Storm sweep Aces to win fourth WNBA Championship

PALMETTO, FL - OCTOBER 6:  The Seattle Storm celebrate after defeating the Las Vegas Aces and winning the 2020 WNBA Championship in Game Three of the WNBA Finals against the Las Vegas Aces. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.
PALMETTO, FL – OCTOBER 6: The Seattle Storm celebrate after defeating the Las Vegas Aces and winning the 2020 WNBA Championship in Game Three of the WNBA Finals against the Las Vegas Aces. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

The Seattle Storm closed out the most unusual WNBA season in the league’s 24-year history Tuesday in besting the Las Vegas Aces, 92-59, for their fourth Championship.

The Storm dominated the Aces in sweeping the five-game series, outscoring them by 51 points over three outings. Breanna Stewart, who sat out last season after rupturing her Achilles tendon in the spring, led a balanced Seattle attack with 26 points. She was named Finals MVP.

Jewell Loyd scored 19 points and Alysha Clark 10, while Jordin Canada came off the bench to add 15 points for the winners. Point guard Sue Bird, in her 19th year with the franchise and 17th season playing, earned her fourth title by setting a WNBA Finals single-game assists record in Game 1, with 16.

The Storm followed won by using their usual formula of solid shooting, high assists numbers and taking care of the ball, as they had only six turnovers on the night. This came after a slow start, which saw Las Vegas rush out to a 9-2 lead. When Stewart got her third foul at 7:13 in the second quarter, she headed to the bench. But Loyd stepped up to score and Seattle closed the half on a 16-10 run.

The Aces looked listless at times in the third quarter, and Seattle took advantage of the lapse and never looked back.

Regular-season MVP A’ja Wilson led Las Vegas with 18 points, while Jackie Young came off the bench to score 11 points. They were the only two in double figures.

Storm coach Gary Kloppenburg credited his team’s defense in the win.

“We started out a little bit soft, I think, on Wilson, but as we got going, I thought our intensity and our energy and our disruption really picked up,” he said. “That kind of broke it in that second quarter. I think we held them to 13 points, and got a little bit of separation.”

“I think the way we came out for the third was just tremendous. Sort of took their will away. Wanted to come out and really take their confidence away in that third quarter, and I think we did a really good job of that.”

The season ended for the two teams three months to the day after they arrived in Bradenton, Florida, to play in a pandemic-proof bubble. Seattle saw their first semifinal game postponed two weeks ago when three players received inconclusive COVID-19 test results.

Besides the stresses involved in living in a contained environment, players also overcame personal challenges in their title journey.

Stewart, who was regular-season MVP in 2018 as she led the team to their third Championship, watched the 2019 playoffs.

“You know, I remember where I was last year during the WNBA Finals, and I was in North Carolina with my family,” Stewart said. “It was hard for me not to be upset, because I wanted to be a part of the league. Obviously I wanted to be with my team and have the opportunity to be back and defend our title.”

“To be able to be here, to get through all that we’ve gone through as a team obviously individually, it’s an amazing feeling. There’s so much of an unknown that you don’t know after rupturing my Achilles, but I’m super – I don’t know if I’m proud of myself but, you know, proud of what I’ve done. I think it’s hard to see it because it was so close, but really proud of just being able to be back.”

PALMETTO, FL - OCTOBER 6:  Jewell Loyd drives to the basket against Las Vegas Aces in Game Three of the WNBA Finals. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.
PALMETTO, FL – OCTOBER 6: Jewell Loyd drives to the basket against Las Vegas Aces in Game Three of the WNBA Finals. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

Bird, who also sat out last season after having knee surgery in May, reflected on winning titles with the Storm over 16 years.

“I think the fact that I’ve been able to do it in different decades, with the same franchise, not many people can say that,” Bird said. “To recreate it over time and stay at a high level over time is definitely something I’m proud of because it hasn’t been easy.”

“These last (15 months have) been hard. This is the one time I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It’s been hard. A lot of ups, a lot of downs.”

While Seattle was tabbed by many to take the title once Bird and Stewart announced their return, the Aces’ first trip to the Finals was a triumph and an indication of what may lie ahead for the young team.

Prior to the season All-Star center Liz Cambage opted to sit out, and starting guard Kelsey Plum tore her Achilles. But Las Vegas finished with the league’s best record and the No. 1 seed going into the playoffs. Wilson won the MVP award for the first time, and guard Dearica Hamby, who was lost to injury for the season before the Finals, won Sixth Woman of the Year for the second straight time.

Coach Bill Laimbeer said he considers 2020 a win for his squad.

“They have everything to be proud of this year. Nobody expected us to do anything this year,” he said. “They came together as a team. They executed their roles. We had some individual awards that were handed out to our team. We had the overall best record, got to the Finals. There’s so many things that were positive this year.”

“Yeah, everybody is going to dwell on the fact we didn’t win. We’re still a young basketball team and we’re growing. I think at the end of the day we did a hell of a job as an organization and as a basketball team.”

Laimbeer credited Wilson for “growing up this year.” Wilson said both she and her teammates learned together.

“I think we grew tremendously,” she said. “I think we honestly understand now what it takes to win a championship. I mean, Seattle is a championship team on paper, on court. It’s good to have that measure to know this is what we have to do every possession, every minute.”

“I don’t think we really understood that till you’re in it. That’s normally how it is in professional basketball. But it’s a good thing for us. I know that it hurts. I don’t know if anyone has lost something big in a game situation, but it’s hurts. At the end of the day you learn and grow from it. I feel like I grew, so that’s a success in my book. I’m just going to keep growing.”

Players from both teams said it meant a lot to them to work on social justice issues during the season by wearing slain Louisville paramedic Breonna Taylor’s name on their jerseys, among other initiatives.

Las Vegas guard Kayla McBride said athletes know that battles being fought around the U.S. are bigger than sports.

“We’re using our platform to fight for those that can’t fight for themselves, for the Breonna Taylors of the world, for those families going through it each and every day silently and out loud,” she said. “We’re trying to do that through basketball the best we can. Especially being a predominantly Black league, I think we feel it even more so.”

“I’ve been so proud of the 144 women of this league, how we’ve used our voices individually and collectively to continue to say her name, to remind everybody to vote, remind everyone of the things actually going on outside this bubble while being in the bubble.”

Storm guard Alysha Clark said this year’s Championship was special because of the social justice representation of all 12 teams.

“We wanted to bring awareness and give a voice to the Black women that are often forgotten in this country,” she said. “We are often overlooked and often unheard, and this Championship was for them, for us.”

“As a league of women, of Black women, and the ladder of being different, we have women out here fighting for the voice of Black women in this country, and, so to be able to come out here tonight and win this; it’s a Championship for little Black girls and Black women across this country, honestly.”

Kloppenburg, who filled in this season for head coach Dan Hughes, who overcame cancer last year, added that women’s basketball deserves more attention.

“I think that the other side of that is the women’s game hasn’t gotten the respect, and partly because of the white guys that are writing…” he said. “Y’all white guys, wake up out there, man. You’ve got a whole tremendous gender that can flat-out play basketball. So maybe it’s time to move into the mid-century.”