At 5-4, the Storm is barely above .500 in the WNBA standings, but considering the extraordinary challenges Seattle has had to overcome the defending league champions feel like they’re 7-2.
“Or maybe even 9-0,” forward Natasha Howard said. “We’ve faced a lot. We’ve had injuries. We didn’t have our coach, then that long road trip that we just finished.
“We could be in a much worse position, but we’re not. We’re still right in the thick of things. … Given everything we’ve been through, I don’t know many teams that could have played much better than we have.”
Seattle’s rash of injuries have been well documented, but to recap: Breanna Stewart (torn Achilles) is out of the season, Sue Bird (left knee) is out indefinitely, Alysha Clark (rest) and Shavonte Zellous (ankle) have each missed three games, Sami Whitcomb sat out a game and Jordin Canada sat out the previous game due to a bone bruise on her left knee.
That’s a total of 26 missed games due to injuries and yet Seattle is just a game behind where it was last year at this time.
“The word that I would use to describe this team is resilient,” said assistant Gary Kloppenburg, who led the Storm as interim coach the past four weeks while head coach Dan Hughes recovered from cancer surgery. “They just keep fighting and we stay in games.”
Hughes makes his 2019 debut when Seattle hosts the Los Angeles Sparks (4-4) 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett.
“Dan is ready to go and this is going to be a seamless transition,” said Kloppenburg, who is 10-7 all time as a Storm coach and 30-55 during his WNBA career. “Overall I feel good about where we’re at. With all of those road games in our league, it can go south on you. I feel like we maintained. We competed.”
The Storm, which played seven of its first nine games on the road, is returning from it longest road trip of the season — an 11-day trek in which they posted a respectable 2-2 record.
During the first month of the season, Seattle needed to — no pun intended — weather an early storm before a favorable stretch that includes 11 of the next 15 games at home.
“We’ve shown that we can be competitive with everybody,” Kloppenburg said. “Even with some of the losses that we’ve had, we’ve been right there. That’s a really good sign with all of these home games coming up.
“Now we got a chance to practice at home. You’re sleeping in your own bed. You’re comfortable and the energy is going to be high not having to travel.”
Without Stewart, the reigning MVP, and perennial All-Star Bird, the Storm has forged an ball-hawking defensive identity led by Howard, who is averaging 19.6 points and 9.2 rebounds while maturing into an All-Star candidate.
Canada, who averages a league-leading 2.9 steals, is on pace to finish with 99 thefts and shatter the franchise’s single-season record 61. The WNBA single-season steals record is 100.
And Seattle has surprisingly received significant contributions from second-year center Mercedes Russell, who is averaging 7.6 points and 6.2 rebounds while shooting 59.2 percent from the field and starting five games.
“I always tell Mercedes before every game, ‘you know they’re going to triple or double team me so be ready for me kicking it to you or getting the offensive rebound,’” Howard said. “We just need her stay aggressive at both ends.”
Injuries forced the Storm to get creative and rely on three different lineups that included newcomer Blake Dietrick replacing Canada at point guard in the last outing.
“It’s been a hodgepodge and kind of a kaleidoscope of players and trying to mesh them together,” Kloppenburg said. “Once we get Jordin back, we’ll get a chance to really put some things together. We got a good chance to be a really solid team.”
— Hughes, Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve and George Washington coach Jennifer Rizzotti will return as USA National team assistants for head coach Dawn Staley ahead of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
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