SEATTLE — Seattle Storm head coach Brian Agler said he doesn’t know how good his team is — and with good reason — he has rarely seen it at full strength this season.
But for better or worse, Agler is going to find out how good the Storm are starting tonight in Game 1 of the best-of-three Western Conference semifinals against the defending WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx.
On the strength of their regular season record, the Lynx (27-7) have home-court advantage in the series, which tips off tonight at 6 p.m. in Minneapolis. Game 2 is Sunday night in Seattle, and if necessary Game 3 will be played back in Minneapolis.
“(If) the lower seed team is going to advance, you are going to have to win one on the road,” Agler said of the short series. “And you only get two chances, if you get that far. Every game is vital.”
The Storm, who finished the regular season fourth in the West with a record of 16-18, are as close to full strength as they have been in some time. Center Lauren Jackson returned from a hamstring injury for the team’s final two regular-season games and point guard Sue Bird appears to be back at full strength after missing three games late in the season nursing a hip injury.
“I’m hoping that our team is going to be 100 percent,” Agler said. “We think we can be or close to that, so we will just go from there.”
After returning to the team in August, Jackson struggled offensively, but her production picked up late in the season with many of her higher scoring games coming in limited minutes.
“She’s feeling a lot better than she did earlier,” Agler said. “And our team has played a lot better when she’s been on the floor.”
Injuries to the team’s two biggest stars aren’t the only adversity the Storm have faced this season. They played the first 21 games without Jackson, who spent that time preparing for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London with her Australian national team. The Storm also have battled key injuries to role players throughout the season. Forward Tina Thompson missed several games with a knee injury as did center Ann Wauters with an Achilles injury.
With all the injuries and Jackson’s absence to start the season, the Storm played only one quarter of the season with a full roster of 11 players.
Facing a team that has the depth of the Lynx, being ready physically will be important to the Storm’s chances to pull the upset.
“We do a lot of our preparation through walk-through and film,” Agler said. “We tweak things here and there, but we won’t be able to really get a lot of hard court time in with the way our team is right now. But that doesn’t mean we can’t play well.”
With a veteran group that has battled injuries, making sure the players are rested has become a key factor for the team going into the Minnesota series.
“I don’t know if it is more important, but it is very important,” Agler said. “We need to be rested and fresh for the games. So like we talked about, we are going to have to get better in some unconventional ways other than being just full-go in practice.”
Under Agler, the Storm always have been a team that hangs its hat on defense. Since Minnesota has perhaps the WNBA’s most potent offense, Seattle will need its defense functioning at its absolute best.
“(The Lynx) are the team to beat not only from last season being the defending champs, but also from this season having the best record,” Storm guard Katie Smith said. “So (we) might as well start off with a bang and see where we measure up.”
The Lynx average 86 points per game and have four players scoring more than 11.4 points per game. Forward Seimone Augustus (16.6 ppg) leads the way and forward Maya Moore (16.4) isn’t far behind while point guard Lindsay Whalen averages 11.5 and forward Rebekkah Brunson averages 11.4.
“They just have a lot of threats,” Smith said. “They can spread you. They can shoot the ball. They have people who like to attack and break down the defense. They have some guards that like to rebound real well. Maya is a good rebounder, but so is Whalen from the guard spot.”
Despite the ups-and-downs that the Storm have faced, Agler said he has enjoyed coaching this year’s team.
“I’ve really enjoyed our team,” he said. “I don’t necessarily enjoy the record, but I’ve enjoyed seeing how our team has worked together going through some really trying times to be in the playoffs again. Obviously our team is getting back to full strength in regards to our talent level. Whether we will be able to put that talent together the way we want to, to have the success remains to be seen. I really don’t know how good we are, I have no idea. I know how good we can be, but I don’t know how good we are at this point.”
Aaron Lommers covers the Seattle Storm for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.