that. It’s almost unfair that we have to play each other so much and kind of knock each other out. That‘s not cool.”

With the teams so close together in the standings, it should make for a great playoff push and, more importantly, wonderfully entertaining playoff matchups. Bringing in players such as Sheryl Swoopes, Yolanda Griffith and Swin Cash in the offseason are starting to pay dividends for the Storm, as the team continues to progress while, at the same time, win on a consistent basis.

“I think we’re a team that’s still getting better, which is a good sign,” says Bird. “That’s not to say the other teams aren’t, but when we watch films of ourselves even three weeks ago, two weeks ago, we’re much better now than we were then. That’s a good sign because, hopefully, we’ll continue to do that for the rest of the season and kind of peak at the right time. That would be the end of the season and playoff time.”

“I think we have a lot of veterans, a lot of experience, a lot of maturity, and a lot of people who have won and who know how to win. That’s why I think in the couple games when we’ve been down big early on, we never give up and we always battle. When you have that attitude and when you know you can do that, that’s something you don’t lose and you don’t forget that. You can kind of call on it when you need it. In the playoffs, it gets turned up. Hopefully, that experience will help us win some games.”

As is the case for every team, the Storm now are in the midst of the break in action during the Olympic Games. Certainly, a situation like this is not ideal, but Bird reminds there can always be a positive to any scenario.

“It really depends on how you look at it,” says Bird. “You know, I think for some teams, they might be thankful the break is coming. For other teams, they’re rolling and they want to keep it going, so it’s unfortunate for the break. Like you said, it is what it is and every team is on this break and we’re all in the same boat.”

The Storm should be considered as one of the teams that were rolling, so it may be difficult to see why the time off may be beneficial. With three of their players playing in the Olympics—three of their best players, of course—and, therefore, the key players won’t get much rest. Yet, Bird believes in her teammates and knows the time off will be best for this team as a whole.

“For us, we have some injuries, just like I’m sure everyone does, so maybe the break will be a blessing in disguise. It’s a chance for everyone to get some rest for those who aren’t going to the Olympics to kind of nurse those injuries, get better and come back revamped. Hopefully, we can kind of look at it from that positive standpoint and roll with it.”

Truly believing she will return to Seattle with a gold medal, Bird knows the task at hand is great. Leading your team to a gold medal and a WNBA Championship in the same season would be a great accomplishment and Bird is up to the challenge.

“It is weird,” says Bird. “It’s definitely not the norm to take a break and come back to finish the season. It’s only two-and-a-half weeks, so you have to get it back right away. For me, I’m going to the Olympics, so it’s a little bit different. Myself, Lauren and Kelly won’t be here, but the rest of the team will be practicing, which I’m sure they’re so thrilled about. They’ll be practicing, kind of staying with things, getting their groove back and when we come back, we just plug it in and go.”

Between the Olympics, the final two weeks of the WNBA season and the playoffs, there will be a lot of great women’s basketball to take in soon.