SEATTLE -- Ask any truly devoted fan in any sport when they love their team the most, and they might say it's not necessarily when it's absolutely at its greatest peak. Rather, it might be when the team is really not at it's best, but is giving everything it possibly has and finds a way to beat the odds.
That's what the Seattle Storm did Sunday night in a wild, draining, thrilling, memorable 86-79 double-overtime victory against Minnesota. Seattle was staring the end of this season right in the face, but instead forced the Western Conference semifinals to a third game back in Minneapolis on Tuesday (ESPN2, tip TBD).
"As an athlete, maybe not during the game but definitely afterward," Seattle's Sue Bird said, "you look back on a career or season and you remember games like this. Double overtime, when your bench gets really short, it's really about having to grind it out and find a way to win. It's really mind over matter at that point.
"I've been very fortunate to play on some great teams with some great players, when you're expected to win. I think when you're in a situation where nobody expects you to win and your back's against the wall and you find a way to do it, in a way, it might even be more gratifying. Because you really have to work hard, and tonight we had to work very hard to get this one."
The Storm were 16-18 in the regular season, while the defending WNBA champion Lynx were 27-7. Seattle didn't play poorly in Game 1 on Friday in Minneapolis, but still fell 78-70 and was facing elimination Sunday. Seattle trailed by as many as 13 points in the first half and 10 in the second.
Furthermore, for much of the game, three-time WNBA MVP Lauren Jackson was missing everything she put up. She was 0-for-9 from the field until finally hitting her first shot with 2 minutes, 4 seconds left in the third quarter.
This has been far from a standard season for LJ, who was with the Australian national team through the Olympics, and then played just nine regular-season games for the Storm coming into the playoffs. And for a lot of Sunday night, it looked like it would be a forgettable final game of the 2012 WNBA season for Jackson. But then things started to click a bit.
"It pisses me off, I get frustrated," Jackson said of when she's missing so much from the field. "There comes a point where I say, 'I have to go do other stuff. I have to focus on the little things.' That's what keeps me into it: going to set screens, help someone else get a shot. And rebound."
Yet when it came down to a do-or-die shot that had the Storm's season hanging in the balance, LJ was nothing but net.
Here's how it set up: In the last 30 seconds of regulation, the Lynx had to feel like they had finally shaken the Storm and were going to close out the series in a sweep. Minnesota went up by 69-65 on two free throws by Lindsay Whalen with 17.6 seconds left. Rebekkah Brunson, who finished with 22 points and 15 rebounds, was poised to be the Game 2 hero. The Lynx just needed one more stop.
They didn't get it. First, Bird quickly hit a jump shot. Then Taj McWilliams-Franklin went hard to the floor as she was fouled by Tanisha Wright.
McWilliams-Franklin, who turns 42 in October, got up slowly and headed to the foul line, where she made one of two shots. Then the Storm had 11 seconds left to keep their season alive.
Bird has made many game-saving and game-winning 3-pointers in her career. But the Lynx had her covered, and she saw Jackson was open behind the arc. With 1.1 seconds left, the Storm's season rested on a future Hall of Famer who was having a 3-of-14 night from the field.
Her shot swished, and KeyArena -- always one of the noisier places in the WNBA -- went nuts. It was then that Jackson realized, "Oh, wait, we're still alive!" Because she actually wasn't fully aware of the score when she launched that 3-pointer.
"To be honest, I thought we were four down," Jackson said. "I just shot it. It was the only shot that felt good all game."
Seattle coach Brian Agler, who has seen Jackson at her very best in the WNBA, knows how much of a struggle things have been at times for her in the month and a half since the Olympics.
"She's a tremendous competitor," Agler said. "What makes her so, so special is the combination of her skill level, her size and athleticism, and then the competitiveness that goes along with that.
"It was tough for her tonight. [The Lynx] have made it tough for her, and I'm sure Tuesday night will be tough. But she's one of those people who has the ability to hit big shots."
Seimone Augustus, who had 20 points for the Lynx but was 6-of-16 from the floor, said that Jackson's shot to send it to overtime was exactly what opponents expect from the Aussie veteran.
"She's one of the world's best players," Augustus said. "And even though she had a rough offensive night, when it's time for the game to be on the line, of course they're gonna put [the ball] in her hands. And she hit a great shot."
Still, it wasn't the game-winner. When that came, Jackson wouldn't even be on the floor for Seattle. She fouled out with 40 seconds left in the first overtime.
Then once again, the Lynx made just one of two foul shots and led 75-72. The Storm needed yet another season-extending 3-pointer and this time they got it from Wright with 23.9 seconds left.
"We made a bonehead play," Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said of letting Wright, who finished with 18 points, get as good of a look as she did. "But you put so much darn pressure on your defense, you have to make those plays because you're not scoring."
The Lynx shot 52.9 percent from the field in the first quarter, and went on a 16-0 run from the end of that period through the start of the second quarter. At that point, they led 31-18. But then the Lynx saw their offense slowly erode and unravel as the game went on.
Maya Moore finished 5-of-17 from the field, while Whalen was 2-of-15. Minnesota's shooting percentage for the game ended up at 32.5, which is highly uncharacteristic of the WNBA's best offense. The Lynx were 3-of-16 from behind the arc.
"It was really tough to watch," Reeve said. "We just didn't have it offensively. I don't say that to take credit away from Seattle, because they're a very good defensive team. But, frankly, I don't know how we were in that game when you shoot 32 percent and 18 percent from the [3-point] line."
Yet the Lynx were most definitely still in it, especially with the Storm playing the second overtime without Jackson. Then again, with LJ out for the entire first half of the regular season, Seattle did get a lot of practice with not having her.
In the final overtime, it was Bird who hit the daggers from long range, nailing two 3-pointers. The Storm also got a 3 from Tina Thompson.
"For me, those are the moments that you play for," Thompson, 37, said of being on court the entire second overtime. "I never want to be on the bench at that time. Fortunately, we have a lot of veterans who have been in that position. But those are the minutes you really want to be a part of."
And Sunday's game was one of those that fans who follow the league want to savor. It was gritty and gutsy and glorious. It likely didn't feel that way to the disappointed Lynx, of course, but in retrospect even they might appreciate what a great game it was to watch.
"There is a certain sense of urgency that you start with in games like this," said Bird, who had 22 points and seven assists. "But as the game goes on, you're just in the moment, just trying to win.
"Our home crowd gives us so much energy and confidence, so that even when things are going really badly for us, we don't feel that way. We are able to bounce back."
All the way to a deciding Game 3.