The Seattle Storm drew first blood in their 2018 WNBA playoff semifinal series against the Phoenix Mercury on Sunday at KeyArena in Seattle.
Hours after she was named the 2018 WNBA MVP, Breanna Stewart scored 28 points to lead all players. She was particularly deadly from beyond the arc, hitting six of her nine three-pointers.
Jewell Loyd also had 23 points, thus making Seattle 11-0 this season when she eclipses the 20-point mark. Like Stewart, Natasha Howard commemorated her Most Improved Player Award with a big game, scoring 20 points and collecting five rebounds.
For the Mercury, DeWanna Bonner and Diana Taurasi scored 27 and 25 points apiece, but Brittney Griner battled foul trouble for much of the game, thus limiting her impact on the floor. She finished with 13 points and four rebounds.
Game 2 is scheduled for Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET in Seattle.
Game in a GIF
Momentum was swinging Phoenix’s way late in the fourth quarter as the Mercury clawed back from what had been a 16-point deficit in the second half. This jumper from Loyd gave the Storm the breathing room necessary to see the game out.
- The Storm’s perfect record when Loyd scores 20 or more points is no coincidence. Seattle is a different team when the All-Star guard is at her best and scoring from all three levels. Sunday’s game was a great showcase for Loyd—a display of her overall talent as well as the growth she has made over her WNBA career.
More specifically, Loyd was selectively aggressive when attacking the basket, demonstrating her improved patience as a scorer. Rather than driving into the paint with abandon, she waited for her openings.
Here in the fourth quarter, she gets a mismatch with Stephanie Talbot one on one. She knows she can blow by Talbot, and she uses her body to shield the ball from Griner.
This is basically the same thing, only it results in Loyd drawing a foul on Griner. Stewart’s pick allows Loyd to get a step on Leilani Mitchell, and Bonner is stuck in no man’s land where she has to guard against the drive while not leaving Stewart’s side. Loyd also does a great job of carrying the ball under Griner’s arm to force the contact rather than giving Griner an easy block.
The Storm ran the pick and roll to perfection, but more on that in a little bit. On this play, Jordin Canada sets the pick to force Mitchell to switch onto Loyd. Loyd has five inches on Mitchell, so rather than try to beat her off the dribble, she uses good old-fashioned bully ball.Loyd has had games where she scored more points or had a higher field-goal percentage, but it’s hard to imagine how she could’ve put in a better effort than she did Sunday night.
- Stewart took it upon herself to set the tone for the Storm, as an MVP is wont to do. She had 19 points in the first half, going 5-of-7 from beyond the arc.
Individually, Seattle has players who are accustomed to competing for and winning titles, either in college or the WNBA. Collectively, on the other hand, the Storm have done little in the postseason entering this year. Meanwhile, they’re playing a team built around Griner, Taurasi and Bonner, three players who helped the Mercury win a WNBA title in 2014 and then reach the conference finals/WNBA semifinals three straight years after that.
Seeing Stewart start hot had to have a calming effect on the Storm roster and ease any nerves the players might have felt before the opening tip.
- The Mercury were last in the league when defending the pick and roll. According to Synergy Sports, they allowed 0.863 points per possession, while opponents had a .455 adjusted field-goal percentage. In addition, teams scored 40 percent of the time when running the pick and roll against Phoenix.
The Storm exploited that weakness to great effect Sunday, either creating mismatches with defensive switches, hitting the roll player cutting the basket or finding the open shooter when both defenders stayed with the ball-handler.
Here we see Stewart capitalizing on a mismatch with Briann January. The Storm do a great job as well of moving the ball around the perimeter to give Stewart enough time to get her position inside.The Mercury did better over the course of the game in terms of switching quickly and resetting their defense, but there’s no reason for Dan Hughes not to emphasize the pick and roll again in Game 2.
- Defensively, having Howard guard Griner isn’t a perfect solution to what was a persistent problem for the Storm over the previous two seasons. But the offensive advantage Seattle gets when Griner guards Howard more than makes up for that.
Simply put, Griner isn’t a great defender when you get her away from the basket. Look how much space Griner afforded Howard on this three-pointer, which Howard made early in the first quarter.In the third quarter, Howard used the threat of a spot-up jumper to get Griner to bite on a pump fake. She then blew by the two-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year and drew a foul on Talbot while sinking her off-balance floater.The Storm lost to the Mercury to open the 2018 season when Hughes was still fine-tuning his tactics and rotation. Seattle bounced back with a 16-point win over Phoenix three days later and then beat the Mercury again by 11 points in July.
In general, the Storm may have Phoenix’s number and Howard is a big reason why because of how she can mitigate Griner’s defensive effectiveness.
- The Storm walked away with the win but almost throwing away a 16-point lead at home isn’t a great way to close a game. Seattle scored 12 points on 5-of-19 shooting in the fourth quarter. The team was also 2-of-10 on three-pointers over the final 10 minutes.
- The Storm’s bench combined to score just four points—two points each from Canada and Crystal Langhorne. Coaches tend to rely on their starters more in the playoffs, so Seattle doesn’t need a ton of production from its second unit. At the same time, the Storm can’t expect the trio of Stewart, Howard and Loyd to have 71 points every game.
- Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis missed all four of her three-point attempts. Really, she was 0-of-3 because one of the shots was a last-second heave at the end of the first quarter. Of the Storm’s four regulars off the bench, Mosqueda-Lewis has the potential to do the most damage. During the regular season, Phoenix allowed opponents to shoot 36.2 percent from deep, which was tied for worst in the WNBA.
While Seattle doesn’t need KML at her best to win a title, it would be a nice bonus in the postseason.
The end got a bit nervy, but defending home court in the opening game of the semifinals was imperative for Seattle, if for nothing else than to get that first playoff win since 2012 under its belt.