Before the Phoenix Mercury and Seattle Storm tipped-off their best of five semi-finals playoff match-up Sunday afternoon at KeyArena, the WNBA had some impressive hardware to hand out. Seattle players Sue Bird, Natasha Howard, and Breanna Stewart were all the recipients of the end of season awards handed out by WNBA President Lisa Borders.
Sue Bird won the Kim Perrot Sportsmanship award. Per the WNBA, “The Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award is presented each season to a player who exemplifies the ideals of sportsmanship on the court, including ethical behavior, fair play, and integrity. The award is named for the late Kim Perrot, who helped guide the Houston Comets to their first two WNBA championships before passing away in August 1999 after a seven-month battle with cancer.”
In what was easily the best off-season move by Storm President and General Manager Alisha Valavanis, Valavanis acquired Minnesota Lynx forward Natasha Howard for a 2nd round pick and the rights to swap 1st round picks. In Minnesota’s mind, the big part of the deal was the expected first-round pick they’d get from Seattle in 2019. Unfortunately for Minnesota, trading away Natasha Howard proved to be extremely costly and the Lynx finished the season with the 7th best record in the WNBA (18-16) after finishing with the best record in 2016 and 2017. With the addition of Howard, Seattle transformed into a completely different team this season and finished with the league’s best record (26-8).
By the end of the 2018 regular season, Howard proved to be a key piece to the Storm’s Championship aspirations. Howard a key role player for the Minnesota Lynx’s 2017 championship team, became a starter almost immediately in Seattle. Her length and athleticism paired extremely nicely with Breanna Stewart in the frontcourt and Seattle’s up-tempo play-style. Howard set career highs in points, rebounds, blocks and steals: 13.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 1.97 blocks per game. Her production nearly tripled across the board from last season in about twice as many minutes played. Because of this, Howard received 29 of 39 votes and won the league’s Most Improved Player of the Year award. Howard is the first Seattle Storm player to ever win the award.
Last but not least, Breanna Stewart was presented with the Most Valuable Player award, in just her third season as a professional. Stewart is the second Storm player to receive the award alongside Storm legend Lauren Jackson who won the award three times (2003, 2007, and 2010). Stewart won the MVP award in her third season, just as Jackson did back in 2003. Stewart finished with 33 of 39 first-place votes (372 points total). Liz Cambage finished with four 1st place votes and 2nd overall with 231 points, while Elena Delle Donne finished 3rd with two 1st place votes and 206 total points per the WNBA’s official press release.
Stewart had a fantastic season for the Storm. She finished 2nd in the league in scoring, third in the league in rebounding, and in the Top 10 in steals and blocked shots. She set franchise records for most points in a single season with 742 and scored 20+ points in 22 of 34 games. More importantly, than all the individual stats was that she led the Storm to a WNBA best 26-8 record and was #1 in the league in WAR (Wins Against Replacement).
After all the awards were handed out, it was game time and boy did we get one incredible game! Both the Seattle Storm and Phoenix Mercury came to play in this one and it showed right away as both teams knocked down multiple three-pointers in the first quarter. Diana Taurasi started the game off knocking down a three-pointer about three feet beyond the 3-point line. A couple plays later, DeWanna Bonner did the exact same thing. The Storm countered with each of their starters knocking down at least one 3-pointer in the first quarter. In total, both teams knocked down 11 three-pointers in the first quarter, with Seattle hitting six and Phoenix dropping five, including one from Bonner to end the first quarter and put Phoenix up 26-24 after one period of play.
Seattle’s offensive barrage continued into the 2nd quarter, where they scored a game-high 30 points. And out-scored Phoenix 30-24. However, the most notable thing came at the end of the quarter where Diana Taurasi rushed after one of the referees and was served up a technical foul. Taurasi had been complaining and whining throughout most of the first half at every call or no call and it eventually caught up with her.
The biggest difference in this game came at the beginning of the 3rd quarter. Up 54-50 at half-time, Seattle would start the 3rd quarter on a 16-4 run including a 9-2 run in the first 90 seconds. The two teams played mostly even the rest of the way and Seattle finished up 79-67 heading into the fourth and final frame.
Unfortunately for Seattle, the Storm had by far their worst quarter of the game in the final period. Natasha Howard, who had been amazing all game with 20 points after three quarters did not score a single basket in the fourth. Similarly, Breanna Stewart had 26 points entering the fourth but only managed two points in the fourth.
Phoenix is a gutsy team with lots of playoff experience and it showed. When it mattered the most, their stars brought it and managed to cut Seattle’s 16 point 2nd half lead down to just two points at 89-87 with just over 1:30 left to play.
Fortunately, Jewell Loyd came up big when it mattered the most. With Howard and Stewart not contributing much in the 4th quarter, Loyd carried the team down the final stretch scoring the Storm’s final seven points. Jewell hit a big 3-point shot with 3:38 left to play to put Seattle up nine points at 87-78. Loyd scored on a driving layup past the outstretched arms of Brittney Griner to put Seattle up 89-83 with 2:26 to play. She capped it off with potentially the play of the game. With the shot-clock winding down and Sue Bird stuck in the coffin corner, Bird found a cutting Loyd who performed a curl cut from the opposite side of the court and came towards Bird to give Bird the option for the pass. Bird got the pass to Loyd with one second on the clock and Loyd was able to get the shot off as the shot clock expired and drained the beautiful jumper putting Seattle up for good 91-87 with exactly one minute left to play. Neither team would score again.
Seattle’s Big 4 were just enough to beat Phoenix’s Big 3. Seattle was led by Breanna Stewart’s 28 points and 7 rebounds. Jewell Loyd added 23 points and five assists. Natasha Howard put up 20 points and five rebounds, including three on the offensive glass. Sue Bird had a double-double with 10 points and 10 assists in the win.
Meanwhile, Phoenix was led by DeWanna Bonner’s 27 points and 13 rebounds. Bonner was everywhere today, attacking the basket relentlessly, knocking down 3-pointers and collecting every rebound that was near her. Even more impressive that she was able to box out Stewart and limit Stewie to single-digit rebounds. Diana Taurasi did Diana Taurasi things today and it really was the full DT package. The good and the bad. On the positive, she carried her team at times, scoring 25 points, including four 3-pointers, she also had some amazing passes and totaled six assists and eight rebounds. However, there was also the bad aspects of Taurasi, complaining to the refs all game long, picking up a technical foul at the end of the first half, and taking ill-advised shots trying to force fouls that weren’t there.
I felt strongly that the key to victory for the Storm would be to limit one of Phoenix’s Big 3 to under 15 points a game. I was surprised that in Game 1, that was Brittney Griner. Griner was double-teamed often and was not nearly as dominant as expected. While she was still an absolute force on the defensive end, she was limited to just 13 points and 4 rebounds. In the 2nd half, she did get into foul trouble and picked up her 5th foul with 6:30 left in the game. However, she only rested for a couple minutes and did not foul out.
Seattle defended Griner about as well as they possibly could this game and it’ll be interesting to see what changes Phoenix makes in Game 2 to try and get her more involved with the offense. I suspect Seattle will continue to throw double-team traps at her and try to limit her shots from within five feet of the basket.
One positive note from the Storm game was that Phoenix played about as good and you could expect and they still lost the game. Bonner, Taurasi, and Griner combined for 65 points and they got stronger contributions from Briann January and Angel Robinson than normal as they combined for 17 points.
The biggest negative takeaway from this game was that Seattle’s bench was non-existent. While Seattle went nine deep in the rotation, the bench only managed to score a measly four points total. The worst offender was Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis who went 0-4 from 3-point range in this game. The Storm doesn’t need much from their bench, but they have to get more than four points. Sami Whitcomb did not play (Coach’s decision) and it’ll be interesting to see if Dan Hughes sticks with Mosqueda-Lewis or opts to use Sami as a potential instant offense weapon off the bench.
It was nice to see the NHL Seattle team help sponsor the game with rally towels that included the Seattle Storm logo and the NHL 2020 logo on them. There was also a nice video package with Tod Leiweke and other members of the Seattle NHL group that discussed the new arena construction and their excitement to build a new arena not only for NHL and potentially NBA basketball, but also an upgraded home for the two-time WNBA champion Seattle Storm.
Seattle and Phoenix combined to hit 23 three-pointers in the game, shooting 41% and 39% from beyond the arc.
The Storm will face the Phoenix Mercury again in a quick turnaround as Game 2 will be in Seattle on Tuesday at 7:00 pm.