Sunday, August 31, 2008

Playoff Picture: Aug. 31

After the Storm's loss today in Connecticut, here's how things look in the Western Conference.

Team           W   L    GB  Storm  Conf   H/A  500+
San Antonio 19 10 0 1-2 8-10 3/2 5/0
Seattle 18 10 0.5 12-5 2/4 3/3
Los Angeles 17 12 2.0 1-1 9-7 3/2 4/1
Sacramento 16 13 3.0 3-0 7-8 2/3 4/1
Minnesota 14 13 4.0 2-0 8-7 2/5 3/4
Houston 14 14 4.5 2-1 9-8 4/2 4/2
Phoenix 12 16 6.5 3-1 4-12 3/3 5/1
After briefly taking over first in the West by percentage points with San Antonio's loss last night to Los Angeles, the Storm drops a half-game off the pace with the loss. Los Angeles has now moved within 1.5 games of the Storm for home-court advantage in the first round, while Sacramento got a big head-to-head win over Houston, which has dropped into sixth place.

The Storm's magic number to clinch against Houston dropped to two, but is still three against both Minnesota and Sacramento and overall.

The good news is, though the Storm could not pull out a tight game in Mohegan Sun, if the team plays like this the next two games, that should translate into victories. Even without Lindsay Whalen, Connecticut is a very dangerous team. Right now, the Sun has to be considered the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference and maybe even to win it all.

The only other game scheduled today features two East teams, so the playoff picture won't change until tomorrow, when Minnesota visits L.A. in a big game in the West standings.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Playoff Picture: Aug. 29

With the WNBA season back underway and just seven games remaining, it's time to start focusing in on the battle to make the playoffs and for positioning within them. Here's the first installment of's Playoff Picture updates.

Team           W   L    GB  Storm  Conf   H/A  500+
San Antonio 19 9 0 1-2 8-9 3/3 6/0
Seattle 18 9 0.5 12-5 2/5 4/3
Los Angeles 16 12 3.0 1-1 8-7 4/2 5/1
Sacramento 15 13 4.0 3-0 6-8 3/3 5/1
Houston 14 13 4.5 2-1 9-7 4/3 5/2
Minnesota 13 13 5.0 2-0 8-7 3/5 3/5
Phoenix 12 16 7.0 3-1 4-12 3/3 5/1
With the top three teams in the West all winning, the Storm remains a half-game back of San Antonio for the top spot in the West and 2.5 up on third-place Los Angeles.

The more important doings are a little lower. With the Storm's win and Phoenix's loss, the Mercury can do no better than tie the Storm, and the Storm holds the tiebreaker. The most wins any of Houston, Minnesota and Sacramento can get is 21, so by winning three more games, the Storm would guarantee at least a tie with them. The Storm holds tiebreakers with both all three teams by virtue of head-to-head record.

There's an extraordinarily unlikely possibility of a four-way tie with Houston/Minnesota, Los Angeles and San Antonio that would leave the Storm out of the playoffs, but for all intents and purposes the Storm's magic number to clinch a playoff spot is three wins or any combination of Storm wins plus losses by TWO OF Houston, Minnesota and Sacramento that adds to three.

(UPDATED 8/29 at 3:00 p.m. to reflect Storm holding tiebreaker over Minnesota.)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Agler on KPLU

Tune in to 88.5 FM KPLU (NPR) either tomorrow or Saturday to hear Storm Head Coach Brian Agler chat about the playoff stretch run. The interview will air Friday on "Morning Edition" at 5:35 a.m. and 7:35 a.m. and "All Things Considered" at 4:44 p.m. On Saturday, it will be part of "Weekend Edition" at 5:34 a.m. and 7:34 a.m.

Burse Update

Storm Head Coach Brian Agler offered an update yesterday on center Janell Burse, who is sitting this season out. Agler had spoken earlier in the week to Burse, who was headed to Russia yesterday to prepare to play for Dynamo Moscow this upcoming season.

"She said that three or four weeks into the season or even when she got back, she really missed it," shared Agler. "She's excited about coming back to play and has been following us. She's feeling better and refreshed and she's going to go over and play in Moscow, so she'll be in the same league as Sue (Bird) and Lauren (Jackson) and a lot of the players that play in our league."

After Burse opted not to join the Storm, the team had to place her on the long-term suspended list to maintain her rights and not have her salary count against the cap. That meant that though her name was brought up by fans in the wake of Jackson's injury as a possible replacement, Burse could not play in the WNBA this season.

Instead, Burse spent the summer rehabbing and working out with former long-time NBA coach John Lucas in Houston. Now she's headed back overseas and will face high-level competition in the Russian Superleague as well as in the EuroCup. Before joining Russian rival Spartak, Bird spent two seasons playing for Dynamo.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

WNBA Conference Calls

As part of what the WNBA has branded "Welcome Back Week," the league held conference calls with several players and coaches from around the league, including the Storm's Brian Agler and Sue Bird. Here's Agler and the other coaches:

"All seven teams right now in the Western Conference have a legitimate shot and a strong chance to work themselves into the race. It’s interesting if you see the match-ups and how one game – even one you aren’t involved in - can impact how you play. Match-ups and tie-breakers could play a big impact in the placement of teams."
and Bird and her fellow players:

"2004 was similar with the Olympic break and the one thing I learned from that year is it’s actually more what you do before the break than what you do after. I don’t remember exactly the standings from that year back then but I know that we were in a very good spot…good enough where we actually lost five of our games after the break and we still were able to finish second. We know we have our work cut out for us, just like every other team. It’s going to be a fight but we did well prior to the break and hopefully we can get back to that level in these next few games and see what happens from there once we hopefully make the playoffs."

Monday, August 25, 2008

Full-Strength Storm Focuses on Last Eight Games

After a two-week pseudo-training camp, the Seattle Storm is ready to begin focusing on the Houston Comets and the final eight games of the 2008 season. Monday's practice marked a shift as the Storm had all 11 healthy players on the floor. Center Kelly Santos returned from the Olympics in time for last Friday's practice; Monday, she was joined by guard Sue Bird and forward Swin Cash. While Bird watched from the sidelines, Cash was on the floor.

"She did a good job today," said Head Coach Brian Agler. "Just trying to get her up to speed, Sue up to speed in a couple of things we added."

Agler was pleased with the results of the Storm's practices during the Olympic break. The team was able to get healthier and also get extensive work together for the eight players who were with the Storm during the break.

"Sheryl (Swoopes) has definitely come back in better shape," he said. "Yo (Griffith) got refreshed having that the time off. I also think those younger players like Katie (Gearlds) and even Ashley (Robinson) and Shyra (Ely) have really come back and played pretty well in our training camp. I've been real pleased with how we've played here in practice. I hope it will carry over to the games."

Though Cash did not participate in the Storm's practices during the Olympic break, she hopes to see a benefit from the time off when it comes to a back injury that has been highly painful for her the last two seasons.

"The break was a time for me to really rest my back and do the things that we needed to do and get second opinions," said Cash. "Now I'm going to be back here and train and see what happens."

Cash acknowledged that she is coming up on long-term decisions about her back and her future. For now, however, she anticipates being able to continue battling through the injury.

"My issue right now is the pain issue and how you can deal with tolerance. Both of my doctors have said they don't understand how I'm playing. I pride myself on being mentally tough and I take care of myself, whether it's eating-wise, weights, doing certain things. Playing this game is worth it.

"I'm just here to battle with my teammates, and that's going to be my focus."

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Donovan's Day

The great thing about the Olympics is how much they mean to players and coaches. The tough thing about the Olympics is how much they mean to players and coaches. Those of us who have worked with the Storm for some time saw familiar faces on both sides of this morning's gold-medal game. While it was great to get a chance to see Sue Bird and Anne Donovan celebrate, it was at least equally as tough, if not more so, to see the disappointment etched on the faces of Lauren Jackson, Tully Bevilaqua and Suzy Batkovic.

At the end of the day (not quite literally, since the men's final will keep me up late), the person I'm happiest for is Donovan, who joined Pat Summitt as the only two women ever to win gold medals as players, assistant coaches and head coaches, Donovan having also done so as an assistant coach. It's easy to see how much this means to Donovan.

"I bleed red, white and blue," Donovan said when she was named the USA's head coach through the Beijing Olympics. "From the time I can remember, the Olympics were it. Staying up until all hours and watching the Olympians go for medals was something from a child that was a complete dream for me. When I stepped into the position as an athlete to fulfill that dream as a player, I thought that was the pinnacle. And then here I am as the coach. So it's truly life-long dreams for me."

It was evident to observers the kind of pressure Donovan put on herself in her dual role as head coach of the Storm and the national team in 2006 and 2007. That only increased when the U.S. was upset by Russia in the semifinals of the 2006 FIBA World Championships, snapping a 50-game winning streak in major international play and forcing the Americans to settle for bronze. In the wake of the loss, Donovan came under heavy criticism for her coaching, some of it justified but much of it ignoring the fact that Russia had played close before against USA squads that had the fortunate luxury of having Lisa Leslie at center.

That was before Donovan came under more fire this spring when she questioned Becky Hammon's patriotism because of Hammon's decision to play for Russia in the Olympics.

Ultimately, the 2006 loss proved a valuable learning experience for Donovan and her coaching staff. They recognized the need to return to the level of defense the U.S. won with despite subpar offensive efforts in the medal rounds in Athens. Defense was the focus of the USA's brief training camp in Palo Alto, and the results were obvious. The U.S. women put together 80 minutes of incredible defense in their wins over Russia and Australia, and that translated into a gold medal.

The final +37.8 average margin of victory for this year's team was the best ever for the USA in an Olympics, and when you consider that the conventional wisdom heading to Beijing was that the rest of the world had caught up, that's pretty remarkable. Even the closest U.S. win, coming from behind against Russia in the semifinals, was far more decisive than the Russia-USA matchups in Athens or in the 2002 World Championships.

I watched the gold-medal game this morning with a handful of Storm co-workers, and at one point during the second half the discussion turned to whether this might be the best U.S. Olympic team ever. I took the dissenting position - the legendary names of '96 and that team's incredible year-long run is tough to beat in my mind - but the mere fact that this is a discussion is testament to the coaching job Donovan and her staff did in the Olympics.

After the game and her USA head-coaching tenure were over, Donovan reflected publicly for the first time on the pressure she felt to win gold.

"There was no more pressure on me than the pressure I put on myself," Donovan said. "That was just extremely disappointing to be the leader of that team that came away with bronze. And to know that we were better than that and could be better than that, drove me every day since 2006."

Later, she added, "I’m not coaching the team any more, so I can sleep at night now."

The last question of Donovan's portion of the press conference asked her whether winning gold as a head coach was different than doing so as a player or assistant coach.

"It's way different," she said. "There is so much more … I think there is a lot of pressure I put on myself for this and there is just a tremendous amount of satisfaction to know the last three years … there have been a lot of challenges … so this is a great way to go out."

Indeed it is. Congrats, Anne, and I hope you sleep well tonight.

Storm Predicts the Gold-Medal Game

After Friday's Storm practice, I surveyed several players and Head Coach Brian Agler on their picks for the gold-medal game of the Beijing Olympics between the USA (and Sue Bird) and Australia (and Lauren Jackson).

"You think I'm really going to pick Australia?" noted one American Storm player in response. OK, that's fair. Still, I was interested in the responses - and center Kelly Santos, who played against Australia in Beijing, is an unbiased observer. Still, she picked the U.S., and so did everyone else besides Agler, ever the diplomat, who didn't really pick either side but observed that the game would be very close just like the FIBA Diamond Ball warm-up tournament championship assuming Penny Taylor is able to play and play well.

"Obviously, I think the U.S. is going to win it," said Tanisha Wright, who wished good luck to Jackson and former teammate Suzy Batkovic. "No reason they shouldn't be able to finish it out strong."

Camille Little reiterated her hope that Bird gets gold and Jackson silver, saying she expects a good game but the U.S. to pull it out.

As for Santos, she gives the USA's post players the advantage in terms of size, but says that's somewhat offset by the skill of the Opals' posts. Santos thinks that Australia should like to push the tempo. Still, the U.S. will "probably" win.

Yolanda Griffith had the funniest response, saying directly that if the USA loses tomorrow, all the work the team has put in will be for naught. Griffith, a gold medalist in 2000 and 2004 as a member of those U.S. Olympic teams, doesn't see why this squad should lose.

Agler gave the players their choice about how to handle practice, scheduled against the Seattle broadcast of the gold-medal game. They decided to leave the practice at regular time, then watch a replay of the broadcast, having already learned the outcome.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Storm Stands Pat at Deadline, Looking at Free Agents

After taking the last two days off, the Storm returned to the practice court Friday. At the end of practice open to the media, the team was working on applying and playing against full-court pressure with a very interesting drill: Three offensive and defensive players on each side of the court, none of them allowed to change sides. It was sort of like the old 6-on-6 game that women used to play in many parts of the Midwest.

Following practice, Storm Head Coach Brian Agler offered an update on the team investigating potential options to help add depth in the frontcourt with Lauren Jackson out for the next 4-6 weeks after ankle surgery. Yesterday's trade deadline came and went without a move from the Storm (or any other WNBA team). Agler walked reporters through the team's thought process with regard to a potential deal.

Having dealt a second-round pick to Atlanta for Camille Little in June, the Storm still has its first-round pick available, but Agler emphasized that the big picture has to be taken into account, especially making a deal this late in the season.

"Obviously, everybody's always interested in first-round draft picks," he said, "but what you consider trading a first-round draft pick, you want somebody who can come in and make an immediate impact for you. Then you have to evaluate that person and what the status of their contract is. If we were going to trade a first-round pick for somebody who was an unrestricted free agent, we would basically have them for eight games and, if we're fortunate enough to get into the playoffs, the playoffs. Then you have no more rights. Now, you can get them and get them extended into a contract to keep them out of that free agency [as Detroit did with Taj McWilliams-Franklin last week].

"There's just a lot of things to consider and we didn't have a lot of time to put all those pieces into place."

The Storm still has the opportunity to add a free-agent post player to the roster, and Agler said the team continues to explore those options. Immediately, many fans considered the possibility of signing a player who is currently playing in the Olympics but will be freed up at their conclusion. The Storm has looked into that, but Agler noted (specifically in regards to the Russian team) that visa issues could make adding an international player difficult.

"Unless they've got great contacts in the U.S. embassy," he said, "to get something turned around to get a visa, it's going to take weeks."

Jackson's Aussie teammate and former Storm center Suzy Batkovic might be a good fit, but she is getting married this fall and is not available.

The name of Russian center Maria Stepanova entered the rumor mill when Phoenix Mercury GM Ann Meyers Drysdale, offering color commentary for the U.S.-Russia semifinal, said Stepanova could sign with San Antonio after the break. A standout internationally who has played for the Mercury in the WNBA, Stepanova is now a free agent. However, it doesn't appear she will be coming to the league.

"I know there were rumors out there of her going to San Antonio," Agler said. "That was sort of the talk over there (in Beijing). Her agent said that's not going to happen.

"It's been a stretch to get her to come over for a max salary. Now we're talking about a short period of time, getting a visa, people not having big dollars to throw at her to do it, because most people are stretching their cap as it is. I think that people looked into it, obviously, but when it's all said and done it would have been real hard to do that."

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Olympic Stats/Semifinals Preview

Looking ahead to tomorrow's semifinals, here's a look at updated Olympic team stats.

Team             Gr    Diff   ORating Rank   DRating Rank    Pace

United States B 58.7 133.8 1 76.6 1 73.6
Australia A 31.7 115.4 2 84.1 2 72.5
China B 6.3 101.1 4 94.1 5 72.0
Russia A 6.0 102.6 3 94.4 6 69.5
Spain B 3.2 96.7 5 92.8 4 73.0
Belarus A -5.2 87.2 10 92.4 3 73.8
Czech Republic B -9.8 89.5 9 99.5 8 72.9
South Korea A -18.3 90.9 8 107.4 9 70.0
Here are the Four Factors numbers on offense and defense for all teams.
Team             Gr    eFG%    OR%   FTM/FGA   TO%

Australia A 0.474 0.425 0.250 0.139
Belarus A 0.413 0.339 0.174 0.225
China B 0.465 0.274 0.239 0.164
Czech Republic B 0.431 0.303 0.221 0.222
Russia A 0.486 0.372 0.244 0.211
South Korea A 0.458 0.170 0.139 0.172
Spain B 0.485 0.300 0.220 0.219
United States B 0.607 0.423 0.167 0.127
Team             Gr    eFG%    DR%   FTM/FGA   TO%

Australia A 0.406 0.768 0.196 0.203
Belarus A 0.434 0.738 0.225 0.184
China B 0.429 0.651 0.134 0.174
Czech Republic B 0.464 0.653 0.242 0.200
Russia A 0.438 0.732 0.194 0.169
South Korea A 0.525 0.561 0.242 0.233
Spain B 0.466 0.650 0.220 0.238
United States B 0.403 0.744 0.172 0.254
I've also used the Log5 method to predict each team's chances of advancing and finishing in each position.
Team             Final   Gold  Silver  Bronze    4th

United States 99.6 94.0 5.6 0.4 0.0
Australia 94.4 5.9 88.5 5.3 0.3
China 5.6 0.0 5.6 47.8 46.5
Russia 0.4 0.0 0.3 46.5 53.1
The USA remains a heavy favorite, to understate the issue. By these numbers, there's little drama in the semifinals. Subjectively, that's not the case. Let's look at the two matchups.

USA vs. Russia
History is clear: Russia saves its best efforts for matchups against the U.S. Russia has always been unpredictable, but this year that's even more true because of what appear to be legitimate chemistry issues only exacerbated by the addition of Becky Hammon. As I've noted before, however, Russia played much worse in the group round and in the quarterfinals in Brazil, and it did not matter in the semifinals.

From a statistical perspective, Russia's size shows up on the glass, where Australia, the U.S. and Russia (in that order) are the three dominant teams. The USA has rebounded well against smaller teams, but sometimes allows offensive boards to bigger squads like Russia. If Russia wins, presumably 6-8 center Maria Stepanova will have a big game.

A key matchup will pit Hammon against Sue Bird at the point. Hammon has the ability to exploit the USA defense by getting to the basket. Nuria Martinez showed this vulnerability to dribble penetration in keeping Spain in the game for a half. However, the strength of the U.S. defense has been forcing turnovers, and Hammon has committed nearly four a game in these Olympics. (Her assist-to-turnover ratio is 5-to-23; ouch!) If the USA can turn Hammon over, it figures to frustrate both her and her Russian teammates while also offering transition buckets.

Lastly, watch the first quarter closely. In Brazil, Russia jumped out early thanks to hot shooting and the U.S. fell too far behind to catch up. While the last two games (blowing a big halftime lead against Australia, coming back against Spain) have bucked the trend, Russia generally plays much better from ahead. Team chemistry could be a major issue if the USA gets off to a quick start. If Russia is close after one quarter and especially at the half, the U.S. will likely be unable to pull away as it has against lesser competition thus far in the Olympics.

Australia vs. China
This game took on more drama when Penny Taylor sprained her right ankle during Tuesday's quarterfinal win over the Czech Republic. Though Taylor has not had a big Olympics, she's a key threat for the Opals, especially with Lauren Jackson playing at less than 100 percent. The Aussies hope to have Taylor for this game, but it's more likely she will return on Saturday.

The Australian offense has yet to really click for an entire game in Beijing. Taylor's absence would only exacerbate the issue. Belinda Snell will be critical with or without Taylor, but if Taylor is out and the Chinese defense is focused on Jackson (as it figures to be either way), Snell becomes the team's best offensive option. Suzy Batkovic and Laura Summerton also need to offer the Opals scoring down low against a Chinese frontline that is not great defensively.

The offensive glass figures to be a major, major weapon for the Aussies. China is allowing opponents to grab 35.0 percent of their own misses, while the Opals have an Olympics-best 42.5 percent offensive rebounding rate. Add it up and it's entirely possible that missed shots will be a 50-50 proposition for Australia, extending posessions and offering easy looks in the paint.

If China is to win, the Aussies will have to have a very poor shooting night, maybe get into some foul trouble up front and China will have to be hitting, its posts from midrange and perimeter players from long distance. China has the home-court advantage, and if that translates into the refereeing, that could help with getting Australia in foul trouble and keeping China out of it as well as keeping the Aussies off the line, where they like to live. The X-factor is that Tom Maher knows the Opals' core players very well, information that could serve China well. It would still be a massive upset if Australia loses, but don't rule it out.

DigiGirlz + Storm

Microsoft's annual DigiGirlz camps encourage high-school-age girls to consider careers in the technology field. This year's Redmond DigiGirlz camp was last week, and 11 lucky participants were chosen to visit the Seattle Storm's business headquarters yesterday to work with the WIRED Department and learn about writing and editing, web production, photography and video.

The four bloggers in the group joined me to interview Storm employees Kelly and Laura about their jobs and how they got to this point in their careers. Afterward, they composed blog entries using quotes from the interview. You can check out the results at the DigiGirlz and Storm blog we created. Thanks to Microsoft and everybody who participated.

Olympic Links

About 12 hours away from tomorrow's semifinal games, let's take a trip around the Internet.

- Here's a link that has Lauren Jackson and Aussie team doctor Dr. Scott Burne talking about her upcoming surgery as well as Penny Taylor's sprained ankle. Sounds like Taylor could play against China and will likely be back for Saturday.

- Scott and Angie Engelhardt continue blogging away from Beijing, including their experience at the Beijing Olympic Basketball Gymnasum for the quarterfinal games.

The trend I was watching concerning how demonstrative US fans are at the games
continued. There were many more US fans at this game, but still no where near
the rabid support we saw from the Aussies. A few flags were waving, but no
organized chants. Are we so afraid of being seen as rude or arrogant? Angie and
were yelling like we normally do — at the refs, for some of the players, normal
stuff — and we were getting looks. I’ll keep watching how this plays out as the
games get bigger leading up to the Gold medal match (if the US gets there).

- The Sydney Morning Herald has a story on the close relationship between Jackson and Chinese Head Coach Tom Maher, who was the coach of the Opals in 2000 when they won silver in Sydney.

Says Maher: "Every generation we see a great player, a truly world-class basketball player come along. It was Robyn Maher and Michele Timms and before that it was, say, Jenny Cheesman, and people like that. But I don't see Lauren in the same category as that, because I think she's a once-in-a-lifetime player."

- The Boston Globe takes a look at the close friendship of Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi.

- Adam Hirshfield of has a good take on the USA looking to avenge its loss to Russia in the semifinals of the 2006 FIBA World Championships. scouts Hammon and company.

- According to USAToday's blog, the U.S. Women's teams in basketball, soccer and volleyball got together to hang out at their practices, meet each other and take a three-team photo. Kara Lawson related that she and Bird played soccer against each other at ages 10 and 11. Check out video at the U.S. National Soccer blog.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Storm Can Thrive Without Jackson

You've probably already heard the bad news. Storm forward Lauren Jackson will undergo arthroscopic surgery on her right ankle to alleviate pain and inflammation which has flared up since she injured the ankle in a warm-up series for the Beijing Olympics. A subsequent MRI revealed an impingement which must be treated with surgery.

Let's consider the good news. First, the Storm has already gone through five games without Jackson when she left the team early before the Olympics to train with the Australian Defence Force Opals. The Storm more than survived that absence, going 3-2 despite four of the five games being played on the road.

Second, and closely related to the first point, the addition of Camille Little has given the Storm a productive backup behind Jackson the likes of which the team has never had before. In the five games before the Olympic break, Little averaged 11.8 points and 7.8 rebounds while shooting 54.5 percent from the field. Little wasn't the only player to step up in Jackson's absence, with the team's improved depth coming to the forefront. In the wake of a terrific run in the Olympics for Brazil, center Kelly Santos figures to vie for more minutes, while Ashley Robinson has had the luxury of an extended rest to manage her Achilles tendinitis.

Third, the Storm's 17-9 record heading into the break has given the team some cushion over a crowded Western Conference Playoff race. With eight games left in the season, the second-seeded Storm leads Los Angeles and Sacramento (tied for third) by 2.5 games apiece and three games in the loss column.

When Storm Head Coach Brian Agler was asked about Jackson when she was away from the team playing in Australia, his answer was consistent and clear: His focus was on the players with the Storm, not those that were missing. That mentality will be crucial for the Storm down the stretch, and when the focus shifts to that perspective it becomes clear how much talent the Storm still has, along with a stout defense that powered the team to victories even when the offense was missing Jackson at times.

This morning, U.S. Head Coach Anne Donovan spoke about Australian forward Penny Taylor potentially missing the remainder of the Olympics after spraining her ankle. Donovan noted that while Taylor was hugely valuable to the Opals, the team could succeed without her. I feel the same way about the Storm. Obviously, the team is at its best with a healthy Jackson in the lineup; that's why she's twice been voted the WNBA's Most Valuable Player. However, the Storm has already proven it can win without Jackson.

Do that enough over the next 4-6 weeks and after rehab Jackson might be able to achieve her goal of joining the team during the midst of a successful postseason run.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Olympics Stats Through Group Play

As we head to the quarterfinals (mere hours away), let's take a last look at the numbers from group play.

Team            Gr    Diff   ORating Rank   DRating Rank    Pace

United States B 58.2 132.3 1 75.1 1 73.9
Australia A 28.9 115.8 2 88.5 3 72.6
Spain B 8.9 96.8 5 87.0 2 74.1
China B 3.3 98.9 3 95.1 6 72.6
Russia A 1.7 98.2 4 94.0 5 69.9
Belarus A -2.1 86.9 11 88.7 4 74.7
Czech Republic B -2.7 95.0 6 96.9 7 73.2
Brazil A -4.8 92.4 8 98.7 8 70.6
South Korea A -9.5 92.2 9 100.5 9 69.5
Latvia A -15.0 94.4 7 110.1 11 70.5
New Zealand B -28.0 87.0 10 114.9 12 73.6
Mali B -39.2 67.5 12 108.0 10 75.0
The USA's amazing differential really never came down over the course of group play. It's interesting to note that while the U.S. was dominant on defense, its offense was much further ahead of the pack. The Opals and the Americans were the only two teams to average a point per possessions, and the USA blew by that mark with ease. Australia's offense continues to lag compared to 2004 and 2006, but the Aussies have defended well. Look out for Spain as a darkhorse.

Here are the Four Factors numbers on offense and defense for all teams.
Team             Gr    eFG%    OR%   FTM/FGA   TO%

Australia A 0.484 0.417 0.246 0.141
Belarus A 0.400 0.315 0.197 0.210
Brazil A 0.441 0.277 0.203 0.194
China B 0.453 0.293 0.220 0.167
Czech Republic B 0.463 0.319 0.235 0.224
Latvia A 0.474 0.284 0.225 0.221
Mali B 0.344 0.347 0.203 0.290
New Zealand B 0.414 0.299 0.224 0.222
Russia A 0.470 0.364 0.249 0.222
South Korea A 0.462 0.169 0.151 0.172
Spain B 0.488 0.308 0.209 0.223
United States B 0.610 0.406 0.163 0.135
Note that Spain has shot the ball better than anyone else besides the U.S.
Team             Gr    eFG%    DR%   FTM/FGA   TO%

Australia A 0.433 0.771 0.205 0.200
Belarus A 0.417 0.722 0.203 0.190
Brazil A 0.447 0.690 0.213 0.174
China B 0.420 0.673 0.149 0.149
Czech Republic B 0.473 0.682 0.236 0.215
Latvia A 0.495 0.641 0.219 0.165
Mali B 0.503 0.660 0.176 0.169
New Zealand B 0.564 0.627 0.288 0.209
Russia A 0.434 0.730 0.179 0.163
South Korea A 0.507 0.575 0.258 0.265
Spain B 0.447 0.661 0.220 0.254
United States B 0.395 0.727 0.192 0.270
Australia crushed Russia on the offensive glass and dropped Russia way back to the pack in terms of defensive rebounding, just ahead of the USA.

Let's close out by using the Log5 method to predict each team's chances of advancing and winning it all.
Team             Semi   Final   Champ

United States 99.9 99.5 95.9
Australia 96.9 92.0 4.0
China 65.6 5.2 0.0
Belarus 34.4 1.6 0.0
Czech Republic 3.1 1.2 0.0
Spain 70.5 0.4 0.0
Russia 29.5 0.1 0.0
South Korea 0.1 0.0 0.0
So, as you can see, the USA is something of a favorite. Now, two things throw off these numbers. They're based on each team's Pythagorean winning percentage (based on points scored and allowed) and the U.S. has been so, so dominant as to show up as virtually unbeatable. Subjectively, while the U.S. women are good, they aren't that good. Second, if Russia really has been playing possum, the numbers cannot pick up on that, giving Spain an edge that again doesn't match our subjective assessment.

What I do agree with is showing China as a favorite over Belarus to advance to the semis. The numbers do also show, even if it's exaggerated, how much Spain was hurt by finishing third to China in Group B. The Spanish would have a reasonable 10.2 percent chance of reaching the final had they finished second; as it is, it will be extremely difficult to get past both Russia and the U.S.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Blogging From Beijing

Scott and Angie Engelhardt, the co-founders of, have traveled to Beijing to take in the women's basketball competition, other games in the Olympics and see China. You can follow their journey in their blog, Scorpions on a Stick (as already eaten by Scott).

Yesterday (today?) was their first day at the Beijing Olympic Basketball Gymnasium, and Scott does a great job of offering the color of what it's like to be inside the arena. Here from the China-Czech Republic matchup:

Inside, it was a sea of red. When the Chinese national anthem was played, the whole arena sang, some of the Chinese around us sang the song with a lot of force and emotion. This is a huge deal for them. Then Yao Ming showed up, as I described earlier, and the crowd went crazy.

They had one main cheer they did. It was a call and answer. One person would start and say the call phrase and the crowd would answer “Cha Yo.” I’m not sure what it meant, but it was going on all game long, sometimes in small groups and sometimes with the whole arena in unison. I felt a little sorry for the Czech players who had to face that. It was impressive and had to be daunting.

Yeah, I'm taking the hosts over Belarus to advance to the semis. Scott's post is very detailed and more than worth a look.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Olympic Numbers Through Four Games

Back with another check of the numbers. First, a note on what to look for tonight/tomorrow as group play wraps up. Obviously, first place in Group A is on the line when Australia faces Russia at 8:15 p.m. Pacific. I'll be watching on NBC's webcast. I half suspect Russia won't bring its A game, not caring about group positioning and preferring to play the U.S. in the semifinals anyway.

South Korea and Latvia follow them with a spot in the medal rounds on the line. Belarus has beaten both teams and will finish third in Group A even with a loss to Brazil.

In Group B, the four teams are set, but after the U.S. the order is a mess. If China beats the Czech Republic, the host country finishes second with Spain third and the Czech Republic fourth barring a wildly improbable Mali upset over Spain.

If the Czech Republic wins that game, again assuming Spain takes care of business, we have a three-way tie that can't be resolved via head-to-head results. As best I can tell, that would be determined by point average (a misleading term which really would better be called "point ratio") from head-to-head games.

Spain is in good shape, having beaten the Czech Republic by 19 points. Their point average is 1.131. To reach that, the Czechs would have to win by about double, or 38 points(bad math) about 34 points. To finish ahead of China, the Czech Republic would have to win by about 11 points or more.

Again, this is huge because the second-place team in Group B gets Belarus and a relatively clear path to the semifinals, while the third-place team has to face the loser of Australia-Russia and fourth place will play the winner of that game.

Anyways, here are the numbers.

Team            Gr    Diff   ORating Rank   DRating Rank    Pace
United States B 59.9 131.3 1 72.8 1 74.7
Australia A 28.9 117.9 2 90.2 3 73.6
Russia A 9.3 102.3 3 90.8 4 70.2
Belarus A 2.3 90.4 9 87.8 2 75.1
Czech Republic B 2.0 96.1 4 93.5 5 73.8
Spain B 0.3 96.0 5 95.2 6 72.6
China B -1.4 96.0 5 96.2 7 73.1
Brazil A -11.4 92.3 7 105.3 9 69.9
South Korea A -13.1 87.8 10 99.6 8 70.7
Latvia A -17.0 92.2 8 109.6 10 72.0
New Zealand B -22.5 87.5 11 109.8 11 74.4
Mali B -39.1 70.2 12 110.3 12 73.6
The USA's numbers remain impeccable, though I think Spain's first-half challenge showed where the team could have some difficulty. When Sue Bird had a tough time with Nuria Martinez's quickness, the U.S. struggled to fill in for her. Kara Lawson was too prone to turnovers, while Cappie Pondexter isn't a true point guard. Having either another true point like Lindsay Whalen or a complementary player like Loree Moore available would have given Anne Donovan more options.

Offensive Four Factors:

Team             Gr    eFG%    OR%   FTM/FGA   TO%
Australia A 0.509 0.401 0.242 0.143
Belarus A 0.419 0.307 0.238 0.218
Brazil A 0.447 0.288 0.209 0.208
China B 0.437 0.318 0.195 0.173
Czech Republic B 0.491 0.307 0.232 0.241
Latvia A 0.482 0.227 0.223 0.227
Mali B 0.348 0.367 0.203 0.278
New Zealand B 0.398 0.317 0.249 0.213
Russia A 0.500 0.398 0.246 0.231
South Korea A 0.442 0.157 0.141 0.171
Spain B 0.485 0.295 0.223 0.225
United States B 0.606 0.423 0.164 0.138
Australia has not shot the ball particularly well, but the Opals' offense is still second only to the U.S. because the Aussies are doing everything else well on offense.

And defense:
Team               eFG%    DR%   FTM/FGA   TO%
Australia 0.452 0.776 0.191 0.204
Belarus 0.417 0.712 0.209 0.203
Brazil 0.480 0.701 0.259 0.173
China 0.433 0.680 0.126 0.147
Czech Republic 0.461 0.651 0.213 0.231
Latvia 0.483 0.616 0.223 0.162
Mali 0.504 0.662 0.180 0.157
New Zealand 0.545 0.617 0.325 0.230
Russia 0.447 0.794 0.154 0.171
South Korea 0.525 0.595 0.266 0.281
Spain 0.475 0.641 0.225 0.232
United States 0.372 0.714 0.212 0.272
Yeah, I'd say the U.S. commitment to defense has paid off so far.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Storm Works on Offense

Just a couple of quick notes from today's practice. The Storm focused on offense during the session of about an hour.

"We scrimmaged quite a bit today - six-minute sessions," said Head Coach Brian Agler. "We talked quite a bit about our offense today, some different actions we're trying to incorporate. We tried to bring those out in a live setting, so we got out our guys that we're working against.

"Tomorrow, we'll break down our defense a little bit more."

Sheryl Swoopes was on the floor after missing Tuesday's practice with a bruised left heel. Agler really thinks this extended time to practice will help Swoopes.

"Everybody's going to benefit," he said. "It's been very, very good for Sheryl. Sheryl was banged up physically before the break. She's obviously physically looking a lot better. She's got a heel bruise, but she is practicing through it and doing well."

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Olympics Team Stats

With the first three games of group play in the book, I've got my spreadsheet updated to take a look at advanced possession-based stats for all 12 Olympic teams. They're sorted below by differential per 100 possessions.

Team            Gr    Diff   ORating Rank   DRating Rank    Pace

United States B 62.2 133.4 1 70.9 1 75.6
Australia A 27.9 113.0 2 86.3 3 74.2
Spain B 17.9 101.5 3 85.0 2 72.7
Russia A 7.5 100.5 4 90.2 4 70.7
Belarus A -1.3 91.0 8 92.7 5 76.0
Brazil A -10.4 92.2 7 104.6 9 70.3
China B -11.2 95.2 5 104.7 11 74.2
Czech Republic B -11.2 86.4 11 97.8 6 74.4
Latvia A -12.0 88.9 10 101.7 7 72.1
South Korea A -12.8 93.0 6 103.2 8 70.3
New Zealand B -16.0 89.7 9 104.6 9 75.1
Mali B -41.8 70.7 12 114.0 12 74.9
The U.S. ... wow. Just wow. I'm not sure I've ever seen a number that big in any context. Spain figures to present a greater challenge on Friday, but my expectation was that China was the second-best team in Group B - and China will finish second with a win over the Czech Republic - and the USA ran the Chinese out of the building on Monday. So ... yeah.

The Opals are about where you'd expect on defense. They haven't scored as efficiently as is typical, largely because Lauren Jackson and Penny Taylor haven't lived up to their own lofty standards. I don't think that's much of a concern.

Since losing to China, Spain has played very well. The Spanish women will see their rating go way down after playing the USA tomorrow, however. It's possible that if the U.S. wins in a rout we could have only three teams with positive differentials.

A couple of decent teams - Brazil likely to be one of them - will be left home from Group A, which is much more balanced than the stratified Group B.

Here are the Four Factors numbers on offense and defense for all teams.
                            OFFENSE                           DEFENSE

Australia A 0.516 0.361 0.293 0.173 0.411 0.752 0.172 0.184
Belarus A 0.399 0.287 0.227 0.177 0.442 0.683 0.233 0.207
Brazil A 0.443 0.330 0.228 0.220 0.473 0.743 0.295 0.165
China B 0.434 0.327 0.237 0.187 0.471 0.713 0.122 0.119
Czech Republic B 0.449 0.291 0.185 0.249 0.481 0.651 0.230 0.219
Latvia A 0.446 0.257 0.211 0.213 0.478 0.667 0.268 0.201
Mali B 0.365 0.351 0.228 0.295 0.525 0.645 0.214 0.166
New Zealand B 0.396 0.306 0.277 0.195 0.520 0.613 0.307 0.235
Russia A 0.500 0.389 0.280 0.244 0.444 0.780 0.156 0.172
South Korea A 0.476 0.136 0.141 0.166 0.532 0.596 0.260 0.258
Spain B 0.514 0.294 0.204 0.212 0.419 0.700 0.263 0.244
United States B 0.606 0.378 0.174 0.117 0.368 0.718 0.190 0.275
Q noted that the U.S. women struggled on the glass in the big win over Mali, but over the course of the tournament it has not been a big problem. Russia's giant frontline will test the USA on the glass. Remarkably, Russia and the Czech Republic, two good, veteran teams, have turned the ball over more frequently than anyone besides lowly Mali.

Greco Still Going Overseas

Thanks to the Women's Hoops Blog for digging up an update on one of my all-time favorite Storm players, guard Michelle Greco. Greco's lone WNBA season saw her come off the bench for the championship 2004 team. While Greco's time in the WNBA was brief, she has enjoyed a lengthy and successful career playing in Italy and recently signed a new two-year deal with her Levoni Taranto squad, the local Glendale News Press reported.

Greco was motivated by an upset postseason loss to a Phard Napoli squad featuring former Storm teammate Adia Barnes.

"It left a bitter taste in my mouth," Greco said. "The Italians are great fans, but they love you when you win and they hate you when you lose. We were booed right out of that gym when we lost at home [in front of] a sold-out crowd."

Greco, who has annually hosted a camp for kids in her hometown of La Crescenta, just north of L.A., hopes to eventually get into coaching and apparently is looking into opening a women’s sports-themed restaurant near her alma mater, UCLA.

Here's to You, Ms. Robinson

Aaron Last/Storm Photos

Yesterday was Ashley Robinson's 26th birthday, and she made no secret of that fact, donning a pink tiara while shooting free throws after practice. Teammate and fellow Tennessee alum Shyra Ely turned 25 on Saturday. The Storm had today off and will be back on the court at The Furtado Center tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Trade Analysis: Taj for Tasha

Never content to cede the spotlight, even to the Olympics, "Trader Bill" Laimbeer pulled off another big deal Tuesday, sending rookie center Tasha Humphrey, wing Shay Murphy and a 2009 second-round pick to the Washington Mystics for veteran center Taj McWilliams-Franklin. The deal is obviously a response to the loss of All-Star post Cheryl Ford for the remainder of the season to a torn ACL as the Shock looks to retain its position as the favorites in the Eastern Conference.

Does it accomplish that? Let's take a look at the numbers. We'll run through three scenarios: The Shock with a healthy Ford, with Humphrey and now with McWilliams-Franklin. For the most part, we can safely leave Murphy aside, since she had just played 122 minutes since joining Detroit in a deal earlier in the season.

Together, Ford and Humphrey had averaged an even 40 minutes per game for the Shock this season, so let's consider them as playing one position even though they often played together and Ford was considered the power forward and Humphrey the center, with Kara Braxton and Olayinka Sanni also sharing time in the middle.

Let's quickly look at the players as rated by my rating system, which estimates the Offensive Rating, the Defensive Rating and a winning percentage for an imaginary team made up of four average players and the player in question. Lastly, WARP estimates the wins the player has contributed as compared to a replacement-level player in their minutes.

Player       Win%   ORtg   DRtg   WARP
Ford .606 96.7 93.8 3.1
Humphrey .624 99.4 95.9 1.6
McWilliams .581 94.9 92.7 3.6
Both Ford and McWilliams-Franklin have played liked All-Stars this season. Humphrey has actually been somewhat more effective on a per-minute basis, but has not been nearly as valuable because of her limited minutes. I'm not sure about the assertion that McWilliams-Franklin has been the better defender and Ford the better offensive player, but it's no surprise that the undersized Humphrey comes out as a great offensive player who is something of a liability at the defensive end.

If we project out Ford's and Humphrey's minutes per game over a full 34-game season, Ford would be worth 5.1 WARP and Humphrey 2.9 for a total of 8.0 wins above replacement. Obviously, that's excellent for one position. Unfortunately, that option was no longer available after Ford's injury.

In theory, Detroit could have bumped Humphrey's minutes way up, but for a variety of reasons - including foul trouble; Humphrey has averaged 7.9 fouls per 40 minutes - that was unlikely to happen. We got a look at this lineup, more or less, in Detroit's loss to San Antonio before the Olympic break. Humphrey played 11 minutes after picking up four early fouls, with newly-signed Kelly Schumacher playing 18. Let's assume Humphrey would have played about 20 minutes per game, with Braxton (who has rated right around average) adding five more and Schumacher (a replacement-level contributor last year in Phoenix) picking up the rest.

Under that scenario, Humphrey would be worth 4.2 WARP over a season, Braxton an extra 0.5 and Suchmacher at replacement level for a total of 4.7 WARP. That's a fairly significant drop off from the Ford-Humphrey duo, though you didn't need stats to tell you that.

Our last scenario is now reality. McWilliams-Franklin has been averaging 33.2 minutes per game in Washington. Let's conservatively project that drops to 30 a night in Ddetroit, with Braxton again picking up five minutes a game and Schumacher the other five. There, McWilliams-Franklin would be worth 5.0 wins above replacement and the group 5.5 WARP.

Even though McWilliams-Franklin is an able replacement for Ford, giving up Humphrey means the Shock is still not as strong as before Ford's injury. The short-term gain from this deal also might be less than conventional wisdom would have it, though this analysis was more conservative in projecting McWilliams-Franklin's minutes than Ford's. It's also difficult to quantify the value of McWilliams-Franklin's veteran presence in the postseason.

With Connecticut close in the East, every bit of improvement will help Detroit in its quest for a third straight WNBA Finals appearance and a third championship. However, the Shock may regret letting go of the promising Humphrey. That's why this is a great trade for Washington, which contines to stockpile young talent by dealing veteran players for younger ones. In Humphrey, Alana Beard, Monique Currie and Crystal Langhorne, the Mystics have four building blocks in place. Only one thing is missing, and that's a point guard. If Washington can address that this off-season, preferably in the draft but potentially in free agency, the Mystics will be back in the playoff picture as quickly as next season.

There's reason to be careful in evaluating Humphrey, who has yet to play big minutes regularly in the WNBA and dropped to the 11th pick and Detroit in the April WNBA Draft. Still, when the Mystics acquired McWilliams-Franklin at the start of training camp for DeLisha Milton-Jones, I suggested Washington would have preferred to get a younger player. In Humphrey, the Mystics have gotten a talented one indeed.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Beijing Play Underway

Three games into the 2008 Olympics, the big winner is fans (at least in the U.S.) who are able to watch these games online. Although the lack of commentary requires a bit of an adjustment, the quality is excellent. You can also catch archives of the games at

The big result so far is China just knocking off Spain by a 77-74 final, an outcome that seems to confirm the notion that the hosts might be the best of the teams outside the big three (Australia, Russia, U.S.). China's defense really seemed to frustrate Spanish star Amaya Valdemoro, and a big night from 18-year-old forward Alba Torrens (20 points and a spot on my radar) wasn't enough to make up for it.

Belarus kept things reasonably close in the second half, but predictably Australia cruised in the tournament opener. In between, we saw an important game between Mali and New Zealand that could end up determining fifth and sixth place in Group B. Despite a commendable effort from the African champs, the Tall Ferns held on for the 76-72 win.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Olympics Links and More

Hard to believe, but we're seven and a half hours away from the start of women's basketball in the 2008 Olympics. Australia tips things off against Belarus at 6:00 p.m. Pacific, a game that should theoretically be available in the U.S. via Webcast on You might be able to watch on NBC's special basketball channel, but the Sports Northwest Magazine blog reported earlier this week that Comcast will not carry the channel locally.

The USA plays its first game against the Czech Republic tomorrow morning at 5:00 a.m. with coverage on the USA Network, but what's not clear is whether that coverage will be live or not. On a Saturday morning, TiVo sounds like the way to go.

Alright, how about some links. First off, I hope you've been following as it covers the Olympics from all angles. My favorite so far has been a joint interview with Storm star Lauren Jackson and former Storm guard Tully Bevilaqua, the two active WNBA players on the Australian Defence Force Opals.

Adam Hirshfield got some help from NBC analyst and two-time gold medalist Teresa Edwards in breaking down all the competition in Beijing.

There's also a nice photo gallery from Thursday's U.S. practice. Meanwhile, USA Basketball offers quotes from Thursday's media availability and a scouting report of the Czech Republic.

Q over at Rethinking Basketball offers his take on the U.S. Olympic Team, including an analysis of how the team is doing in terms of building on-court chemistry on the fly.

I'm of the opinion that the talk by the Aussies of physical U.S. play in the finale of the Diamond Ball Tournament has been blown way out of proportion by a media eager for any hint of scandal, but if you're into that sort of thing I'd say The Australian - complete with a "Trash Talk" graphic featuring LJ and Lisa Leslie - is the most dramatic example.

As for Storm center Kelly Santos, here's a loose translation of an AP story on Brazil and its opening game against South Korea.

"I'm going to contribute with my experience because this is a very young team," Santos said (roughly). "We have to continue working hard and I believe that we can advance to the quarterfinals."

Lastly, a little WNBA news that affects the Storm and the Western Conference playoff race. Sacramento forward Rebekkah Brunson, who had been playing with torn cartilage, had surgery on her right knee Wednesday. If Brunson is able to get back in the minimum four-week timeframe, she would miss two games, which still could make it slightly more difficult for the Monarchs as they battle for one of the last two playoff spots in the West. At worst, Brunson could miss the remainder of the regular season. Though unheralded Crystal Kelly should be able to step up, Sacramento's depth up front will take a hit in Brunson's absence. There is an outside chance DeMya Walker could return to the lineup after the break.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

USA Wins Thriller, Diamond Ball

If the Olympic gold-medal game is anything like this morning's Australia-U.S. clash for gold in the FIBA Diamond Ball Tournament, we are in for a real treat. Even in what was technically an exhibition game, both teams played to win and the outcome came down to the final minutes as the U.S. women held on for a hard-fought 71-67 victory over the Australian Defence Force Opals to win the Diamond Ball Tournament. Here's's recap as well as one from

The USA led in the early going, but the game was tight throughout the second half. With 4:27 to play, two Laura Summerton free throws made it a two-point game at 67-65. From there, the U.S. women clamped down on defense, allowing just one basket over seven possessions the rest of the game. That score by Penny Taylor answered a Lisa Leslie on the bucket end to keep it a two-point game, but Tina Thompson's midrange score made it a two-possession game with 1:09 to play. On the subsequent possession, the U.S. forced the Opals into a shot-clock violation after an errant attempt from downtown by Kristi Harrower. Harrower had the ball stolen with 10 seconds left and that was the game as the U.S. women dribbled out the clock.

"The top level athlete is so competitive, and they have so much pride, that it wouldn’t matter if they were playing for marbles," USA Head Coach Anne Donovan said after the game. "I think they’d go just as hard. This was great to see, and it was great preparation. Absolutely the best preparation we could have going into next week."

Storm point guard Sue Bird played 30 minutes for the U.S., using a legitimate rotation. Bird scored 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting and had only one turnover in that span. The stingy international scorekeeping on assists has limited Bird's numbers in this tournament (she had one today), but Bird has done a terrific job of taking care of the basketball and added two steals. The USA also got strong production from the L.A. Sparks duo of Lisa Leslie (14 points, 10 rebounds) and Candace Parker (12 and eight).

The big thing for the U.S. was defense, as the team held an extremely potent Opals attack to 35.8 percent from the field and forced 18 turnovers. While Taylor scored 19 points and the Storm's Lauren Jackson had 16 on 6-of-13 shooting with eight boards, the rest of the Aussie lineup struggled. Suzy Batkovic, Kristi Harrower and Belinda Snell combined to miss 22 of their 27 shot attempts. The defense has to be a very encouraging sign for Donovan and the U.S.; the gameplan was very similar to how the USA won gold in Athens, something they were unable to repeat in the 2006 World Championships.

"Tonight was a tough one," Bird said. "Australia is a very very good team and we were fortunate to pull it out. We've only had five, six practices together, this was our third game as a unit and we've gotten better every game. That's a good sign. We still have eight more to go but as long as we continue to get better, get after it out there and work towards our talent, I think we'll be okay."

With China claiming Bronze and Russia rallying to finish fifth, the Diamond Ball Tournament wrapped up with awards. Jackson was named Tournament MVP and was joined on the All-Touranment team by Bird as well as Candace Parker and Diana Taurasi from the U.S. and China's Sui Feifei.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Australia and U.S. Set to Clash

courtesy USA Basketball
The finale of the Diamond Ball Tournament in preparation for the Olympics will feature a highly-anticipated matchup between the defending Olympic champions (the U.S.) and the reigning World Champions (Australia) after both teams went 2-0 in their contests against teams from their group.

The Diamond Ball Tournament is a great tune-up for the Olympics because it features not only the U.S. and Australia but also 2006 World Championship silver medalist Russia and emerging China, which figures to be tough in the Olympics thanks in no small part to home-court advantage.

The U.S. and the Australia Defence Force Opals each had one matchup against the other competitors and a second game against lesser competition.

Australia drew China in its opener and led by as many as 22 points en route to an 84-70 victory. Lauren Jackson, returning after missing an exhibition against Brazil with a minor ankle injury, led the Opals with 21 points on 7-of-10 shooting, grabbing four rebounds. Suzy Batkovic and Penny Taylor added 17 apiece for the strong Aussie offense.

Game two for the Opals saw Mali, ranked #31 in the current FIBA rankings, hang right with Australia for a quarter. It was 21-19 Opals at the end of the first period before Australia outscored the outmatched opposition 30-5 in the second quarter. Thereafter, the Opals cruised to a 112-43 victory. Nine players scored at least eight points for Australia, which shot 53.2 percent and had just six turnovers all game. Jackson led the way with 24 points on 9-of-13 shooting, adding a pair of blocks and steals. Ho hum.

In their opener, the Americans faced Latvia and a red-hot Aneta Jekabsone-Zogota. She scored 24 points as Latvia hung tough throughout the game before the U.S. women ultimately prevailed 84-74. It was a balanced scoring attack for the USA, which got double-figure point production from five players, including the Storm's Sue Bird. In 19 minutes, Bird scored 11 points, dished out a pair of assists and had two steals. Bird had three three-pointers, which was key as the U.S. struggled from downtown, shooting 33.3 percent (4-of-12).

Early this morning Seattle time, the U.S. women squared off with Russia, the team that ended their 50-game winning streak in major international play during the 2006 World Championships. It was also the first matchup for new Russian point guard Becky Hammon against her home country. Surprisingly, it proved a lopsided win for the USA, which led 43-19 at the half and finished with a 35-point victory, 93-58.

Bird had two points and two assists in the game, deferring to backcourt-mate Diana Taurasi, who scored a game-high 21 points. Really, the U.S. won with defense, limiting Russia to 37.1 percent shooting and forcing 26 turnovers - six by Hammon alone. She scored 10 points on 4-of-10 shooting and had only one assist, though she did come up with three steals.

I'm always wary of reading too much into any non-medal matchup with Russia, which has a history of saving its best performances. That goes double for a game that is merely an exhibition contest. However, a 35-point margin of victory is certainly a surprise, and Russian Head Coach Igor Grudin sounded displeased with his team afterwards.

"This game looks like we are not ready," he said. "We have a little bit of time to do something. We will work for that."

As the two undefeated teams on top of their respective three-team groups, the U.S. and Australia face in the championship game of the tournament tomorrow. If I'm understanding the conversion correctly, that game will take place at 4:30 a.m. Pacific time.

Friday, August 1, 2008

USA's Place Entering Olympics?

I agonized over today's column evaluating the U.S. women going into the Beijing Olympics. I first started looking at some of the numbers comparing the USA's performance in the 2006 World Championships to Australia and to the U.S. in the 2004 Athens Olympics last fall, but chose not to use them in my "state of the national team" story. Now that there's so much talk of "what went wrong" for the USA in Brazil and the challenges facing the team going into Beijing, I figured it might be the right time to revisit the numbers.

I've got to say, even I'm not totally sold. One thing I didn't fit into the column was that, as well as the U.S. defended overall in Brazil, its defense did break down against Russia in a way that didn't happen in the semifinals and finals in Athens, when strong defense carried a mediocre U.S. offense against Russia and Australia. Still, I think that offense was more of an issue in that game, and who's to say how things are different if Oxana Rakhmatulina - 4-of-22 from three-point range the rest of the tournament - doesn't hit three triples. That's the kind of thing that can happen in a one-and-done format that isn't necessarily predictive going forward.

So, what do you think? Are the numbers compelling? Is the U.S. the clear favorite? I'm curious what readers think.