Tuesday, September 25, 2018
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Seattle Storm celebrate title with festive parade and rally

Breanna Stewart and Crystal Langhorne pose for a picture. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.
Breanna Stewart and Crystal Langhorne pose for a picture. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.
Breanna Stewart and Crystal Langhorne pose for a picture during the Championship parade. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.

Seattle – Thousands of Seattle Storm fans turned a parade and rally to celebrate the team’s third WNBA Championship win into a raucous love fest Sunday.

Onlookers stood four deep alongside a mile-long parade route as players greeted them, snapped photos and took turns holding the Championship trophy. KeyArena was half-filled with about 4,000 fans for an acknowledgement that the team didn’t get when they beat the Washington Mystics last week, in Washington D.C., for the crown.

During the rally, each player addressed fans. Sixteen-year veteran Sue Bird announced she would return for a 17th season in 2019. Later, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan declared that the street in front of the arena would be renamed Seattle Storm Way.

The proceedings culminated with a confetti drop and the release of balloons. Of the three WNBA Championships the Storm have won, only one – in 2004 – was at home.

Sunny skies prevailed for the parade, save for a brief shower when the team arrived at the Arena.

The day started for the team with the raising of the Storm flag atop the city’s famous Space Needle. Players each pulled the flag up a few notches, ending with regular-season and Finals MVP Breanna Stewart, and then Bird for the final pull.

Seattle Storm started from the bottom, and now they’re up there

The 2018 WNBA Champion Seattle Storm pose with the trophy. Photo courtesy of Seattle Storm.
The 2018 WNBA Champion Seattle Storm pose with the trophy. Photo courtesy of Seattle Storm.
The 2018 WNBA Champion Seattle Storm pose with the trophy. Photo courtesy of Seattle Storm.

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 rejoice as the final buzzer sounds. Photo courtesy of Seattle Storm.
The Storm rejoice as the final buzzer sounds. Photo courtesy of Seattle Storm.

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.

Late call looms large as Seattle takes 2-0 series lead

Jewell Loyd beats the entire Mystics defense to score. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.
Jewell Loyd beats the entire Mystics defense to score. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.
Jewell Loyd beats the entire Mystics defense to score. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.

Seattle – Sue Bird knew there would be a text message on her phone when she got back to the locker room after her team’s 75-73 win over Washington on Sunday.

In the closing seconds of Game 2 of the WNBA Finals — with Seattle up by one — she knocked the ball out of Kristi Toliver’s hands as the 10-year veteran drove past her on the baseline, with the ensuing scrum on the floor forcing a jump ball call from the officials.

Toliver believes she was fouled.

“I think it was pretty blatant, it was pretty obvious,” she said after the game. “Sue is smart, she knows they have one foul to give. They wanted to foul before I could be in a shooting motion. I wish the officials had a little more basketball IQ like Sue does.”

But one player’s blatant foul is another’s signature move, as coined by UConn associate head coach Chris Dailey.

“I’ve been doing that swipe-around-the-back thing since I was like 18 years old,” Bird said. “She absolutely hates it. She calls it the, ‘Sue Bird move.’ In fact, when she does scouting reports, she will say, like, ‘Watch out for so-and-so, they do the Sue Bird move.'”

And when she did it on Sunday, it didn’t go unnoticed.

“Literally, the minute I walked in the locker room I checked my phone, I knew I was going to have a text message about it,” she said. “Sure enough, congratulations, you did the
Sue Bird move.”

Natasha Howard grabs the jump ball to secure the Storm win. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.
Natasha Howard grabs the jump ball to secure the Storm win. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.

After “the move” or uncalled foul — depending on who you ask — Natasha Howard elevated over Tianna Hawkins to tip the ball into the hands of Jewell Loyd, as the Storm took five of the remaining seven seconds off the clock before Washington could foul. Alysha Clark split a pair of free throws, and Ariel Atkins’ half-court heave was well off the mark, as Seattle pulled within one win of the franchise’s third WNBA championship.

Breanna Stewart had 25 points to lead all scorers in front of a crowd of over 14,000 at KeyArena, while Jewell Loyd finished with 13 as the only other Storm player in double-figures, and Natasha Howard fell just short of a double-double with eight points and game-high 13 rebounds.

Elena Delle Donne led the Mystics with 17 points, aided by 15 points each from Toliver and Atkins.

Game 2 looked much like the first in the opening quarter, as Seattle pushed the tempo behind 11 points from Stewart to lead by nine after 10 minutes. But Delle Donne was the story of the second, with 10 of her team’s 24 in the quarter to give the Mystics a 40-36 edge at the break.

Neither side lead by more than five in the third, before baskets by Loyd and Stewart to open the fourth put Seattle ahead for good. But that advantage was tenuous down the stretch, with the Mystics never more than two possessions off the lead.

“Washington is an incredible team,” said Storm head coach Dan Hughes. “You are not going to separate very much.”

Kristi Toliver looks to beat Alysha Clark's defense. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.
Kristi Toliver looks to beat Alysha Clark’s defense. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.

Down three with just over 30 seconds to play, a Toliver fadeaway cut the gap to one. Stewart then missed a pair of free throws, and Hawkins grabbed the rebound on the second, which gave the Mystics possession with a chance to take the lead with 16.9 seconds remaining.

That brings us back to the “Sue Bird move.”

Mystics head coach Mike Thibault was convinced Seattle’s plan was to take its remaining foul to give, and that officials just didn’t see it.

“Sue Bird took the foul and the officials didn’t understand that Seattle was actually trying to take a foul, and then the ball gets knocked loose on the floor,” he said.

Bird said she was well-aware of the foul situation, but insists that wasn’t her intention.

“I lunged out a little bit, which kind of gave her that pathway to get down the baseline, and once she went by me, I did the good ol’ Sue Bird move and was lucky to get a piece of the ball,” she said.

Hughes didn’t see a foul on the play either.

“If anything, I thought we had a time-out called because I thought we had possession of that,” he said.

Breanna Stewart elevates over Kristi Toliver to score. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.
Breanna Stewart elevates over Kristi Toliver to score. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.

Regardless of that final possession, Washington was again hurt by poor shooting throughout the night, as a team that shot 36 percent from behind the arc in the regular season went 0-for-16 from 3-point range. That’s a figure that led Toliver to utter an expletive after the game.

“That’s a huge factor in the game, too,” she said. “As a three-point shooting team, we need some of those to go in.”

The series now heads to Washington, D.C. (ish) as the Mystics host the Storm at EagleBank Arena on the campus of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. for Game 3 on Wednesday night. Tip-off is set for 5 p.m. PT on ESPN2.

Dribbles:

  • Attendance: 14,212.
  • Faces in the Crowd: Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and NBA great Nate Robinson have both been on hand for much of the Storm’s playoff run and were at the Key again on Sunday, along with Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder.
  • Seattle has now won seven consecutive WNBA Finals games, dating back to Game 2 of the 2004 Finals against Connecticut.
  • The Storm improved to 5-0 at home in the postseason.
  • Natasha Howard moved into a tie for eighth place on the all-time list, playing in her 16th Finals game.
  • Sue Bird passed Diana Taurasi for second place on the WNBA’s playoff assists list.
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