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Originally published Wednesday, September 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

If only Storm had Lauren Jackson, outcome likely different

All Lauren Jackson could do was watch. As Candace Parker drove hard to the basket and punished Seattle inside-out. As Lisa Leslie reached...

Seattle Times staff columnist

All Lauren Jackson could do was watch.

As Candace Parker drove hard to the basket and punished Seattle inside-out. As Lisa Leslie reached over Yolanda Griffith and Camille Little to keep rebounds alive.

As Shannon Bobbitt pushed the pace back in Seattle's face. As a wondrous Storm season slowly slipped away, Jackson, standing in front of the bench for much of the game with her arms nervously crossed, wearing a black, ankle-length sweater over a black T-shirt, watched helplessly.

This postseason should have been different from the past three, all of which ended in the first round. This Storm team was better, more together, more tenacious. This season could have been special, even 2004 championship special.

But Jackson was missing. And it was too much to ask for this team to beat a team as good as Los Angeles without her.

"Jackson can get it done both outside and inside," Los Angeles coach Michael Cooper said, after the Sparks' series-ending 71-64 win. "Camille Little isn't as good as Jackson, but still she is a quality player. What Lauren gives them is a low post player who can take it to the basket, take hits and score.

"But honestly at the beginning of the series, we prepared as if Lauren Jackson was going to play and every time she didn't play it was a surprise for us."

It is a tribute to this team that, despite Jackson's absence and veteran Swin Cash's troubling back, the Storm didn't go quietly, or meekly.

Trailing 61-47 early in the fourth quarter it took the fight one last time to Los Angeles, going on an 11-0 run.

And in the last 90 seconds, the Storm, trailing 65-62, had two chances to tie the game. "We were right there," said Sue Bird, dabbing at tears in the locker room. "But while I'm very sad and just upset about the fact of getting knocked out of the playoffs in the first round again, I'm very proud of this group.

"The feelings that I've had the last three years are much different from what I feel right now.

"I really think we dealt with a lot this year. Injuries and just a different lineup almost every night for a while. But everything that our coaching staff asked of us people gave and then some. And there is so much to be proud of because of that. But it would have been nice if we had won, and had there maybe been another minute on the clock, we would have pulled it out."

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But this time, unlike Sunday's Storm win, the end was different. This time Los Angeles looked as angry as a forest fire. This time the Sparks smacked back. This time they were quicker and deeper.

This time the Sparks won the fistfight in the paint. This time they made the Storm pay for packing its defense by making their perimeter shots. This time the Storm didn't have enough weapons. Didn't have enough defense. Didn't have enough answers.

The season ended because Bird (16 points, five assists) didn't have enough offensive help. It ended because the Sparks' bench outscored the Storm's 22-2.

Mostly, however, it ended because Jackson's bum ankle, which was operated on less than a month ago, didn't miraculously heal before these playoffs began.

In this brass-knuckled miniseries, the Storm needed Jackson's grit. It needed her jumper. It needed the needle Jackson always seems to have for Leslie.

Without her, a very good Storm team wasn't good enough.

"There are numerous plays I'm going to think about when I think about this game," Bird said, "but the way we did things and what this group had to overcome, there's a lot to be proud of and I hope we're all back together next year so we can prove a lot of people wrong."

As good as the regular-season has been, as well as the Storm hung together for the last 16 games without Jackson, it was asking too much for it to win a playoff series against a team as star-laden as Los Angeles.

It missed her MVP aura. It missed her 20.2 points and 7 rebounds a game.

"Watching was really frustrating," Jackson said, "It was agonizing, but I got a lot of pleasure out of watching the girls play so hard. Injuries aside, this team played amazing. Sue was an MVP and I think there was a feeling that if we had stayed healthy we could have taken it all the way this year. But that's sport. That's just the way it is."

It could have been different. It would have been different. But overcoming the loss of Lauren Jackson was too much even for this big-hearted team.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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