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Originally published May 17, 2014 at 3:04 PM | Page modified May 18, 2014 at 2:29 PM

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Sue Bird returns to a major challenge with the Storm

Sue Bird has plenty of hoops left. She doesn’t turn 34 until Oct. 16. She’s diligent about taking care of her body. But she’s no longer a young player, and most wouldn’t consider her in the prime of her career, either.


Times staff columnist

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The most noticeable difference was the huge smile on Sue Bird’s face. It was so big that the undersized Storm should’ve considered making it their starting center.

When Bird trotted onto the KeyArena floor Friday night, an hour before her first WNBA game in 21 months, she couldn’t hide her emotions. It was a special, understated “I’m back” moment, and even coach Brian Agler noted it.

It was also the first indication that it would be difficult for Bird to shine on a night like this.

“For the first time, there was a little bit of a jitter thing,” the star point guard admitted afterward.

So Bird, who has been so successful in basketball that the win column should bear her name, is human.

She missed the entire 2013 season to recover from left knee surgery, and her return wasn’t as much of a storybook as the rest of her career. She missed six of eight shots and committed five turnovers as the Storm lost 80-69 to Los Angeles to begin their 15th WNBA season.

“It felt great to be out there and be in front of everybody,” said Bird, who finished with seven points and four assists in 24 minutes. “Obviously, I’m not happy about the outcome. So, up until the final horn, it felt good to be out there.”

Now that the first one is out of the way, you can expect Bird to return to form shortly.

Though she’s coming off playing a full season in Russia, she showed some rust in the faster-paced and more athletic WNBA game. She doesn’t often commit five turnovers. Several of her misses fell short. In the second half, she had two clean looks at three-pointers from the corner, but she missed both badly, which is uncharacteristic of Bird and a sign of tired legs.

But in terms of movement — quickness, fluidity and the ability to change directions — there doesn’t appear to be any drop-off in her game. She just needs to play more WNBA games and get comfortable with some of her new teammates.

And so, with the fear of re-injury or a greatly diminished Bird out of mind, you can delve into the real issue moving forward: how to maximize the remainder of Bird’s playing days.

Bird, 33, has plenty of hoops left. She doesn’t turn 34 until Oct. 16. She’s diligent about taking care of her body. But she’s no longer a young player, and most wouldn’t consider her in the prime of her career, either. And despite always being in great condition, she has had four surgeries in the past seven years. That’s two surgeries on her left knee and operations on both hips. She’s also broken her nose three times in the past decade.

Through it all, Bird hadn’t missed a significant number of games in any WNBA season until a year ago. So while Agler is charged with doing everything possible to extend her career, he’s also not managing a player ready for rocking-chair treatment anytime soon.

“Knowing her, she’s a competitor, so she wants to play,” Agler said. “But I also think we understand she’s at an age where, when she plays, we want her to play her best. So I envision her playing quality minutes — anywhere from 25, 30 up to 32 — but I don’t see us going 36, 37, 38 on a consistent basis with Sue.”

This is the deepest point-guard rotation Agler has had during his seven seasons in Seattle. Backup Temeka Johnson started 32 games last season as Bird’s replacement and averaged 10.2 points and four assists while helping the Storm reach their WNBA-record 10th straight postseason. She has averaged 25.6 minutes during her career. Shooting guard Tanisha Wright can also play the point.

Bird has averaged playing 33 of the game’s 40 minutes in her career. Playing without star forward Lauren Jackson for a second straight year, the Storm doesn’t start a player taller than 6 feet 2. So they’ll need to be scrappy and manufacture an offense that produces points in the paint. But they also have the potential to have good depth and great versatility this season. They’re similar to last season’s hard-nosed team, only with a few more options, including the best floor leader in women’s basketball orchestrating it all.

But for the Storm, the question isn’t whether Bird will excel or even whether the team will be competitive. With Agler coaching them, with Bird, Wright and Camille Little leading them, this franchise is capable of withstanding almost anything and making the playoffs. How to be more than a mere playoff qualifier is the real issue. Is it possible without also having Jackson, a three-time WNBA MVP and one of the most difficult matchup problems in the history of the sport?

The Storm will continue to survive. But how do they thrive?

It’s a question that will define this season and, possibly, the rest of Bird’s WNBA career.

You’ll always have a chance with Bird on your team. But how do you create the best chance amid adversity?

“We have to bring a lot of energy every game,” Bird said. “That’s not always easy, but it’s something that we’re very capable of doing. We’re going to be a scrappy team, no doubt about it.”

Bird watched Little, Wright and the now-retired Tina Thompson lead the team in such a manner a year ago. She was with the team, rehabilitating her knee, for most of the year. She learned plenty while sitting out.

“Sometimes, it doesn’t feel like I missed last season,” Bird said. “It’s just a blur. It seems like it never happened.”

On Friday night, it might have been too much a blur. But the game will slow down for Bird. It always does.

And that’s when the real intrigue of her second act will begin.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com.



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