Sue Bird has found many ways to be clutch over the years. Sunday night, she did it a the foul-line, knocking down two freebies with 1.6 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter to clinch a 65-63 win over the Los Angeles Sparks.
With the win, Seattle (17-12) maintained its half-game lead over the Phoenix Mercury (16-12) for second place in the Western Conference and dealt a significant blow to the Sparks playoff chances.
Storm coach Brian Agler had exactly who he wanted at the line to ice the game.
“I don’t know if we’d want anyone else up there besides her,” Agler said. “We have a lot of good free throw shooters, but we have a lot of confidence in Sue.
After the game, Bird was just happy to get a win.
“Those free throws for any player at the end of the game can be tough,” Bird said. “It’s just you and the basket, but I’ll take a win any way I can get it.”
Bird struggled offensively, shooting just 2-for-12 from the field, but she did finish with 12 points, including the all-important free throws.
Lauren Jackson and Tanisha Wright each scored 14 points to lead the Storm. Since Jackson has returned to the lineup, the Storm have gone 4-0 and look to continue that streak at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday when they face the same Sparks team in Los Angeles.
With a win on Tuesday, the Storm would clinch their eighth-straight playoff appearance.
“It’s more than clinching,” Bird said. “Clinching means something – of course we want to do that. But it is more than that to us, we want homecourt advantage in the first round, that is what we are playing for.”
The Storm have five games remaining, while the Mercury have six. The two teams meet Sept. 9 at KeyArena.
Candace Parker scored nine of her 19 points in the fourth quarter to give the Sparks an opportunity to steal one on the road.
The Storm held a 51-43 advantage going into the final stanza, but the Sparks made their push behind former WNBA MVP Candace Parker. Parker scored nine of her 19 points in the final period as Los Angeles methodically chipped at Seattle’s lead.
With 1:09 remaining in the fourth, Parker knocked down two free throws to tie the score at 63. After both teams came up empty on their next possession, the Storm took control of the ball with 23 second remaining and an opportunity to win the game.
The final play was designed to go to Bird, but unable to get the designed play, Tanisha Wright controlled the ball as time ran down. Her shot attempt was blocked, but right into the hands of the opportunistic Bird, who braced for the foul.
“We were trying to get her (Bird) a jumpshot, or an isolation for Lauren on the block,” Agler said. “They did a good job guarding it. I didn’t see exactly everything that happened, it was sort of a scramble out there. And the officials called a foul – there was contact and they called a foul.”
“It happened so fast,” Bird said. “The way I perceived it, and maybe this is not exactly now it happened, but on the blocked shot, T kind of tipped it my way. When I caught it, I knew I had to go. And when I pumped faked and I was going to try to dribble and shoot, she came running at me so hard that I just took the hit. I was like, ‘I’m going down on this one.’ The way she came, I knew I was getting hit.”
After Bird knocked down two free throws, the Sparks had a chance to tie or win, but Tina Thompson’s 3-pointer as time expired fell short.
The Storm certainly felt that a foul call was warranted. Sparks head coach Joe Bryant didn’t seem to feel the same way.
“I’m not going to say what I think because I don’t want to get fined,” Bryant said. “I thought we played great defense. To come in here and play that way is really a compliment to how the team has grown over the past few weeks. It’s just sad that it had to end that way because usually you let the players make the decisions in the games, so that was probably the saddest part about it.”
The Sparks (12-17), trail the San Antonio Silver Stars (13-15) by 1 1/2 games for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.