Down to nine players suited up, the lineup change didn’t phase the Shock. This is a team, after all, that has gone through personnel shifts that rival your neighborhood 7-11. One day here and the next not so much. So when Tulsa took to the court against the defending champs, who had beat them by 17 points merely a week ago, the Shock held their own.
In fact, the home team even held a 7-point lead after the first quarter. Tulsa gave up the advantage midway through the second period on a pair of free throws by Lauren Jackson. The Storm extended their lead to 57-43 midway through the third after a successful trip to the line for Sue Bird. The bell could have tolled on the Shock, but they fought back. They cut the double-digit margin down to four with 1:57 to play after Tiffany Jackson spun in the layup. Tulsa battled and nearly weathered the Storm for 39 minutes. Then Sue Bird threw her oh-so-typical dagger. This time it was a three with 37.4 seconds to play to give the Storm a 76-70 advantage en route to the 78-72 victory.
“Well, she is the best point guard in the world,” Storm head coach Brian Agler said after the win. “Sue, I mean – I’ve seen her do this so much, but still I’m amazed by how clutch she is. I’ve never seen and been around anybody like this. I mean, she’s done this multiple times and keeps doing it. So we’re going to keep putting the ball in her hands when we need things. That last shot, that last 3-point shot, … it wasn’t anything we called, she just took over. That’s a tribute to her and her competitiveness.”
Bird finished with an almost pedestrian – or at least for her when facing the Shock this season – 21 points and five assists, numbers that Agler is confident could be exponentially higher if she wanted them to be. While we’ve heard praise from Agler on Bird on a multitude of occasions, he’s not alone in his assessment of Bird as the best.
“There’s none like her,” Shock interim head coach Teresa Edwards said. “She’s got ice in her veins, she makes smart decisions and she’s proven herself time and time again. No argument. Hands down she’s the best point guard.”
Bird was facing off against one another stalwart figure of the sport, and former – albeit briefly – teammate, Sheryl Swoopes, who filled in for the ailing Ivory Latta. Swoopes’ veteran leadership was on display at a position that she’s never played before. Ever.
“Never. Ever,” Swoopes said of the last time she played point guard. “I always wanted to shoot, I’m being honest! My role is very different playing the point than it is playing the two or the three. As I’m playing and going through the motions I just have to remember that like ‘you’re not a wing tonight. You’re playing point’.”
In her debut at point guard, Swoopes impressed herself and her coach with her six assists and one turnover handling the ball.
“I thought Sheryl stepped it up,” Edwards said. “She’s 6-for-1 assist to turnover ratio on the stat sheet. Of course, I would love to have her on the wings where she can get shots, but she’s a vet. She just stepped up and did what she had to do, and she always does that.”
Part of stepping up in stepping into her new role, which she’ll likely have for the remainder of the season, whether she likes it or not.
“If I had my pick I wouldn’t [play point guard], but it is what it is,” Swoopes said as she critiqued her performance. “The first thing I looked at was to see how many turnovers I had. It’s definitely very different and I would have to say that it’s not a position that I would want to play all the time.
“My job right now is really as point when I’ve got to play it is really to try and keep everybody where they’re supposed to be. They’ve got to see that I’m confident in doing it so they can be confident also.”
Her confidence also comes with a sense of curiosity and perhaps even a new-found respect for the women who steer the ship night in and night out.
“I guess until you’re in that position, you don’t realize how difficult it is,” Swoopes said. “You’ve got to listen to the coach, and of course you’re hearing the fans, and you’ve got to make sure your teammates are where they’re supposed to be. It’s different, but I’m up to the challenge.”
The challenge, while abbreviated, is to help the Shock finish the season strong and to notch a couple more victories. And notching more wins is just what Agler is anticipating in Tulsa’s last four games.
“Right before our last game [with Tulsa in Seattle] we had our media before the game and I said, ‘look they’re not going to make the playoffs, but they’re going to impact the playoffs in some kind of way because they’re going to beat some people before it’s over’,” Agler said immediately prior to Tulsa’s two-game win streak. “They have impacted the playoffs and I don’t think they’re quite done yet. They’ve got – I know they have road games and it’s tough to win on the road, but they have San Antonio coming back in here and that could be a tough deal. They’re tough.”
Now Agler and the Storm can be glad Tulsa didn’t impact their playoff position, but rather solidified it. With the win over the Shock, Seattle clinched their eighth consecutive playoff berth and climbed into sole possession of second place in the West, at least for one night. Tomorrow the Storm face off against fourth-place San Antonio, and No. 3 Phoenix will try to keep pace as they play LA.
“San Antonio helped us [Thursday] obviously so we’ll take all the help we can get,” Agler said of his next opponent. Now instead of help from the Silver Stars, they want to take a win on the road.”We’re trying hard to get that second spot. Home court is our goal.”