Storm defense holds Sky stars in check

Before this WNBA season, Seattle’s Tina Thompson summed up one of the defining aspects of her career. Asked whether she was particularly looking forward to facing the league’s much-hyped rookies and showing them a thing or two, Thompson explained that the opposition was never what motivated her.

Rising star, established start, not a star at all … it didn’t matter. It’s not that Thompson doesn’t respect her opponents. To the contrary, her point was to approach them all essentially the same way. Bring a similar effort regardless of who the opponent is.

Tuesday, the Storm faced Chicago in what was essentially billed as a kind of statement game for the Sky, who were looking to go 6-0 at home. Monday, Chicago's Elena Delle Donne had been named WNBA rookie of the month for June. So she was the designated star of the show.

But the Storm played this one like the veterans most of them are: After being down double digits in the first quarter, Seattle came back to make it an entirely different kind of game: a 69-60 Storm victory.

Camille Little and Temeka Johnson had 16 points each for the Storm. Second-year player Shekinna Stricklen scored 14. And Thompson, who is playing in her final WNBA season, had 10 points and 11 rebounds.

With Sky center Sylvia Fowles out with an ankle injury, the Storm could put a lot of focus on defending Delle Donne. Seattle did that well, holding her to a season-low 12 points on 3-of-13 shooting. Sky guard Epiphanny Prince also felt the effects of the Seattle defense, going 3 of 9 from the field for 12 points.

The Storm were able to keep Delle Donne and Prince off-balance from the field without sending them to the line all that much. That was key, as they are exceptional free throw shooters, both better than 90 percent from the line this season.

Tuesday, they combined to go 10-for-10 on free throws -- but that was a relatively small amount of freebies from two scorers that lethal, which had to please Storm coach Brian Agler.

Seattle had not faced Chicago and Delle Donne previously this season, but Agler had watched the Sky and had ideas of how best to slow down the star rookie. The fact that Fowles was sidelined admittedly made the Storm’s defensive quest a little easier.

But so did the fact that Seattle has Little, one of the most versatile defenders in the league. Agler will tell you that there just aren’t that many players who are as effective guarding radically different types of scorers as Little is. She virtually always makes Seattle’s overall defense better whenever she’s on court.

Plus, Seattle has some very crafty veterans who are playing hard this season, regardless of who’s not suited up for the Storm. With no Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson, the Storm could have looked at this as a throwaway summer. Get through it and hope for better in 2014. But that has not been the case.

Coming off three consecutive losses -- at Tulsa, versus New York, and at Indiana -- the Storm might have gone in the tank after going down by 14 in Chicago. Instead, Seattle rallied, took control of the game and is now 5-6 and in fourth place in the Western Conference.

Seattle has its next three games against Eastern Conference opponents as well. The Storm are seeking their 10th consecutive playoff appearance. There’s still a ways to go with that. But if Seattle makes it to the postseason, it will remember games like this as being part of the reason why.

In contrast, while this wasn’t a total buzz kill for the Sky, it was not the kind of performance Chicago wanted before spending the rest of July battling other East teams.

The Sky will face New York three times, Washington twice, and Connecticut once in July. All three teams are currently behind Chicago (7-4) in the East standings. The Sky are eager to get Fowles back, of course, but her absence alone didn’t cost Chicago this game.

Mostly, it was Seattle's defense that did that.