Jackson's health, Bird's scoring critical for Storm

SEATTLE -- Lauren Jackson has become well versed in sitting -- leaning against a wall with ice attached to her painful shins and watching her Seattle Storm teammates prepare for the WNBA season.

Arguably the best player in the world, Jackson has played for years with shin fractures. Asked how her legs are holding up, the Australian shrugged.

"They're OK. They're always OK,'' the 25-year-old Jackson said with a wry grin.

Jackson's legs might determine whether the Storm can return to the top of the league. Last year, as the defending league champion, Seattle won 20 regular-season games before being bounced by Houston in the first round of the playoffs. The Storm lost by 17 at home in the deciding Game 3.

Seattle opens the season Sunday night hosting Los Angeles.

"Just in terms of disappointment, it was probably the worst offseason, just thinking about it,'' All-Star guard Sue Bird said. "We had a successful year that ended on a bad note and that's what sticks with us.''

Jackson nearly didn't return to the U.S. for her sixth season with the Storm. Frustrated by the constant pain, she had X-rays taken of her lower legs after the WNBA season and before beginning play with the Canberra Capitals in Australia's professional league.

Doctors found two stress fractures in her left leg. They originally told her she'd be out for nine months, eliminating out
her chance to play for the Storm. Additional scans determined she wouldn't need surgery, just rest.

So she sits.

"It's annoying,'' Jackson said. "At the moment, they're trying to preserve me. I can't wait for [the season] to start.''

Coach Anne Donovan intends to monitor Jackson's minutes closely, trying to keep her to less than 30 per game. She also might bench Jackson on the back-end of the few consecutive games Seattle has this season.

"I have an idea, but I'm not locked into it, and Lauren doesn't help me because she's willing to go as much as she can,'' Donovan said.

Last year, Jackson put together an MVP-worthy season, averaging 17.6 points and 9.2 rebounds. But this year, Seattle's success rests on Bird.

Bird has always been a playmaker first and scorer second. Donovan has implored her to be more selfish. It's difficult for the fifth-year guard to accept, but she understands the need to stop passing on open shots.

"A lot of people have to sacrifice things,'' Bird said. "For some, that's giving up an aspect of their game. For me, I have to add something, or get something back that I had earlier on in my career.''

Since averaging 14.4 points in her rookie season, Bird's scoring has progressively decreased. Last year, Bird averaged 12.1 points and took the fewest shots of her career.

"She's such the unselfish, consummate point guard. All the great point guards, their tendency is to shoot first and pass
second,'' Donovan said. "We need Sue to get 50-50 on that.''

After beginning the 2005 season with two new starters, Seattle's entire starting five returns for 2006. Betty Lennox (12.4 points) and Iziane Castro Marques (8.2) will flank Bird on the wings. Janell Burse will start at center, coming off the best season of her career with 10 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. But Burse has been limited in training camp with a shoulder injury.

Donovan has stressed improved defense in the preseason. Seattle allowed 70.8 points per game last year -- worst in the league -- and finished 6-11 on the road.

Seattle did improve its depth, though. The Storm signed Wendy Palmer -- one of seven remaining players from the WNBA's inaugural season -- to back up Jackson and drafted Barbara Turner, who can play both guard and forward. Veteran center Tiffany Johnson enters her seventh season and is expected to back up Burse. Guard Tanisha Wright played in all 34 games as a rookie last season behind Lennox.

"It's a matter of putting all the pieces together now,'' Jackson said. "I can't wait. I just want to get out there and play.''