LOS ANGELES — Today begins another long offseason for Sue Bird.
The Storm's All-Star point guard was possibly one shot from saving her team from postseason elimination.
Instead, she'll replay the look at the hoop she had at Staples Center for a midrange jump shot that could have tied Seattle's matchup with Los Angeles with 9.5 seconds remaining in the decisive Game 3 on Tuesday.
"Then, who knows what would have happened," she said of the moment.
But with Sparks All-Star center Lisa Leslie contesting with an arm stretched from her 6-foot-5 frame, Bird, at 5-9, missed the shot and the Storm went on to lose 68-63.
Top-seeded Los Angeles advances to play No. 2 Sacramento in the best-of-three Western Conference finals that open Thursday. The Monarchs bumped the Sparks from the opening round the past two seasons.
"I got a good look, a look that will haunt me for a very, very long time," Bird said. "Probably until the start of next season."
Bird spent most of last offseason thinking about her poor showing during the 2005 postseason when Seattle was eliminated by Houston in the opening round. Bird was a combined 9 for 33 from the field then, wearing a facemask to protect a broken nose and right orbital bone.
She sent an e-mail to Storm coach Anne Donovan to figure out what she could do for the situation not to repeat itself this summer, and the coach simply told her to be aggressive offensively. Bird finally did so toward the latter half of the Storm's 2006 season but again had to wear the protective mask during the playoffs after suffering a nose contusion after taking an elbow to the face in Game 2. Bird came out firing Tuesday, however, leading Seattle with 11 first-half points.
But her team's overall offense wilted, shooting 4 for 16 in the third quarter as Los Angeles built a 14-point lead. The backbreaker seemed to be a three-pointer by Sparks center Murriel Page with two seconds remaining in the quarter.
Sparks forward Mwadi Mabika and Leslie were the catalysts, scoring seven and six points, respectively, as Los Angeles outscored Seattle 20-13 in the third.
But Bird gathered her team, and although all were thinking it, she verbalized that the game wasn't over.
And it wasn't.
Donovan made a lineup change, playing reserve Tiffani Johnson over Janell Burse, who hadn't been very effective since scoring 17 points in Seattle's Game 1 win at KeyArena.
"We fought back regardless of how they felt," said Storm guard Betty Lennox of the atmosphere in the arena where the Sparks were sniffing a celebration and the sparse crowd went nuts. "We kicked it down and made it a ballgame. We had opportunities before that last shot. It was just a bad night for me and the team."
The Storm executed well against the Sparks' zone defense late in the game, particularly All-Star Lauren Jackson, who played a full 10 minutes against Leslie and out-produced her rival by scoring 13 of her game-high 19 points in the quarter. Jackson's leaning hook shot against Leslie with 25.4 seconds remaining pulled Seattle to 64-63, but the basket was bookended by two Bird misses, helping to prevent Seattle from stealing the game.
Once the Storm started fouling in an attempt to get possession of the ball and try desperation shots, like Lennox's off-balance three-pointer as time was about to expire, Jackson tipped her head back and tears started to fill her eyes. Immediately, the Australian thought back to Game 2 and how the Storm blew a 15-point lead to sweep the series.
"It's the story of our lives really," she said.
Jackson wore a glare while Lennox never looked up from the visitor's locker-room floor.
Bird was the only player who was able to speak casually about the game, even cracking a faded smile at times.
"It hurts," Lennox said. "We're hurting and I don't know what other words to say. I can believe it because it's over, but it's hard. It's a hard pill to swallow."
Tiffani Johnson added that the loss is, "disappointing, heartbreaking. If we would have taken care of business the last game we wouldn't be here [Tuesday], so that's probably more disappointing to me than anything else."
The Storm travels home today and fans can greet the team at its training facility behind the Seattle Center parking lot around 10:45 this morning. They'll have exit interviews later this week and depart for their offseason destinations.
Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or email@example.com