- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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SEATTLE -- The Seattle Storm opened the 2012 season Friday night by scoring the game's first 11 points, extending their lead to 21 points in the third quarter and taking a commanding 56-42 lead into the fourth. At which point, they kicked back, put up their feet, grabbed some water bottles and began writing a very nice postcard to the absent Lauren Jackson.
Dear Lauren -- Hope you're enjoying your Olympic training in Australia. We're having a great time here in Seattle, whipping Los Angeles by double-digits, so no need to hurry back, we've got everything under -- whoops. Wait a second. Kristi Toliver just stole the ball again and is taking a 3-pointer. Damn! OK, gotta go
And just like that, the lead was gone and the Jackson-less Storm were 72-66 losers to the Sparks in a game that left both the home team and a boisterous opening-night crowd stunned and wondering what it all meant.
"We're all sitting here thinking, 'What happened? What happened in those last 10 minutes?''' said center Ann Wauters, who scored 17 points with seven rebounds. "I think it's just our first game and like me, I'm new to this team and some other players, too, and we just have to keep working hard and getting better and learn from that mistake and not let it happen again. In other games we have to play for 40 minutes, not 30.''
Well, at least those first 30 minutes went fairly well. Wauters, playing in place of Jackson, had 10 points in the first quarter. Newly acquired Tina Thompson had nine points in the third quarter when Seattle built its huge lead. And Sue Bird had 13 points before coach Brian Agler subbed in Katie Smith to give the veteran Storm guard a breather.
And then everything fell apart. Led by Toliver (who finished with a game-high 25 points), L.A. stepped up the pressure, caught Seattle napping, forced seven turnovers and outscored Seattle 30-10 in the fourth quarter. Bird called it a terrible game.
"Never say never, but I can't imagine we'll get punked like that again,'' Bird said. "I just can't imagine it. It seems like things were going so well for us the first three quarters that when they did that, it really put us back on our heels.''
Bird said the team played a little to the score once the lead got large and let down a bit. "Like we have a cushion, we'll be all right, and just all of a sudden they had the lead with a couple minutes.''
Added Thompson: "The fact we had them down, we should have kept our foot on the pedal. There was a time I think we did relax.''
Not appreciating that even a large lead must be protected by playing hard for 40 minutes is not what you expect from a veteran team with a starting five with an average age of 31 years. Although that might be preferable to thinking that the older Storm simply wore down against the younger Sparks roster.
The Storm also had difficulty getting into their offense even during the first three quarters -- it had five shot-clock violations and several more near violations -- which Bird and coach Brian Agler attributed to unfamiliarity with all the new players.
"That's a product of a new team. When your back is against the wall and you're a new team, you're not always thinking straight,'' Bird said. "Really, that's clearly a product of us at times passing up shots, wanting to be unselfish. 'No, you have to shoot it.' I don't remember ever having that many shot-clock or near shot-clock violations.''
The coaching staff also needs to learn the personnel a little more for better substitution patterns -- Agler acknowledged that the team lost its momentum when he sat Bird at the end of the third quarter and early in the fourth.
The good news is, this was just the first game and the Storm have plenty of time to get themselves together. The team also gets back Jackson after the Olympics. But the Storm can't wait for Jackson to return before figuring out that WNBA games are four quarters long, not three.
"We're going to have to develop some toughness both physically and mentally,'' Agler said. "And that's going to have to come from some of our veteran players. I think we're a prideful group and they're going to come together and we're going to get better as a team.''
How bad was Seattle's fourth-quarter collapse? "I can't imagine we'll get punked like that again," Storm guard Sue Bird said. Led by Kristi Toliver, Los Angeles rallied from 21 down to win in Seattle, 72-66.