SEATTLE – We’ve seen calm under pressure before: Michel Jordan with the ball as the clock runs down, Joe Montana in the pocket, facing a rush with the game on the line, and Edgar Martinez at the plate with the go-ahead run on second.
Feel free to add Sue Bird to the list.
On Sunday, in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals with a screaming crowd of 15,000-plus at KeyArena practically passing out with excitement, Bird stood relaxed with the ball in her hand. Why panic? She’s been there before. Heck, she was there last week.
The scoreboard read 77-77 and the clock ticked from 20 seconds to 5 when Bird finally made her move. She drove Atlanta guard Armintie Price into a Lauren Jackson screen near the free-throw line, stepped back just a bit and took an 18-foot jump shot. It nestled in the net with 2.6 seconds remaining, just as she planned.
And just like that, the Seattle Storm was up 1-0 in its quest for its second WNBA title. Seattle will try to make it 2-0 against the Dream in Game 2 at 6 p.m. today at KeyArena.
Perhaps the Storm should try to keep the game close until the final few seconds and then give Bird the ball again. It’s working well.
On Sept. 5, Bird made a 3-pointer with two seconds to go to beat Phoenix in the decisive Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, sending Seattle to its first WNBA Finals since it won it all in 2004.
Seattle coach Brian Agler said that in both situations, there was never a question of who would get the ball with the clock ticking down.
“Sue really has a calm disposition, and it helps in tight situations,” Agler said. “She has the ability to be in the fray and keep an open mind and take what’s given to her. A lot of times people in those situations, they get one thing in their mind and they’re going to do that no matter what happens. When you have the ability to play with an open mind like Sue does, usually you’re going to make good decisions.”
Bird had been good, but not great, on Sunday. She finished with 14 points, five rebounds, eight assists, two steals and just one turnover in 38 minutes. But she’d also missed 10 of her 15 shots, including one that was almost exactly like her game-winner just about a minute before that.
But Bird said she’s been in those situations so many times before, from her AAU days through college at Connecticut and now as a professional, that things just slow down and she can think about what to do, rather than just frantically try to make a play.
“It’s situations I was put in,” Bird said. “And you get confidence the more you do things and the more you’re successful at them. At this point in my career, it’s something that I enjoy. Those situations are fun, especially when they go in.”
Bird noticed that Atlanta players were defending the pick-and-roll by going under the screen, meaning behind the player setting the pick. That helped take away the option of Jackson going to the hoop, but also left just enough room for the ball-handler to get a decent look. And Bird guessed that if she drove to Jackson, Price would go behind the league MVP, allowing Bird to get an open shot off.
“Not every player can play like that,” Storm guard Tanisha Wright said. “A lot of people don’t want the ball in those situations, they can’t handle that pressure. But Sue’s done it before and we know if she has the ball, good things are going to happen.”
Bird said it doesn’t hurt to have players around her who also don’t mind being the hero.
“That’s the beauty of our team,” she said. “Anytime we’ve been in critical situations, Lauren’s hit big shots, Swin (Cash has) hit big shots, (Tanisha has) hit big shots. It goes on and on. Everybody has been in those situations and it’s nice to have that. It’s nice to have five players on the court who are more than willing to take those shots and make the play. To have that is dangerous, it’s hard to guard.”