(Seattle, WA) – They weren’t supposed to be this good. They weren’t supposed to be competitive this season without Breanna Stewart or Sue Bird. The national media predicted they’d finish in either 9th or 10th place. I figured they’d probably finish around 7th. And yet here they are, 20 games into the season with a 12-8 record. Good for 4th best in the WNBA. The 12 wins ties Connecticut for the most wins in the entire league.
After a gutsy 69-66 victory over one of the best teams in the league, the Las Vegas Aces, I’m convinced that the Seattle Storm actually have a legit chance to win the WNBA Championship this season; despite the insane season with so many devastating injuries to this team. And this isn’t just wishful thinking. The Storm have proven through 20 games that they can compete with just about anybody.
Who are some of the likely favorites to win it all this year? The Washington Mystics? Seattle went into DC overcame a 14 point deficit and beat the Mystics 74-71 on June 14th. The Los Angeles Sparks? The Storm beat them by 22 points on June 21st. The Minnesota Lynx? Seattle’s beaten them twice this season including this week 90-79 in Minnesota. The Phoenix Mercury? The Storm took them out in the home opener back on May 25th. And Friday night, they defeated the Las Vegas Aces 69-66 in what was likely their worst offensive game of the season. The Storm have beaten every single team in the WNBA this season except the Connecticut Sun, and they’ll get two more opportunities to do so later this year.
Has this team been frustrating to watch at times, especially on the offensive end of the court? Absolutely! But there’s a very famous sports quote by Paul “Bear” Bryant that has been reiterated over the past several decades. Simply put, “Defense wins championships!”
Last season the Storm were #1 overall in offensive rating but they were also #2 in defensive rating (101.5). This season, their defense is significantly better (93.8) and they are still #2 overall in defensive rating in 2019. What does this mean? Well, the Storm are a lot more like the 2018 version of the Atlanta Dream than they are the 2018 version of the Seattle Storm. That means they aren’t going to be the favorites to win it all, but they might be good enough to reach the semi-finals and give themselves a shot to get back to the WNBA Finals.
Seattle is winning a lot of basketball games on the backs of their defense. And with the team shooting just 28% for the game, they defeated the Las Vegas Aces with their ability to defend some of the game’s most elite players.
Seattle collected 18 steals in the game Friday night setting a new franchise record. Their high energy and active hands forced Las Vegas into multiple turnovers throughout the game. Jordin Canada led Seattle with five steals and Natasha Howard added four.
Howard had a monster game overall with 21 points, 10 rebounds, six blocked shots, four steals, and three assists.
Jewell Loyd talked about Howard’s performance after this game.
“I think it’s pretty simple. She’s the MVP. Nobody else is doing what she’s doing. She comes out and gives 100% on both ends of the floor. She’s not just putting up points, she’s also defending, rebounding, everything. She’s the MVP.”Jewell Loyd believes Natasha Howard has stepped right into Stewie’s shoes as the league’s MVP this season
Las Vegas also had three players score in double figures with Liz Cambage leading the way for the Aces with 16 points, 14 rebounds, and four blocks. Kayla McBride (11 points) and Kelsey Plum (10 points) were the other two players to score 10 or more.
Both teams had 34 rebounds each. Something Coach Dan Hughes was really proud of considering the Aces lead the WNBA in rebounding at 39.6 per game.
Seattle won this game on two key stats. They held a massive 18-7 edge in steals and they went 20-20 from the foul line compared to Vegas who shot 9-14.
“We had to find ways to win the game. [Our 18 steals] really created opportunities for us. We also rebounded evenly with them and they are a very dominant rebounding team. And we used the free throw line, which is very typical of what we try to do. I thought that was really key in the fourth quarter.”Coach Dan Hughes on the importance of rebounding and defense in the win
The first quarter was incredibly sloppy by both teams. The Storm committed seven turnovers and the Aces were even worse with eight. Seattle used lots of defensive pressure to force Vegas into several difficult shots and bad passes. Despite an ice-cold 1-6 shooting start to the game, Seattle took the early lead on two Sami Whitcomb three-pointers. Seattle was able to extend their lead to double digits before finishing the quarter up eight, 21-13.
Back to back three’s by Sugar Rodgers and Kelsey Plum early in the second quarter helped cut Seattle’s 11 point lead to five, 24-19. Vegas’ defense was extremely stingy in the second allowing the Aces to tie the game up at 27-27. The Storm were able to go on a run of their own with back-to-back three’s by Alysha Clark.
Both teams made big runs in the second quarter with Las Vegas tying the game and Seattle retaking a 10 point lead. A couple of turnovers by both teams would end the 2nd half. Jordin Canada made an incredible leaping steal on a Kelsey Plum pass but unfortunately was not able to complete the layup.
Dearica Hamby was inserted into the starting lineup over Kelsey Plum to start the 2nd half and it immediately paid dividends with Hamby scoring the first five points for Vegas. The Aces started the third quarter on a 7-2 run.
Sadly, A’ja Wilson appeared to roll her ankle midway through the third and went down in pain. She would need to be helped off the court, into the locker room and would not return to the game.
Kelsey Plum did a terrific job in the third, scoring five points and keeping the Las Vegas Aces close. Carolyn Swords knocked down a three-pointer at the buzzer but it was later ruled no good. Seattle took a 55-49 lead into the 4th and final frame.
Violating that Shot Clock!
For a second consecutive game, the Storm had an awful final quarter. Against Minnesota on Wednesday, Seattle nearly blew a 17 point 4th quarter lead allowing the Lynx to get back within one before finishing the game on a 10-0 run. On Friday night against Las Vegas, Seattle was held without a field goal for the final seven minutes and 13 seconds of the 4th quarter. Somehow, someway, with excellent defense and quality free-throw shooting, they managed to hang on for the win.
Seattle’s offense was ugly. They had a numerous amount of shot-clock violations throughout the game. It felt like it was around 10, but it had to have been at least five or six times. The offense was stagnant and didn’t move the ball. They stopped being aggressive. They stopped attacking the basket and they would just dribble around the three-point line until they would chuck up a low percentage shot with a hand in their face.
Now Las Vegas is extremely lengthy, especially with 6’8″ Liz Cambage. And the Aces are the best defensive team in the league with a defensive rating of 90.9. But Seattle really needs to review this game film and correct this moving forward because this was extremely poor offensive execution on their part.
Howard emphasized Seattle’s defense down the stretch.
“It was a struggle. If we didn’t score then they didn’t score. We made sure that we got stops at the other end and push it through to the last second.” Natasha Howard on the difficult 4th quarter
Clutch Down the Stretch
I think a lot of credit needs to go to Jordin Canada for her clutch free-throw shooting in the final minute of this game. Canada had an abysmal shooting night, going 1-12. and 0-5 from beyond the arc. But with less than one minute left to play in the game and Seattle leading by just one possession, Canada was fouled twice in the final 30 seconds. She went up to the foul line and calmly sank all four of her free throws.
It wasn’t that long ago in a game against the Phoenix Mercury where Canada had an opportunity to send the game into overtime by sinking free throws in the final seconds of the game. But she missed and Phoenix escaped Seattle with a victory. On Friday night, there would be no repeat of that as Canada helped secure the victory for Seattle.
Overall Vegas was happy they battled hard but disappointed with their poor first quarter and sloppy turnovers (21 total).
“We just had to keep working. Once we put ourselves in a hole … I don’t know what it’s going to take to not use the first quarter as a warmup and not be ready to play. Coming out like that and having 21 turnovers – we know we’re not going to win games like that no matter how hard we play. We just have to work it out.”Liz Cambage on the game
Kelsey Plum echoed those statements after the game.
“I’m proud of the way we fought. We had some shot clock violations against them and got the ball back where we wanted. We just couldn’t finish. That goes back to getting off to a better start, though. The little things – turnovers and things like that – we have to clean up. They’re a very good team, especially at home. Credit to them. They just played better than us.”Plum on the game
Coach Bill Laimbeer gave an update on A’ja Wilson’s injury after the game.
“It appears it’s a high-ankle sprain so it hopefully won’t be too bad. And the referees didn’t call that foul on the breakaway layup and her arm was all scratched up. How they can swallow the whistle at that point in the game just because there’s a big crowd yelling … it doesn’t make any sense. You can’t treat the players that way.”
All-Star Weekend Coming Up
Both Natasha Howard and Jewell Loyd were named as starters to the All-Star team this season. Jewell Loyd said she hopes she gets paired up with Howard because she was left out last year, where one team took her teammates Bird and Stewart and she was left on the other team by herself.
I asked Jewell if it was a priority for her to return to WNBA court action before the All-Star game so that she wasn’t replaced by another player.
“At the end of the day I have to protect my body and make sure that I’m able to play because I expect to play for a long time. So I don’t want to risk anything. But I think it showed the respect everyone has for my game early on and it’s actually very humbling for me… It’s an All-Star game so you never know what you’re going to get. I might come out dunking.”Loyd on her thought process to get back this season and before the All-Star game
These same two teams rematch in Las Vegas this Tuesday 07/23 at 7:00pm. The game will air nationally on ESPN2. The winner of this game will win the season series, so that game will be critical.
After this game, the All-Star Weekend takes place on 07/27.