The Storm has plenty of reasons to be fired up for its game with the Indiana Fever on Tuesday night in Bradenton, Florida.
Seattle has lost two in a row, an unwelcome speed bump on its joy ride through the WNBA bubble. With the playoffs already looming, the Storm doesn’t want a losing streak to take hold at such an inopportune time. After Indiana, the Storm plays Las Vegas on Thursday and Chicago on Saturday.
“We told our team today in practice, ‘Hey, this is a really important week,’ ” coach Gary Kloppenburg said Monday in a phone interview. “You have eight games left. These are three games against good teams. All these games this week, I feel like it’s a mini-type playoff series, because it could determine where we end up in the standings.”
Kloppenburg senses his players understand the urgency. But as if that weren’t enough motivation, there’s the added impetus of playing the same two teams — Indiana and Vegas — that just defeated them. Those losses interrupted a nine-game Storm winning streak and revealed some potential flaws that Kloppenburg is eager to shore up.
“We know we can play better,” Kloppenburg said. “It left kind of a bad taste in our mouth. So it’s good in a way. We’re right back, we have a chance to regroup and get refocused and go right back after those two teams that beat us.”
And as if that weren’t enough, there was the curious reaction by the Fever on Thursday after the under-.500 squad knocked off the Storm, 11-1 at the time. The Fever players seemed to be of the opinion that Seattle had dissed them by sitting Sue Bird, who missed the game because of a bone bruise in her left knee.
Never mind that the 39-year-old Bird had already missed five games earlier in the season because of the same injury. And never mind that she would go on to miss the Storm’s next game against Las Vegas and won’t play Tuesday, according to Kloppenburg.
That’s pretty airtight evidence of the validity of Bird’s injury. However, the Fever players apparently convinced themselves that Seattle felt it didn’t need Bird to beat them. The Fever had lost two in a row, sported a lackluster 4-7 record and was down to eight players because of injuries. But Indiana pulled off a 90-84 win, after which Fever forward Natalie Achonwa told The Indianapolis Star, “I think they underestimated us.”
And in a postgame interview that was shown on ESPN, Fever guard Kennedy Burke (who scored 23 points), said it was “kind of like a slap in the face” that Bird didn’t play.
During the Vegas game two days later, ESPN interviewed Bird and asked her about the Fever’s reaction, and how the players seemed to take her absence personally. Bird seemed more amused, or perhaps befuddled, than irritated.
“I thought they were kind of funny,” Bird said of the comments. “I think they forgot they were going to have to see me in the lunch line, and they’d have to see me in the elevator. So that was kind of funny.
“I’ve never based my decision on my body on another team, especially not Indiana,” Bird continued. “It is what it is. Luckily we get to play them on Tuesday.”
Kloppenburg termed the back-and-forth “social-media stuff. … People try to create drama that’s probably not there.”
But he added, “Sue’s going to tell the truth, you know that.”
He did give credit to the Fever players for finding a way to psyche themselves up against the team with the WNBA’s best record.
“I guess it’s a good way to motivate your team,” he said. “It’s really not based on any factual truth. It’s really her health. It was a bone bruise that flared back up. Obviously, she sat out the last game (against Las Vegas), and she’s sitting out (Tuesday). So it wasn’t just them. Hey, whatever you can use to motivate your team. Maybe it’s not based on truth, but if it works … ”
For the Storm, turnabout is fair play. They now have some extra motivation of their own, beyond the obvious desire to get back to their dominating ways.
“I think our players, they get all that stuff,” Kloppenburg said. “I don’t think they were happy about it (the Fever’s reaction). It got their attention, I can tell you that. I could tell today (at practice) they were kind of edgy.
“It goes both ways. You don’t want to poke the bear in hibernation to wake them up.”
Kloppenburg would like to see the Storm regain its outside shooting touch, and he realizes it needs to be tougher inside. And so long as Bird remains on the sideline — he didn’t have a timetable for her return — the Storm will have to compensate for the leadership and steadiness that is lost in her absence.
Kloppenburg has also been emphasizing that, as the preseason favorite to win the league title and its hottest team from the outset, “We have a target on our back. It’s a big deal to beat us. That’s good, because you’re getting a lot of respect. But you can’t let down, because you’re getting everyone’s best shot.”
Now he hopes the bear is out of its two-game hibernation.