Playoff bound! Storm clinch berth with win over Sparks

Breanna Stewart puts up a hook shot against Candace Parker. Photo by Neil Enns/Storm Photos.
Breanna Stewart puts up a hook shot against Candace Parker. Photo by Neil Enns/Storm Photos.

With a Mystics loss earlier in the day, the playoff scenario for the Storm entering Sunday’s game against the Sparks was simple: Win and they’re in.

They’re in.

For the first time since 2013, Seattle will be one of the last eight teams standing after beating Los Angeles 78-60 in front of a near-sellout crowd of 9,348 at KeyArena.

Breanna Stewart led the Storm with 20 points, while Crystal Langhorne notched her second double-double of the year with 15 points and 10 rebounds. All five Storm starters finished in double figures: 15 points from Alysha Clark, 12 from Sue Bird, and 10 from Jewell Loyd.

“It’s not easy at times to make the playoffs in this league, and for awhile myself — and I think our franchise even — took it for granted, because that was the expectation,” Bird said. “So to not get in there the last couple of years and to finally get back feels really good.”

Against a shorthanded Sparks (24-8) squad — with head coach Brian Agler choosing to sit both MVP frontrunner Nneka Ogwumike and Most Improved Player contender Kristi Toliver — Seattle (15-17) jumped out to a 13-point lead through one quarter. All five Seattle starters had scored by the first break in the action.

The Storm kept the pressure on in the second, extending the advantage to 22 by the break, with Stewart, Loyd, and Bird all in double figures. Already down two starters, Los Angeles was forced to play much of the second quarter without Parker, who picked up her fourth foul at the 6:34 mark of the first half.

“It changes a lot when you don’t have Kristi and Nneka but we still expect more,” Agler said.

Seattle also took full advantage of physical play from the Sparks in the opening 20 minutes, going 18-for-18 from the free-throw line. They would not return to the line in the second half.

“It’s not uncommon when the foul count is lopsided in the first half that it changes in the second half, and I don’t know why that is,” said Storm head coach Jenny Boucek. “But that’s not uncommon … I think they kicked up their defense, I think they were better defensively in the second half and we had a little bit of extra hesitation in the second half that could have contributed to that as well.”

The two teams would indeed play closer in the final two quarters, with Los Angeles trimming the deficit to 15 with six minutes to play, but that’s as close as the Sparks would get.

With the win, Seattle continues its hot streak out of the Olympic break, winners of six of the last eight games. Four straight victories also marks the Storm’s longest winning streak since 2012.

Loyd said confidence has been the major factor in the post-Olympics success.

“I think everyone is confident in their ability, confident in our team’s abilities, and we’re just really binding on the defense end,” she said. “We’re talking way more. Our chemistry was good at the beginning, but now it’s terrific, and that’s something that we really take pride in.”

Bird said there’s been a new found resiliency in the final stretch, along with a better understanding of their strengths.

“Even when teams go on runs, it doesn’t phase us,” she said. “Even when we’re down, it doesn’t phase us. We just kind of stay the course, and try to turn it around.”

Los Angeles, meanwhile, has struggled as of late, going just 3-5 since the month-long league reprieve. The Sparks are locked into the two seed with two games left to play, and Agler said he’s looking to have his team at full strength by the time the playoffs begin.

“Just trying to get them back to feeling 100 percent,” he said of the decision to sit two starters.

Parker, who led the Sparks with 20 points on 8-for-18 shooting, said despite being shorthanded, the team’s showed flashes of strong play.

“I think just from a team mindset, we want to keep moving forward and coach’s speech was just whoever’s out on the floor we just have a way to which we play and that’s what we were trying to do tonight,” she said. “I think we showed glimpses of playing well.”

Seattle heads back out for its final regular season road game on Thursday at Phoenix, before returning home to close out the year against Chicago next Sunday. Los Angeles is home against Phoenix on Tuesday and San Antonio on Friday to end their regular season.

“We have a couple more games before we have to get into the playoff strategy and mode,” Loyd said. “But we’re excited, and it shows the hard work that we’ve put into this season to get to where we are right now.”

Dribbles:

  • Attendance: 9,348
  • All 12 players saw the court for the Storm on Sunday afternoon.
  • With Ogwumike and Toliver out for Los Angeles, Ann Wauters and Chelsea Gray each got their first start of the season. Ana Dabovic played a season-high 21 minutes.
  • #TOKWATCH: Ramu Tokashiki finished with four points on 2-of-3 shooting, along with three rebounds, two steals, and one assist in 17 minutes of action.
  • At a time when all eyes are on players during the national anthem, both Storm and Sparks players locked arms on either end of the American flag during the pre-game performance of the Star Spangled Banner by the Seattle Police & Fire Trio.
  • Teddy bears flew from the stands at halftime for the annual Teddy Bear Toss. The stuffed animals will be given to comfort children during traumatic situations.

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