The look – a mixture of frustration, fatigue and anger – on Sabrina Ionescu’s face said it all.
The New York Liberty’s second-year guard was fed up with the defensive agony of Brian Jan and pleaded with the referees for a call that never came. Before storming the field during Seattle’s 92-61 win on Sunday, Ionesco orally snatched the judges for the last time after coming down for her second in a row against January.
“The thing with Bri is that she doesn’t mind being in the players space and doesn’t hold back from anyone,” said Storm striker Jantel Lavender. “And that feeds us a little bit. We want to get to people’s (nonsense) for lack of a better word. You want to wake them up. You want them to sense you.”
“That’s fun for her. I’m sure it’s not fun for the other team, but we got her back. … She can be the head of a snake for us offensively, but especially defensively. Her intensity on the defensive side infuriates the teams and pushes us to move forward.”
Jan added: “I’m not there to make friends. I’m there to win. That’s what it is.”
Storm (5-3) appears to have recovered from its precarious start as it cruises into a four-game winning streak at 7 p.m. Friday against the Dallas Wings (5-4) at Climate Pledge Arena, thanks in large part to… January and Lavender.
They were ex-rookies and veterans who each played over 300 WNBA games brought in to fill reserve roles and boost Seattle’s depth.
However, they have made an immediate impact in their previous two games as starters and are expected to start again Friday night while Sue Bird and Ezi Magbegor work on health and safety protocols.
“My style is the same whether it’s coming off the bench or starting,” said the 35-year-old. “Just paying close attention to our game plan. Knowing where our advantages are? How can I put my teammates in positions to be successful and be a catalyst for attack and defence? This is how I approach every game and how I will continue if Sue is here or whatever the line-up is.”
As a beginner, January averaged 11.5 points, two assists, 1.5 steals and 28.4 minutes while shooting 61.5% from the floor, including 71.4% on three-pointers. As a reserve, the 5-foot-8 goalkeeper averages 4.0 points, 2.8 assists, 0.7 steals, 19.9 while shooting 29.6% from the field and 18.8% outside the arc.
“This is not about starting and more about feeling comfortable playing with my teammates and finding my zones,” Jan said when asked about the discrepancy between her performances as a starting and reserve player. “This was new to everyone. I missed training camp (while playing outside) so in some ways I’m just catching up on a few things. It takes time.”
Lavender expressed a similar sentiment after her best outing of the season on Sunday when she finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds — both season highs — for her first Storm double of the season.
“I just need one good game to find my place and make sense because they have so many great scorers on this team,” said the 6-4 striker, who played for four teams during her 11-year career in the WNBA. “I’m in a new system. I learn a lot of things from the way they like to play versus how I can fit my game into their system domain.
“For me it’s finding those areas where I can get rebounds… I just want to continue this while Ezi’s out and show them that they can look at me and trust me until we get our full roster again. I’m capable and I know. I know a lot about the game.” I know I can help this team.”
In the previous two games, Lavender averaged 10.0 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 27:48 minutes while shooting 62.5% on field goals.
“When you can get players like me and Berry who came here to be a backup, having those minutes so early in the season helps restore that confidence,” said 33-year-old Lavender. “We’re gaining chemistry and it will be deadly off the bench. And then Stewie (Brina Stewart) and Joel (Lloyd) relax with us. We gain their trust because they don’t really know us. It’s a deep growth of confidence that we’ll need in the post-season.
“If we can be efficient and make gains while a lot of our roster is off the roster, it speaks volumes. During this time, people get time in court to see how we can be effective in our unique way.”
A recent offensive increase in January was a surprising bonus, but the seven-time WNBA All-Defensive Honors seamlessly took charge of the Seattle defense that allowed 70.8 points during their four-game winning streak.
“Our team is really committed to putting on a great defensive performance and I haven’t seen that in two years,” coach Noel Quinn said. “I don’t like the comparison, but we already know (former Storm Striker) Alisha Clarke was like (defensive captain) to us. …But now everyone has taken ownership of parts of our defense and yet it starts with Bree.”
Jan added, “That’s why they brought me here. … For anyone who’s followed my career, that’s what I do. Being able to create energy from the defensive end is an important part of the game. Just to bring in some toughness, I think that’s why Gabi and I have (Williams) to this team. To bring some solidity and some dogs to the defensive end. To motivate our team to work, to create energy and to get teams out of their comfort zone.
“I love making people feel uncomfortable. People don’t succeed when they feel uncomfortable. We are there to win and all I can do to make it happen is my job.”
Stephanie Talbot is back in training and is expected to play on Friday after entering the league’s health and safety protocols and missing two matches. The fifth-year attacker said she had mild symptoms of COVID-19 and was isolated in Seattle for nine days.
– Year five center Mercedes Russell, who missed the start of the season due to an unspecified basketball injury, took part in practically 5 on 5 practice this week after that. She is not included in Seattle’s injury report and coach Noel Quinn is hoping to keep Russell a few minutes off the bench on Friday in her first appearance of the season.