(Everett, WA) – Before the Seattle Storm’s season tipped off at Angel of the Winds Arena the Storm players, coaches, and employees received their championship rings. Fans cheered loudly and gave huge ovations to Coach Dan Hughes and the 2018 players, including injured players Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird. It was a very special moment for the organization that celebrated their third WNBA Championship and second since Force10 Hoops acquired the team in 2008, saving the team and keeping them here in Seattle.
After the championship ceremony was over, it was back to business. Arch-Rivals Seattle and Phoenix would battle in the opening game of the 2019 season. Despite, Seattle being without 3/5ths of their 2018 starting lineup (missing Bird, Stewart, and Clark) and the Mercury being without Diana Taurasi, both teams battled in an epic back and forth clash that once again proved why this rivalry is one of the best in sports. Just as they did in the 2018 playoffs, the Storm were once again victorious as they beat the Phoenix Mercury 77-68.
Both teams played evenly for the first five minutes of the game. Then the Mercury went on a 9-2 run to go up nine. Phoenix led 23-16 after the first quarter. Essence Carson gave the Mercury a good boost with five first-quarter points but finished the game with just seven total. Brittney Griner led all scorers with six points after the first.
Seattle really struggled on offense in the first quarter with sloppy play and bad passes. The Storm had eight turnovers in the first quarter alone. Jordin Canada, replacing Sue Bird in the starting lineup, had four of those eight turnovers. Phoenix’s defense was extra pesky and aggressive. Especially the defense by Briann January.
Phoenix went ice cold throughout the 2nd quarter. The Mercury only scored nine points in the period. Seattle’s defense really clamped down on them. Phoenix shot just 4-13 in the second quarter for 31% FG shooting. The Storm held Griner scoreless in the quarter as well.
Assistant Coach Gary Kloppenburg spoke to the media after the game about Seattle’s improved defense.
“It was hard. That was a good offensive team with Dewanna Bonner and Brittney Griner and I think we made things hard for them. Forcing 20 turnovers against a team like that is a good accomplishment and I think at the other end we got to the free throw line and were in attack mode. We wanted to keep Brittney Griner from a lot of screen and roles, having to guard all over the court, and I think for the most part we did that.”
Seattle got off to a strong start in the third quarter, fueled by Natasha Howard who has six points in the quarter. Seattle took a 43-38 lead half-way through the period. Back to back three-pointers by Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Jewell Loyd pushed Seattle’s lead to double-digits 51-38.
With 1:54 left to play in the third quarter, Seattle took their biggest lead of the game 56-42 on a Jordin Canada driving layup. For a moment it appeared that Seattle was going to run away with this one. But then DeWanna Bonner went absolutely unconscious. It was one of those amazing moments where even fans of the home team could appreciate because it was basketball being played at the most elite level.
Between the 1:09 mark of the third quarter and the 7:23 mark of the fourth quarter (less than four minutes), Bonner went on a personal 15-2 run against Seattle. During her 15 point scoring outburst, she did the following: AND1 (layup + foul shot), 3-pointer, 3-pointer, AND1 (layup + foul), and capped it off with another 3-pointer. Bonner cut Seattle’s 14-point lead down to just one with 7:23 left to play (58-57). Bonner had 14 points in the 4th quarter and finished with a game-high 31 points.
After the game DeWanna Bonner talked about her offensive outburst, but how it wasn’t enough to overcome Seattle.
“I think I settled down. In the first half, I missed some easy shots and was a little anxious. I know I have to score, rebound and get steals so I was just trying to will my team back in the game to give us a chance at the end. (Seattle) played together. They’re missing some key pieces, but all of them played well together and had good ball movement to get good shots. And Howard killed us on the boards.”
Phoenix really struggled offensively outside of DeWanna Bonner and Brittney Griner, who combined for 49 of the Mercury’s 68 points. Phoenix had just three points off the bench by rookie Alanna Smith and no other players in double figures.
Meanwhile, the Storm offered a much more balanced attack. Four of Seattle’s five starters scored in double figures, led by Natasha Howard’s 21 points, Jewell Loyd (17), Jordin Canada (16) and Crystal Langhorne (10). Seattle’s starting lineup rarely played on the floor together last year but outscored Phoenix by 13 points during the 17 minutes they played together on Saturday.
Natasha Howard is really primed for a big season. She won the Most Improved Player of the Year Award last season and was the key ingredient to changing Seattle from a playoff team to the WNBA Champions. Without Breanna Stewart this season, Howard is going to have a lot of playing time and opportunities to really take over as one of Seattle’s best players.
In the first game of the season, she did not disappoint. Not only did she lead the team in scoring with 21 points, but she had a career-high 16 rebounds (7 offensive), five steals and three blocks. It’s just one game and we’ve got at least 33 left to play, but those are definitely MVP type numbers.
Jordin Canada played extremely well overall, despite the turnovers (seven total). Canada had 16 points, six assists, and three steals. Her pesky defense was a constant problem for Phoenix. She ran the pick and roll well and made clutch drives to the basket. None more impressive than one where she weaved between two players, got spun around and still managed to lay it in for two.
After the game, Canada spoke to the media about her rocky start to the game, but how she was able to settle down and play well after that.
“To have one of our biggest leaders on the floor go out, it’s just a chance for me to step up and lead my team in the way I
know how and just gain confidence. I thought the first half I was overthinking it too much. I wasn’t playing with a lot of poise and patience. But in the second half, my teammates and coaches talked to me and told me to just stay in the moment.”
Phoenix Coach Sandy Brondello was impressed by Canada’s play, but less than thrilled about her own team’s performance.
“I learned we’re not where we need to be. We don’t have any real leadership out there. Diana (Taurasi) played so many minutes last year and she’s our point guard. We’re trying to put (Yvonne Turner) and (Briann January) out there and they’re not quite there. We just need more repetitions. I think (Jordin) Canada led that team better than our point guards did. We need other people to be aggressive on offense and be more involved. Two people in double figures is not going to win many games.”
She then added:
“We knew what to expect because (Natasha) Howard – she’s a beast and continues to get better and better. I think Canada has this great opportunity now to grow into the player that we all think that she can be and she showed it tonight. Jewell Loyd, (Crystal) Langhorne – they all play together. They have players that have played a lot together and their chemistry was better than ours and they had more contributions. That’s what it comes down to. We started off well and then they lifted up their pressure and put us on our back foot. We can’t allow that. We have to make sure we’re aggressive at both ends of the floor for the whole 40 minutes.”
While most National media doesn’t even have Seattle making the playoffs this year without Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird, the Storm showed great heart and determination in Saturday’s victory. As the former Houston Rockets Head Coach Rudy Tomjanovich once eloquently put it, “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion!”
Natasha Howard kept it simple. “Don’t doubt us!”
Seattle will have a few days off before heading out on a rough three-game road trip where Seattle will play three games in four days. Next up is the Minnesota Lynx on Wednesday 05/29. The Lynx won their first game of the season on Saturday as well in dominant fashion, beating the Chicago Sky 89-71. Rookie Napheesa Collier led the team with 27 points, which was the second most points scored by a rookie in their WNBA debut next to Candace Parker’s 34 points back in 2008.