Fairfax, VA – This year for the Seattle Storm marked a transition from the WNBA’s basement to the penthouse.
The team finished in eighth place last season, barely reaching the playoffs, and then making a first-round exit. But despite a revamped roster coming into the year, no one tabbed them to do anything special. Then they lost their season opener to the Phoenix Mercury.
Sixteen-year veteran Sue Bird said she and forward Breanna Stewart, who ended up being the 2018 regular-season MVP, were worried at first.
“We hadn’t clicked yet,” Bird said.
But then just like that, the team began to gel, and after their initial loss went on a five-game winning streak. They lost only three games in the last half of the calendar and finished the regular season 26-8 – the only team to have single-digit losses.
“Pretty quickly……we turned it right back around, and then onward and upward from there,” Bird said. “To be here is incredible. Such a fun team to be around, such a fun team to play with, and I don’t know, we did it the right way.”
The right way in Finals Game 3 Wednesday night was a 98-82 win over the Washington Mystics to sweep the series and claim the Seattle franchise’s third title. Stewart led a balanced team attack with 30 points, while Natasha Howard scored a career-high 29 points, and grabbed 14 rebounds. Alysha Clark had 15 points and Bird, 10 points and 10 assists.
The Storm weren’t challenged until the fourth quarter, when Washington made a run to trim an 18-point lead to a 72-67 margin with 6:49 remaining. But the one-two punch of Stewart – who was named Finals MVP – and Howard, along with a critical three-point shot from reserve Sami Whitcomb, pushed Seattle back out to a comfortable lead.
Stewart said she wasn’t surprised at the Mystics’ run, but was pleased with her team’s composure down the stretch.
“You know, we knew at halftime….that they were going to make a run,” she said. “But when it got to eight we were kind of – we were calm. We had a calm presence about us, We knew it wasn’t going to be easy.”
The title is the third for Bird, who has spent her entire career with the Storm, and the first for Dan Hughes, who has coached in the WNBA for 20 years and returned this year to coach in Seattle after retiring in 2016. He said he knew right away that he had come into a special group of athletes.
“When I got the job in October and I talked to them, I could sense it,” he said. “When I saw them in the offseason, wherever they were, I felt it. They continued to believe in themselves and improve themselves and use the year as a gauge to get here.”
Howard, signed in mid-winter, and rookie Jordin Canada, drafted fifth, proved to be two of the critical pieces that sent the Storm over the top, as they held the first-place position in league standings the majority of the season.
“It’s interesting because if you watch the evolution of this team, they kind of went from, OK, we’ve got some talent to, OK, we’re a pretty good team to, OK, now we’re in first place,” Hughes said.
Prior to this year, Seattle hadn’t had a winning season since 2011, and had several consecutive first-round playoff exits.
Washington has been similarly rebuilding since 2013, when coach Mike Thibault was hired. They had a tough stretch midseaon and rallied to end on a winning streak for third place in the standings. In the semifinals, however, leading scorer Elena Delle Donne sustained a left knee bone bruise, which hampered her output in the Finals. Even so, she led the Mystics in the third game against the Storm with 23 points, while Kristi Toliver had 22.
Thibault said that despite the loss, the first Finals appearance for the franchise is a positive.
“Obviously they’re very disappointed in the locker room, but I think they know that what they did this year was special,” he said. “From where we came at the start of the year to where we are now, they have to turn around and look and say, boy, we did so many good things.”
The Storm will have a Championship celebration Sunday.