Tuesday, September 25, 2018
Page 3

Storm dominate from start to finish to take series lead over Mystics

Jordin Canada, Kristi Toliver, Natasha Howard, Elena Delle Donne and Breanna Stewart battle for a rebound. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.
Jordin Canada, Kristi Toliver, Natasha Howard, Elena Delle Donne and Breanna Stewart battle for a rebound. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.
Jordin Canada, Kristi Toliver, Natasha Howard, Elena Delle Donne and Breanna Stewart battle for a rebound. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.

Seattle – You could be forgiven for waiting until the final horn to celebrate as a Seattle Storm fan at Game 1 of the WNBA Finals Friday night.

In the semifinals, no lead felt safe, and with good reason: Phoenix erased deficits of 16, 18, and 16 (again) over the course of the series, pushing the Storm to the brink of elimination.

But if there was any trepidation as Seattle pushed its lead over Washington from 11 after one quarter, to 16 at the break, to as many as 27 in the third, it wasn’t felt by the players.

“We kind of had a situation tonight where we had possession after possession where we didn’t get stops, and we weren’t scoring, and we called a timeout, and like, we’re not
doing this again,” said Jewell Loyd, who finished with a game-high 23 points. “We kind of looked at each other like, we learned from last series, and we’re not going to start Game 1 doing this.”

Jewell Loyd looks for a opening to pass the ball. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.
Jewell Loyd looks for a opening to pass the ball. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.

In the end, the margin of Seattle’s 89-76 victory in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals didn’t quite capture the matchup’s one-sided nature.

“Basically we got our butts kicked in every phase of the game,” said Washington head coach Mike Thibault. ” … We were a step behind. They were quicker than us, made us pay for every defensive mistake for a stretch, and we made enough of them to help them.”

Seattle outscored the Mystics 18-0 in fast break points and 50-32 in the paint, as Washington had little answer for Natasha Howard and Breanna Stewart in the post; the duo combining for 41 points on the night.

Breanna Stewart looks before heading to the basket and scoring. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.
Breanna Stewart looks before heading to the basket and scoring. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.

“We were able to create opportunities to play in transition as well as in the half court,” Storm head coach Dan Hughes said. “It was one of those days we shot the ball well and Washington didn’t.”

Indeed, Seattle finished the night shooting just under 55 percent from the field — the second-highest mark in team postseason history — while the Mystics were held under 44 percent.

Ariel Atkins was one of the few bright spots for Washington, finishing with 23 points on 10-of-14 shooting, on a night when Elena Delle Donne was held to just 10 (and sat for the duration of the fourth quarter) and Kristi Toliver, five. But Delle Donne had no interest blaming her health after the game.

“We can talk about my knee after this series,” she said. “Excuses are for losers. If I wanted to be 100 percent, I wouldn’t have come back.”

Sue Bird with the slick no-look pass. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.
Sue Bird with the slick no-look pass. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.

Game 2 is Sunday at 12:30 p.m. PT at KeyArena, before the series heads to Virginia (EagleBank Arena on the campus of George Mason University). Despite their struggles on Friday, Stewart knows well what the Mystics are capable of.

“Obviously they have a lot of weapons and we’re very aware of that, and I think the way that the game turned out tonight, they’ll come out Sunday with even more of a fire under them,” Stewart said. “We need to just be ready for that … You have to be ready to take the other team’s best shot. They didn’t play their best tonight, but I’m sure that they’re going to try to play their best on Sunday.”

Dribbles:

  • Members of Seattle-based credit union BECU can claim up to four free tickets to Game 2 on Sunday, by visiting this link: http://seattlestormbasketball.com/ticketcentral/wnba-seattle-storm-finals-tickets-compliments-of-becu/
  • Attendance: 11,486
  • Faces in the Crowd: Rapper and Seattle native Macklemore was seated courtside, next to Storm President and GM Alisha Valavanis. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, Police Chief Carmen Best, Sonics legend Slick Watts, NBA great Nate Robinson, San Antonio Spurs guard Dejounte Murray, longtime Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor, and Portland Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts were all on hand as well.
  • Seattle is now 4-0 at home in the postseason.
  • Seattle improved to 3-0 against the Mystics at KeyArena in 2018. The Storm knocked off Washington 81-77 on May 29, and 97-91 on July 8.

WNBA Finals have plot lines aplenty

Kristi Toliver and Elena Delle Donne have made a formidable combination this season. NBAE via Getty Images photo.

Who predicted that the Seattle Storm would face the Washington Mystics in this year’s WNBA Finals?

Well, nobody.

But after a pair of epic semifinal series, the No. 1 Storm and the No. 3 Mystics begin their best-of-five series tonight at KeyArena in Seattle. And with the momentum each team has, along with the potential player match ups, it could be a Finals for the ages.

On display will be some of the best players in the league, from veterans to newcomers. Also featured are two franchises with vastly different histories, as the Storm aches for a third title after a long drought, while the Mystics are in their first Finals in the 20-year history of the franchise.

Here are some key plot lines of the Finals:

2018 WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart has had a dominating season. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.
2018 WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart has had a dominating season. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.

Breanna Stewart vs. Elena Delle Donne – battle of the MVP’s

In one corner, you have Stewart, a fire-breathing dragon who routinely destroyed opponents on the offensive end. The 2018 WNBA MVP in just her third season, “Stewie” averaged 21.8 points, 8.4 rebounds and shot 52.9 percent from the field. But her stats don’t tell the story of her value on the court:

  • She’s won every freaking award, ever. This may seem hyperbolic, and I guess technically it is, but quite frankly not by that much. Stewart was the WNBA Rookie of the Year in 2016, and was a four-time NCAA champion at UConn from 2013-2016, a four-time NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player, a three-time College National Player of the Year, the Gatorade National Player of the Year and Naismith Prep Player of the Year in 2012, and the USA Basketball Athlete of the Year in 2011 and 2013. So for those keeping track at home, that’s the equivalent of eight MVPs and four national championships in eight years. She just needs a WNBA Championship to add to her collection.
  • A 6-4 forward with a 7-1 wingspan, Stewart has been great since entering the WNBA. But this year she added an improved three-point shot, giving defenses an impossible task of deciding whether to play her close and let her back them down or give her space and let her hit from behind the arc.
  • Her wingspan is longer than NBA stars Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook and LeBron James. The average wingspan is roughly equivalent to a person’s height, which makes Stewart an anomaly.

In the other corner we have Elena Delle Donne, the former Delaware standout and 2015 MVP. Delle Donne has been great the entire season, averaging 20.7 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. But she has been on a tear in the postseason, recording a double-double every game. She has yet to miss a free throw, despite taking 23 of them. Some have been under pressure: with the Mystics up one point with 11.5 seconds left in Game 5, the Atlanta Dream fouled Delle Donne, forcing potentially the best free throw shooter in basketball history -she’s shot an absurd 93.4 percent from the line, better than any NBA or WNBA player – to the stripe with a trip to the Finals on the line. Unsurprisingly, she coolly hit them both.

Delle Donne is also recovering from a nasty injury she suffered in Game 2. But thanks to a lot of mental strength, she returned the next game and is now on the precipice of a WNBA championshi

Sue Bird drives in the semifinals. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.
Sue Bird drives in the semifinals. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.

Sue Bird

Sue Bird is a legend. You can look here, here and here and they will all say the same thing: Sue Bird is a legend. Bird is a two-time WNBA champion, 11-time WNBA All-Star, five-time All-WNBA First Team and was named a top 15 player in WNBA history in 2011 and a top 20 player of all time in 2016. She also won two national championships at UConn, and was the Naismith Award Player of the Year her senior year.

Bird proved again why she is a legend during Game 5. She entered the fourth quarter with only eight points, going 0-for-8 during the second and third quarters. She scored 14 points in the fourth quarter and 22 overall, but even that doesn’t show the greatness. She scored those 14 points in just five minutes. To put it another way: Bird checked in with 6:41 left in the game with Seattle was down four. From that point on, the Storm outscored the Mercury 28-14, with Bird scoring 14 points on 5-for-6 shooting. Her points alone were the difference the last seven minutes of the game.

And Bird pulled off this feat after sustaining the fifth broken nose of her career in Game 4.

Kristi Toliver and Elena Delle Donne have made a formidable combination this season. NBAE via Getty Images photo.
Kristi Toliver and Elena Delle Donne have made a formidable combination this season. NBAE via Getty Images photo.

Kristi Toliver

First, you must forgive me because I love Kristi Toliver and probably won’t be objective when it comes to anything Kristi Toliver. My love for Washington’s point guard started 12 years ago, as a fourth grader worried about finding my lost copy of “The Secret Garden.” Toliver was a baby-faced freshman at Maryland, and the starting point guard for my beloved Terrapins. Despite being one of the youngest teams in the nation, with four underclassmen starting and only two seniors on the entire roster, the Terps made a run to the National Championship, where they faced off against Duke. Down three with 14 seconds left, Toliver got the ball in her hands, faced up 6-7 Alison Bales of Duke, and fired. Buckets. Maryland won in overtime, but Toliver won my heart with that shot.

Fast forward to today and Toliver was named to her second All-Star team this year, two years after coming to the Mystics in free agency. A fearless shooter, she fires whether she’s missed five in a row or made five in a row: if she gets the ball and even a sliver of space, she’s firing. Any time the ball is in her hands the defense has to step out and respect her shooting prowess. And no matter where she is on the court, the defense better have their hands up. Because if not, well, Alison Bales can tell them what happens.

History of the franchises

The histories of the Storm and Mystics are polar opposites.

Seattle has won two WNBA Championships, in 2004 and 2010. Washington is making their first Finals appearance. The Storm has had some of the league’s best players on its roster, from Bird to Lauren Jackson to Katie Smith to Tina Thompson. The Mystics have had fine athletes pass through, but none have stayed very long. Seattle is 2-0 in the WNBA Finals, beating the Connecticut Sun in 2004 and the Atlanta Dream in 2010, and they have made the playoffs 12 times in their 18-year history. The Mystics are the last team in the league to claim a Finals berth. They were remarkably bad in the league’s early days, racking up losing records and running through 10 coaches in 11 years.

Deja vu

Coincidences abound in this match up.

The Storm’s Crystal Langhorne played for the Mystics from 2008-2013, while teammate Noelle Quinn suited up for them in 2012. The Mystics’ Tianna Hawkins played for the Storm in 2013, and Krystal Thomas was on the roster there in 2011 and 2016.

In Washington’s semifinal win over the Dream, coach Mike Thibault became the third coach in the history of the WNBA to guide two different franchises to the Finals. Just two hours later, Seattle coach Dan Hughes became the fourth.

With two star-studded rosters, led by determined road-warrior veterans in Bird and Delle Donne, this Finals series should be epic.

Sue Favor contributed to this report.

The day after

About last night:

Jewell Loyd was selfless in the win for Seattle, as Sue Bird’s burst lifted them.

Inside the two semifinal wins.

WNBA Finals team news:

The Storm and Mystics will meet in the Finals.

Five things to know about the match up.

How the 2018 Seattle Storm made the WNBA Finals.

All board the Washington Mystics bandwagon.

No mistake about it: Washington is headed to the Finals.

The Mystics will play at George Mason’s arena, in Virgina.

Now that Washington has made the Finals, the Storm awaits.

WNBA Finals player news:

Sue Bird was transcendent in Game 5 and lifted the Storm to the Finals.

Bird stole the spotlight and is still schooling the youngsters.

How Elena Delle Donne went from potential season-ending injury to the WNBA Finals in five days.

The Finals will feature the battle of the two out superstars.

A trio of Terps can bring a title back to the D.C. area.

More WNBA team news:

The Mercury are expected to return the same core next year.

More WNBA player news:

Courtney Vandersloot reflects on her record-breaking season.

USA Basketball news:

In their first scrimmage tonight, White beat Red, 100-75.

The National Team now heads to New York with 15 athletes.

After that, they play in Connecticut.

International news:

Natalie Achonwa and Kia Nurse headline Team Canada at the World Cup.

College coach news:

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw has more prestigious honors in store this fall.

Hall of Fame news:

Tina Thompson’s storybook career has taken her to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.

Bonus:

ESPN will release a basketball project that will include a segment on the Tennessee-UConn rivalry.

Beats by Dre has partnered with the WNBA.

Sportscaster has partnered with the WNBPA to offer live interactive video to fans.

Bird’s late burst propels Seattle to WNBA Finals

The Storm celebrate after the final buzzer. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.
The Storm celebrate after the final buzzer. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.
The Storm celebrate after the final buzzer. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.

Seattle – “That is why she is who she is.”

There may be no better way to describe Sue Bird’s performance in the closing minutes of WNBA semifinal Game 5 than how her coach did.

“Not only does she carry herself and compete in a certain way, she is ready for big moments,” said Dan Hughes, as he reflected after his team’s 94-84 victory over Phoenix in Tuesday night.

And boy, was she ready.

Sue Bird drives past Brittney Griner to the rim. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.
Sue Bird drives past Brittney Griner to the rim. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.

Bird had 14 points in the final six minutes — going 4-for-5 from beyond the arc — as Seattle advanced to its third WNBA Finals on the back of its 16-year veteran, while handing Diana Taurasi her first-ever loss in a winner-take-all game.

“I don’t know that I’ve had a fourth quarter like this in as big of a game in my life, to be honest,” Bird said.

Breanna Stewart led all scorers with 28, while Bird finished with 22, and Alysha Clark a mirrored double-double with both 13 points and rebounds. All five Phoenix starters ended the night in double figures, with a team-high 21 for Brittney Griner, and a playoff career-high 19 from Yvonne Turner.

Turner’s performance was the story early on, with 15 of those points coming in the first-half, to help stake Phoenix to a 46-41 lead at the break. That advantage had been a key for the Mercury throughout the year, with a 20-0 record entering the night when up at halftime.

Phoenix led by as many as eight in the third, before an 8-0 Seattle run — capped by a Clark 3-pointer — tied the score at 57 with just under three minutes to go in the quarter.

Seattle took its first lead of the night on a Jordin Canada three with 8:20 to play, while a Bird three with four minutes left would prove to put the Storm up for good.

Sami Whitcomb takes the ball to the hoop as Brittney Griner watches in dismay. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.
Sami Whitcomb takes the ball to the hoop as Brittney Griner watches in dismay. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.

But while Bird’s scoring punch helped Seattle pull away in the closing minutes, it was the efforts of Sami Whitcomb off the bench that gave the team a boost down the stretch. The UW product was on the floor for the entirety of the final quarter, with Hughes opting for her over All-Star Jewell Loyd.

“This series has been a grind I think for both teams … and then you just inject Sami and she’s like the Tasmanian devil out there,” Bird said. “We needed that. It really raised all of our energy levels. On top of that, she hit some shots, got some big loose balls and really was huge for us.”

That move wasn’t without Loyd’s blessing, either.

“The thing that made me so confident was that I walked down the bench and I said to Jewell Loyd, ‘You stay ready,’ and she said, ‘No, Sami is going, you let her go, coach.'” Hughes said. “She was all about the team. That was the moment that I knew that we were going to find success. When the totality of what you’re doing is greater than your own place.”

Breanna Stewart splits the Mercury defense and soars to the rim to score two of her 28 points on the night. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.
Breanna Stewart splits the Mercury defense and soars to the rim to score two of her 28 points on the night. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.

For Phoenix, the series provides lessons learned for 2019. Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello said she was happy with her team’s fight throughout, but that the rigorous playoff schedule may have caught up with them.

“We probably just need a little more depth,” she said. “We finished fifth so we had to play two extra games, we didn’t get a whole week’s rest and I think tonight maybe that would have showed. What we learned for next year is that we’ve got to keep everyone healthy and have to get a top four seed.”

For Seattle, the season lives on, as the Storm takes on a Washington team it beat twice in the regular season, while falling in their most recent matchup last month. Game 1 is Friday night (6 p.m. PT) at the Key.

A return to the Finals isn’t something Bird was sure she would experience again in her career.

“We started a rebuild and there was no telling when we’d get on the other side of it,” she said. “It’s not that my hunger for it went away or my motivation. Clearly I wanted to stay at the top of my game and wanted to help this franchise get on the other side of this rebuild, but the Finals? That was very far from my imagination so to be here now, in some ways, is probably sweeter than the other two. Just because I didn’t think it was going to happen, but here we are.”

The Storm ownership group embraces after the win. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.
The Storm ownership group embraces after the win. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.

Dribbles:

  • Attendance: 8,992.
  • Faces in the Crowd: Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, Sonics icon Slick Watts, UW product and longtime NBA guard Nate Robinson, and Basketball Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens were all on hand.
  • All three games of the series at KeyArena finished with a combined point total of 178 points (91-87 in Games 1 and 2, 94-84 in Game 5).
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