Following a disastrous display from the first unit that led to an embarrassing lopsided defeat, Storm coach Gary Kloppenburg chuckled when asked if he planned to bench the starters for the next game.
“We’re fortunate that we do have some good players coming off the bench that have shown they can go matchup and battle and get us back into every game,” he said. “Every game is going to be different with how it plays out. I think that got their attention though for sure.”
To be clear, even though Kloppenburg pinned Thursday’s 89-71 loss against the Washington Mystics on the starters who were outscored 70-36, he has no intention of tinkering with a first unit that includes four WNBA All-Stars.
However, star point guard Sue Bird is sitting out Saturday’s 5 p.m. PDT game to rest, which will force the Storm (2-1) to make quick adjustments for a pivotal matchup against the Los Angeles Sparks (2-1).
Bird, the league’s oldest player at 39 who missed last season due to arthroscopic knee surgery, had been stellar in her first two outings while averaging 13.5 points, 4.5 assists and no turnovers in 21.5 minutes. She also shot 50 percent from the field and 63.6 percent (7 of 11) on three-pointers.
Against the Mystics, Bird had a horrendous performance in which she finished with five points, one assist and three turnovers while connecting on 2 of 7 shots from the field, including 1 of 5 behind the arc.
Bird’s absence isn’t directly tied to her last outing, but rather a plan devised by the Storm coaching and medical staffs that’ll allow the 11-time WNBA All-Star to manage a 22-game regular-season schedule in six weeks.
“It’s not something that’s unexpected,” Storm forward Alysha Clark said. “We knew coming into this heavy-loaded schedule that players were going to have to rest and Sue being one of those in particular. It’s just preparing as if it was last season when we didn’t’ have her.”
Jordin Canada is expected to make her first start of the season. The third-year veteran filled in for Bird last year and produced a breakout season in which she averaged 9.8 points, 5.2 assists and led the WNBA with 2.2 steals per game.
In the offseason, the Storm signed free agent Epiphanny Prince to shore up the depth in the backcourt. The veteran guard has averaged 13.2 points, 2.9 assists and 2.3 rebounds in her 10-year WNBA career.
“Jordin and Piph are more than capable of running our team,” Clark said. “Jordin proved that last year and people kind of forget about Piph and the dynamic combo guard that she is.”
A week into the season, it’s an overstatement to suggest the Storm faces a must-win scenario against the Sparks.
Still, the Storm has much to prove after a dreadful performance that puts into question its status as the preseason title favorite.
“I can tell they’re not happy with how it went down (Thursday) night,” Kloppenburg said. “Rest assured they’re going to come out with some fire tomorrow definitely because they don’t like to lose. They’re prideful. They don’t like to have that feeling. I would bet on that they’ll come out with energy and excitement.”
Seattle and Los Angeles are locked in a four-way tie for second in the league standings.
Following the Sparks game, the Storm has two days off before beginning a relatively light stretch next week against three teams (Connecticut, Phoenix and Atlanta) with a combined 1-6 record.
“L.A. is always a game where it feels like a playoff game and it feels like a really big game whenever you play them at any stage of the year,” Storm backup guard Sami Whitcomb said. “It’s a bit of a barometer game. You measure against a team like LA to see where you really are. It’s exciting to have one of those games early, especially coming out of a loss to see where we are.”
The Storm is looking for across-the-board improvements after connecting on 5 of 20 three-pointers, committing 18 turnovers and allowing Washington to drain 15 three-pointers.
But mostly, the Storm wants to play with decisively more energy than it did on Thursday.
“I wouldn’t use the phrase must-win, but I would certainly say it needs to be one where we’re seeing a significant step forward or improvement towards the style we want to play,” Whitcomb said. “In all of the games, we’ve had patches of it. I don’t think we started any of the games that way. We certainly haven’t played an entire game at our pace, our flow and our defensive toughness and our rebounding.
“We haven’t connected all the dots and put it all together yet. It is early, but this season is going to go quick. I think it’s important that we are moving in that direction. For me how we play will be really, really important.”