If you haven’t been paying attention, the Seattle Storm are good this year. The Storm are very, very good this year. The Storm have always been a successful franchise. They are the only Seattle franchise to win multiple championships (2004, 2010). After Saturday’s 85-75 victory over the defending champion Minnesota Lynx, the Storm have clinched another playoff birth. The franchise has successfully reached the playoffs in 14 of 19 seasons. A stark contrast to another Seattle sports franchise.
For a team that has had so much success historically, it hasn’t always been pretty over the past 4-5 years. After two-time MVP Lauren Jackson was forced into retirement after the 2012 season due to injuries, the Storm would miss the playoffs in 2014 and 2015. The team not only missed the playoffs, but they had the worst record in the WNBA in 2014 and the 2nd worst in 2015. However, with a little luck, they landed the number one overall picks for the 2015 and 2016 WNBA Drafts. This of course, allowed them to draft Jewell Loyd out of Notre Dame in 2015 and Breanna Stewart out of UCONN one year later. Both players went on to win the Rookie of the Year award in their respective rookie seasons. With back to back number one overall picks, the expectations for Seattle Storm basketball dominance rose again.
However, that didn’t happen. At least not right away. While it’s true that the Storm have reached the playoffs in consecutive seasons ever since Breanna Stewart was drafted, they still haven’t been a very good team. They finished both seasons with losing records (16-18 in 2016 and 15-19 in 2017), good for the 7th and 8th and final playoff spot. With the WNBA’s new playoff format that was changed in 2016, the Storm have lost back-to-back single elimination games against Atlanta and Phoenix the past two years and haven’t won a playoff game since 2012 when Lauren Jackson was still on the team. Because of the new playoff format of single elimination games in the first and second rounds of the WNBA Playoffs, Seattle has not hosted a playoff game since Stewart’s arrival. Something she kindly reminded Play by Play announcer Dick Fain about during last night’s post game interview.
More changes took place in the 2018 off-season and these changes have made a world of difference for the Storm. In 2017, mid-way through the season they fired then Head Coach Jenny Boucek due to the team’s drop in performance from the year prior. They hired Coach Dan Hughes out of his one year retirement to become the Storm’s 5th head coach in franchise history. Hughes has brought a winning attitude and experience to the team this season (he’s in the top 3 in WNBA wins for coaches).
They also drafted Jordin Canada PG out of UCLA with the 5th overall pick. While Canada has certainly dealt with rookie struggles this season. Her shooting has not been good at all. She’s shooting under 40% from two point range and under 20% from 3-point range. However, she does lead all rookies in assists at 3.1 per game. And she has also been the most capable backup PG to Sue Bird the Storm have had in several seasons (probably since Tanisha Wright). At 37 years young, even if Bird has discovered the fountain of youth, it’s still ideal for her to get rest during the games so that she can be ready to play during the clutch moments of the 4th quarter. Canada has done a great job of bringing energy on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball and has helped the offense continue to roll and not become stagnant like we’ve seen in years past.
Lastly, and by far the biggest change to the 2018 Storm team was the trade acquisition of Natasha Howard from the defending champion Minnesota Lynx. The Lynx have been unfairly stacked the past several years. The Lynx have won 4 of the last 7 WNBA titles including last year. And Natasha Howard played a solid role for that team off the bench. But because the Lynx have been ridiculously stacked, Howard was limited to about 12 minutes a game off the bench for Minnesota. The Lynx organization knew they couldn’t afford to pay their four all-stars and pay Natasha Howard, so they traded her to Seattle this off-season. A move that might come back to haunt them as Seattle has risen to the top of the WNBA standings and Minnesota, while still a contender to win it all, has struggled more this season than they have in the past 5 years. A huge part of that trade for the Lynx was the right to swap their 2019 draft pick with Seattle. Considering Seattle’s past four draft picks have been: 5, 6, 1, and 1 it looked like a solid trade for Minnesota. They expected to be the number one overall seed for another consecutive year and figured Seattle would be considerably worse. It was a gamble that the Storm would continue to under perform this year and despite their age, that Minnesota would be able to dominate the league like they have been. It’s a gamble that didn’t pay off.
With the Storm’s victory over the Lynx Friday night, it has all but assured that Seattle will finish the season with a better record than Minnesota. Minnesota is now 5.5 games back of Seattle with six games left to play. Seattle is now 21-7 on the season with a 3.5 game lead over any other team. Meanwhile, with Minnesota losing back-to-back games against the Los Angeles Sparks and the Seattle Storm, they have fallen to 15-12 on the season. With as hotly contested as the WNBA has been this season every loss is impactful (worthy of an entirely different article). Minnesota was in 3rd place in the standings, had they won both games against LA and Seattle they would have moved up to the two seed. Because they lost both games, they fall from the 3rd seed all the way to 7th seed. The Lynx aren’t at risk of falling all the way out of the playoffs. However, if they end up between the 5th and 8th seed, they will be forced to play in two single elimination games in the playoffs. At this point, I could see the Lynx returning to the WNBA Finals for a fourth year in a row or I could see them being eliminated in a single elimination game.
Moving on to the game last night between Seattle and Minnesota. While the Storm have been the best team in the league this season, they still hadn’t proved that they could actually compete against the defending champion Minnesota Lynx. They had only played one game against Minnesota this year until Friday’s game in Seattle and it was a blowout double-digit victory for the Lynx back in June. Seattle may have the best record in the league, but if they can’t beat Minnesota, how are they expected to win the championship this season?
And sadly, for a good chunk of this game last night, it looked like they still didn’t have an answer for the powerful Lynx. Seattle was being pushed around, bullied in the interior. The Lynx were posting up multiple players, none more than Sylvia Fowles who was last year’s league MVP. Fowles continued to force her will on the Storm, with impressive low-post scoring and dominating the glass for rebounds. Fowles would finish the game with 20 points and 16 rebounds.
Minnesota had full control of this game for most of the first half. They finished the first quarter on an 12-0 run and would lead 22-16 after one. It looked like the Lynx might carry a double-digit lead into half-time but Seattle had a big rally of their own, closing out the 2nd quarter on an 8-0 run to cut Minnesota’s half-time lead to just one at 38-37. Unfortunately, all of Seattle’s momentum late in the 2nd quarter seemed to disappear right away as Minnesota went right back up by nine a few minutes into the 3rd quarter. Things weren’t looking good for Seattle with the Lynx forcing their game plan, dominating the interior and glass.
If Seattle couldn’t beat Minnesota at home on two days rest, while the Lynx were playing their 2nd game in two days, that did not bode well for the Storm’s championship aspirations. Fortunately, something clicked mid-way through the 3rd quarter and Seattle was finally able to run on the Lynx. Seattle would go on to out-score Minnesota 48 to 37 in the 2nd half, and more impressively, would out-score Minnesota 46-27 in the final 16 minutes of the game.
Whether it was Minnesota’s aging players or just a team that had to play two games in back-to-back nights on the road, the Lynx looked tired late in this game. Seattle had a 20-0 edge in fast break points in the 2nd half as the athletic trio of Loyd, Stewart and Howard were able to run out and get easy transition baskets. Meanwhile, Sue Bird knocked down multiple clutch 3-pointers to put Seattle ahead for good. Bird would finish the game with 14 points and 11 assists.
All five starters played well for Seattle. Jewell Loyd finished the game with 14 points, including 11 in the 2nd half. She also had five rebounds and four assists. Natasha Howard was all over the place, she had 15 points, six rebound and five steals. While Howard was limited to a role player in Minnesota, she has become a huge contributing factor as a starter in Seattle. If the Lynx still had Howard on their team, Seattle doesn’t win this game.
Breanna Stewart continued her MVP season leading the Storm in scoring and rebounding with 20 points and seven rebounds. This was Stewart’s 20th game with 20+ points. And while Liz Cambage has recently overtaken Stewart for the WNBA league leader in points per game, it has been at the cost of her team as the Dallas Wings have lost four games straight and fallen to the 8th seed in the league. Meanwhile, Stewart continues to lead the Storm as they have amassed their first 20+ win season since 2011.
Lastly, while Alysha Clark did not score in double-figures she still had a gigantic impact on this game. In the 91-79 loss to Minnesota back in June, Alysha Clark was just coming off an injury and was limited to just 12 minutes that game. In that game, Minnesota star guard Maya Moore went off for 32 points. In last night’s game, Clark was healthy and on defensive assignment against Moore. Clark held the 2018 All-Star game MVP to just seven points on 2-9 shooting.
The Storm at 21-7 have just six more games to play in the regular season. If they manage to win just two more of those games, they will finish with their 2nd best record in franchise history, just behind the 2010 WNBA Championship team that went 28-6. Seattle needs four more wins this season to clinch the #1 overall seed, if the Atlanta Dream win all their remaining games. If Atlanta goes 6-1, then Seattle only needs to go 3-3 in their final six games to clinch the 1 seed.
It is imperative that the Storm clinch a top two seed, with the new playoff format changes, as it guarantees Seattle will not play in any single elimination games and they automatically skip the first two rounds of the playoffs and advance to the semi-finals.
The Storm’s biggest weakness is getting bullied by taller, stronger low-post players and getting out-rebounded. In this game against Minnesota they were out-rebounded 41-30. However, if the Storm are clicking like they did late in this game, their athleticism and tempo may be enough to run away from the rest of the competition and straight to their third WNBA Championship.