The Seattle Storm are going to the 2018 WNBA Finals.
Seattle defeated the Phoenix Mercury 94-84 in Game 5 of the WNBA semifinals, outscoring the Mercury 35-21 in the fourth quarter, on Tuesday night in KeyArena.
Per usual, Breanna Stewart led the way with 28 points and seven rebounds. For long stretches, Stewart was single-handedly keeping the Storm afloat on offense as the team struggled with Phoenix’s suffocating defense.
Sue Bird was the big star, though, finishing with 22 points, including 14 in the final frame. Bird gave the Storm a 79-76 lead with 4:01 remaining, and her three-pointer with 2:51 left to put Seattle ahead by eight was essentially the death blow for the Mercury.
Diana Taurasi—who ICYMI was unbeaten in winner-take-all elimination games—had 17 points, while Brittney Griner posted 21 points, nine rebounds and six assists.
Game in a GIF
This was the moment when it felt like the Storm took control of the game for good. Bird was incensed because Bonner or Briann January grabbed her protective mask. Immediately after the jump ball, she hits a pull-up three-pointer from about 30 feet out.
- Suzanne. Brigit. Bird.
Bird is one of the greatest point guards in basketball history and continues playing at an All-Star level despite being the WNBA’s oldest player. Having said that, how cool would it be for Bird to retire after winning a third WNBA title?
I remember watching LeBron James’ block on Andre Iguodala in the 2016 NBA Finals and thinking two things: The Cavs can’t possibly lose this game and spoil this superhuman effort by James, and the Cavs aren’t going to lose this game because LeBron won’t let it happen.
That’s how I felt Tuesday night as the second half went on and Bird took over the game. Imagine being a Storm player and watching a 37-year-old Sue Bird hit three-pointer after three-pointer, get feisty with the referees and run the huddles during timeouts. That’s a player you fight for until you have nothing left.
“When I saw that I was like, yes, we got this,” Sami Whitcomb said of Bird’s outburst, per the Seattle Times‘ Percy Allen. “Sue has got this. It fired her up and fired (us) up.”
What else needs to be said?
- The spotlight is rightfully on Bird after Game 5, but we shouldn’t overlook Stewart’s performance. She basically carried this team offensively for three quarters.
Seattle had numerous possessions that essentially boiled down to “throw the ball to Stewie and let her figure it out.” That’s not even intended to be a criticism of head coach Dan Hughes, either. Stewart is the 2018 WNBA MVP and the Storm’s best player. These are the moments when she needs to step up, and that’s exactly what she did Tuesday night.
- At the start of the year, imagine telling yourself Sami Whitcomb would play an entire fourth quarter in a WNBA semifinals elimination game. Whitcomb was so good it makes you wonder whether Hughes intentionally played her 16 combined minutes through the first four games of the series in order to use her as a secret weapon in Game 5.
The Storm were plus-13 with Whitcomb on the floor, and she was the kind of impact player off the bench the Mercury needed as their starters ran out of gas. Phoenix used seven players compared to Seattle’s nine, and none of the Mercury’s starters played fewer than 33 minutes.
Whitcomb can be such a great difference-maker for two reasons.
Firstly, she never stops moving. When she’s guarding you, she makes you work hard to find an open opportunity. And when she’s on offense, you constantly have to follow her off the ball, forcing you to expend even more energy.
Secondly, Whitcomb has the confidence and quick trigger to pull up and hit from anywhere inside half court. Attempting a three-pointer with Leilani Mitchell in your face and your team down six points? Sure, why not?
It says everything about the danger Whitcomb poses when the Mercury are throwing January on her in the fourth quarter. Think about that for a second. Phoenix used its best backcourt defender on a player who averaged 2.9 points in the regular season and scored eight points through the first four games of the series. And the Mercury were completely justified in doing so.
Also, give credit to Hughes for riding the hot hand and keeping Whitcomb in the game for so long—often at the expense of Jewell Loyd. That’s a gutsy call in such an important game.
- Alysha Clark finished with 13 points and 13 rebounds and led the Storm in plus/minus (plus-15). One bonus from the Storm’s run to the Finals is that people outside of Seattle are starting to appreciate how much Clark brings to the team. She’s the proverbial jack of all trades. Although she doesn’t possess an elite skill, she can defend, rebound and score from multiple levels. It’s great to have stars such as Stewart, Loyd and Bird, but players like Clark are necessary to fill out a championship-caliber squad.
Speaking directly to Tuesday night, Clark provided a big offensive lift to Seattle in the third quarter. She was 3-of-3 for seven points. Her three-pointer with 2:57 left tied the game for the first time since the opening tip. Then, her jumper with 40.4 seconds remaining brought the Storm to within four points heading into the final quarter. Those are the little moments that help set up the big moments everybody remembers.
- Griner attempted just three shots in the second half. Like Stewart, she played all 40 minutes in Game 5 after playing 40 minutes in Game 4 and 35 minutes apiece in the previous two contests.
Whether it was Natasha Howard’s constant fight for position inside, the constant double and triple teams, or simply fatigue, Griner’s impact waned after halftime. When this is basically your life for 40 minutes, it’s has to be exhausting.
Griner’s teammates weren’t picking up the slack, either, to capitalize on the open opportunities Seattle’s double and triple teams created. Yvonne Turner was 2-of-8 for four points after scoring 15 in the first half. Likewise, DeWanna Bonner, who averaged 25.5 points in the first four games of the series, finished with 14 points, seven of which came in the second half.
- Loyd took a backseat in the second half because of Whitcomb, but there’s not really any way to positively spin a six-point showing in a playoff elimination game.
After scoring 23 points in Game 1, Loyd had 32 points over the final four games of the semifinals. Yes, it’s unfair to judge her solely on her scoring, but she was the Storm’s No. 2 scorer in the regular season. Loyd needs to deliver more offensively in the playoffs.
- Howard was really good through the first four games of the semifinals but struggled in Game 5, scoring just seven points on 2-of-5 shooting.
When the Storm play the Mercury, they’re counting on Howard’s ability to stretch the floor to help neutralize Griner’s defense. Griner can’t defend the paint if she has to get out and guard a Howard jumper. But Howard wasn’t really presenting that threat, which was a big reason why Seattle’s offense couldn’t get out of first gear until Bird’s hot shooting propelled the team in the fourth quarter.
- Does anybody know if Courtney Paris is injured? Although Paris isn’t an elite rim protector, throwing a 6’4″ center who’s a historically great rebounder seemingly would’ve helped Seattle counteract Griner a little more. Of course, Paris’ lack of range offensively would’ve meant Griner could park herself under the basket. Maybe that’s what Hughes was afraid of and why Paris didn’t play at all in Game 5.
- None. The Storm are in the Finals, y’all.
Looks like Diana Taurasi is 13-1 in winner-take-all situations.