Friday, July 10, 2009

Shannon Johnson's arrival key to Storm's success

By Steve Kelley

July 10, 2009

After two disappointing, disappearing road losses in a row, the Seattle Storm needed to win this Tuesday matinee against San Antonio.

Needed to win, because the WNBA season, unlike the NBA's, is a sprint and the season already is about one-third gone.

The Storm needed this game because road losses at Los Angeles and Phoenix were 911 calls that had to be answered swiftly.

The Storm came into this game against San Antonio looking to find more offensive threats, looking for the nose-bloodying defense that abandoned it on the trip south.

It had to find more scoring punch. Every game can't be Lauren Jackson-Sue Bird-Swin Cash and little else.

The Storm came into The Key looking for a spark.

Shannon Johnson delivered it.

In the third quarter, with Jackson jammed up by the swarming Silver Stars' defense and the game teetering back and forth, backup point guard Johnson breathed fire into the afternoon.

A skittering, scatback of a guard, the 5-foot-7 Johnson made life uncomfortable for San Antonio's All-Star guard Becky Hammon and she helped the Storm find its offensive rhythm.

"Some of the plays she made in that third quarter really changed the game," said Jackson, who suffered through a 1-for-11 afternoon. "She can jump. She can rebound. She gives us some veteran leadership. And she takes the pressure off Sue at the point and allows Sue to score, because Sue's a natural scorer."

In the game-changing third quarter, Johnson sneaked into the lane, rebounded Jackson's air ball and scored. She drove hard to the basket, drew a foul on Sophia Young and converted both free throws. And, near the end of the quarter, she scored on a six-foot runner in the lane.

After trailing 35-33 early in the quarter, the Storm (7-4) led 49-41 after three, in a game it eventually won 66-53. In 22 minutes, Johnson had eight points, five rebounds, an assist, a steal and was a large part of the reason Hammon finished 3 for 9 from the field.

After the last home game against Los Angeles, Storm coach Brian Agler admitted he needed to get more players involved. He had to use his bench better and more often.
Enter the point guard they call Pee Wee.

"Shannon's just a veteran player in this league," Agler said. "She's got a wealth of experience. She understands the league and the game real well. And she's got some toughness to her."

Johnson, who was signed as a free agent during a rather quiet offseason for Seattle, is the biggest upgrade from last season.

Her ability at the point frees Bird to move to shooting guard for large chunks of the game. Unburdening Bird of some point-guard minutes keeps her fresh for these final two-plus months of the season.

"Pee Wee can score too, but she can run the team and allow me to become more of a scorer, said Bird, who scored 17 points. "Rather than me having to come down and set the offense up, she does that."

Johnson is the Storm's best backup since Tully Bevilaqua played behind Bird on the 2004 WNBA championship team.

"When you're at the two, it's a lot easier just to be a scorer," Bird said. "Somebody's telling you what play to run. You're not thinking about, 'Is everybody in the right setup?' You don't have to worry about those little things. You can just kind of score."

Johnson, who turns 35 next month, is perfect for the job. She is a four-time All-Star and the Storm is her sixth team in 11 years. In 2007, she won a WNBA championship as a backup point for the Detroit Shock. She won Olympic gold playing point guard for the U.S. in Athens in 2004.

And, after eight seasons playing against Bird, she knows Bird's game and knows how and when to get her the ball.

"I'm the point guard who can help Sue and give Sue a break. Let her come off of some screens and let her just put the ball in the hole," Johnson said. "When Sue has the ball, good things happen for us. As a point guard, you have to take care of the ball and get the ball to her when she's ready to take the shot."

One third of the way through the season, just in the nick of time, Agler has found Johnson, another answer to this riddle of a season.

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