(Bradenton, FL) The Seattle Storm continue to prove they can win in a variety of ways defeating the Phoenix Mercury 74-68. With the latest victory the team improved to 6-1 on the season, their best start since 2010. After winning, what turned out to be a crazy shootout against the Atlanta Dream, the Storm picked up Saturday’s victory in a much different way. This game was all about defense.
Entering Saturday’s matinee game versus the Storm the Phoenix Mercury were averaging nearly 92 points per game this season (over six games). They had scored 96 points or more four times and 100 points or more twice already this season. For perspective, Seattle’s highest point total this season was 93 and the Storm were averaging roughly 85 points per game entering Saturday’s contest.
Seattle’s defense was smothering against the Mercury. Setting up effective half-court traps that flustered Skylar Diggins-Smith at times. The Mercury were held to just 36% field goal shooting (24-66) and just 20% from beyond the arc (4-20). Phoenix also committed 19 turnovers.
The Mercury’s Diana Taurusi heaped praise on the job Alysha Clark does defensively, “(Alysha Clark) is probably the best defender in this league. She’s strong. She’s physical. It’s like having a little bodyguard wherever I go.”
Coach Kloppenburg talked about his team’s defensive effort after the game.
“We have good defenders, they take pride in it. We have a good system and we have a lot of different ways we can guard some things and trying to be disruptive. Especially in the first half, we were really good, I thought we had them on everything that they wanted to do with our pressure and traps and rotations. We probably relaxed a little bit in that fourth quarter, but overall, it’s a good offensive team. I thought we did a pretty good job on [Diana Taurasi] and [Brittney] Griner for the most part, I think we did a pretty good job on her, trying to keep the ball out of her hands on the low post. But I’m happy, you just find a way to win, anyway you can, sometimes they aren’t pretty but you just have to find a way. So I’m really happy we were able to come out with that W against this team.”
Jewell Loyd also talked about the team’s ability to shut down the Mercury’s high-powered offense.
“I think we’re a very good defensive team. Obviously, we play Phoenix a lot. We obviously have different players – new players – but we try to just be there for each other. Rotate quick, know our schemes, know our scouts. We’re so flexible with our lineups that we can switch up a lot of things. We had great defense from [Natasha Howard] tonight. She was super active and when our post players are active like that, it makes it a little bit easier for the guards to communicate and rotate… so I have to give some credit to our post players.”
Jordin Canada also talked about the team’s defensive mentality.
“We thrive on defensive energy. We thrive on getting stops and that allows our offense to run the way it does. When we’re able to get deflections, when we’re able to rebound, steal the ball or just have lockdown defense and then we’re able to push and do the things that we do. It’s extremely important and we know that sets the tone. For me and [Alysha Clark], we bring that spark when I’m starting with the group that I’m with, just bringing that spark, bringing that energy and taking it on the offensive end.”
It is no surprise that Seattle continues to play well defeinsively. Interim head coach Gary Kloppenburg is known for his defensive mind and his father (Bob) was one of the great defensive coaches in the NBA dating back to the 1980’s.
Rebecca Lobo on commentary talked about the Storm’s ability to combine their offense and defensive abilities over the past few seasons, “It’s interesting because in 2018 when (Seattle) won the championship they were all about the offense. A year ago, without Sue, without Breanna Stewart, they were the number one defensive team in the league. It’s good to see this year that they’ve been able to combine that.”
Seattle got off to a terrible start in this game. The Storm missed their first seven shots of the game and trailed 7-0 early on. Alysha Clark scored the first basket of the game for the “home” team draining a corner three. Fortunately, Seattle was able to get things going finishing the quarter on a 19-9 run. The Storm led 19-16 after one.
It was the second quarter that Seattle was able to distance themselves. Whether it was the Storm’s incredible defense or the Mercury gassing out from playing so many games on short rest. But Phoenix had one of the worst quarters I’ve ever seen in the second period. The Mercury scored just seven points on 3-17 FG shooting (18%) including 0-4 from three-point range. The Storm had their best offensive quarter of the game scoring 23 points on 8-18 FG shooting (44%). Jewell Loyd really stepped up knocking down 3-4 from beyond the arc.
The Storm held Phoenix to just 23 points in the first half. That is the lowest scoring total for a half of any team in the WNBA this season. Seattle built a 19 point lead at the break leading 42-23. But the most surprising part of that lead was the fact that Breanna Stewart did not have a great half. Stewart was limited to just four points on 1-4 shooting from the floor.
To build a near 20 point lead against one of the best teams in the WNBA without your star player scoring much at all says a lot about the Seattle Storm, their depth, and the team’s overall talent. I wanted to talked to members of the team and Coach Klop about that after the game.
“I thought we got some really good contributions coming from off the bench and from Sami [Whitcomb] and Mercedes [Russell]. They were double-teaming [Breanna Stewart] and some of our other players really stepped up, and were able to score in different ways. That’s what you want to do cause she’s going to draw a lot of attention, it’s going to open some things up for the rest of the players. It was really good, I thought our first half, the ball movement and that extra pass is what we wanted to do against these guys and we did a really good job. We just stalled out a bit in that fourth quarter, something we wanted to address is being able to finish games. At times we struggle down here doing that, that’s something we definitely need to work on going forward cause I know we’re definitely going to be in some close games where we really have to execute down the stretch,” Coach Kloppenburg said
Alysha Clark added, “Whether [Breanna Stewart] is scoring 30-plus or not, she attracts so much attention and she’s a very selfless player. She’s not worried about only scoring. She wants to make an impact on both sides of the floor.
Even though she wasn’t scoring offensively, she was still being effective on the defensive side, and then in the second half things opened up for her. She’s a former MVP, you’re not going to keep her down for long. We knew that whether she had four points in the first half or not that she was going to get going at som
e point. Credit to the depth of our team. For us it goes back to last year and just getting everybody in positions that we normally haven’t been in, taking on larger scoring roles, looking to more aggressive, and you see how that’s starting to play into our favor this year, especially with the tight turnaround that we’re having with all these games and no training camp. Last year was important for the success that we’re having now.”
Jordin Canada also talked about the team’s depth and ability to succeed without a monster game from Stewart.
“It says a lot about our team. It says that the depth that we have, everyone is able to bring something to the table. Everyone uses their strengths and I think that’s what makes us so efficient. We’re able to get it to anybody and anyone can have a great game on any given day. So we have that in mind when [Breanna Stewart] is not having a first half, we want to get her involved in the second half, get her some touches, but other teammates are able to just get it going and able to play their role and like I said, use their strengths. That’s what sets us apart from a lot of teams is that everyone on this team is pretty strong and we’re efficient in our scoring.”
The third quarter started ugly for both teams, but especially Seattle. The Storm’s first handful of possessions were turnover, missed shot, turnover, made basket, turnover. Ultimately, it was a very even quarter with the Storm edging the Mercury 20-19. Stewart got hot late in the third quarter knocking down three triples in the quarter scoring 9 of her 11 second half points. Loyd knocked down a huge three-pointer at the buzzer to put Seattle up 20 at 62-42.
The 4th quarter was awful for Seattle. And really the team made it so much more difficult on themselves than it needed to be. Entering with a 20 point lead the Storm just needed a good five minutes and they could have rested their starters the rest of the way. Unfortunately, the team completely collapsed, scoring just two points in the first four and a half minutes of the quarter. That was extremely costly as it forced starters to log big minutes again. The Storm had scored just five points in the first seven minutes of the quarter. With about 30 seconds left in the fourth, Phoenix had outscored Seattle 24-8. Fortunately, the Storm were able to hang on by knocking down their free throws.
Jewell Loyd led Seattle with 20 points. Breanna Stewart scored 15 points and collected eight rebounds. She did however have a poor shooting night going just 4-12 from the floor. She also committed a game-high seven turnovers. Alysha Clark was the only other player to score in double figures for Seattle with 11, ten of which game in the first half. Jordin Canada was one point shy of a double-double with 9 points and a season-high 10 assists.
Loyd has been known as the ‘Phoenix Killer’ over the years as several of her best games have come against the Mercury. I asked her about that, if it’s the rivalry with them or the fact she’s going up against Diana Taurasi, etc.
“Maybe it’s matchups. Some of that is probably playing against [Diana Taurasi]. You know the best way to respect a G.O.A.T. like that is to give your full and best effort all the time, so that’s what I try to do, and really just try to do whatever my team needs me to do to secure the win. I’m just trying to get a ‘dub.”
The Mercury got most of their contributions from their Big 3. Brittney Griner tied Loyd with a game-high of 20 points. She also led her team with eight rebounds. Diana Taurasi scored 14 points and a team-high five assists. Taurasi did leave with an injury midway through the 4th quarter. Early MRI results say it isn’t serious, but something did affect her low back/hip region and she was forced to exit the game before it was over. Skylar Diggins-Smith added 12 points, but Seattle forced her into six turnovers.
The Little Things
Natasha Howard’s struggles have been discussed already this season both here and in national media coverage. We know Howard had an extended quarantine stay and she did not get to begin training camp with the team right away. There’s been comments from coaches how they’re still working on getting her into basketball shape. Her offensive production has clearly struggled this season. But I think it’s promising that we’ve seen some positive signs in the past two games. Howard grabbed a season-high 10 rebounds in this game against Phoenix leading all players in that category. She looked more active on the defensive end in this game where she was able to alter Brittney Griner’s shots on a few occasions and did collect two steals in this game. And while she did not have a good shooting performance, going just 2-11 from the floor (18%). I am encouraged that she took 11 shots in this game because it means she’s getting more confidence back in her shot and her ability to score.
In 2018, Seattle was unstoppable when both Stewart and Howard were scoring. Howard was able to dominate in the WNBA Finals that year. She had 29 points and 14 rebounds in the deciding Game 3. In 2019, Howard proved she can be an All-Star scorer as well as being an elite defender. I don’t mind her shooting 2-11 in this game because it means she’s being more proactive on the offensive end. And I could easily see as the season progresses her numbers start to improve to 5-10 or 7-13, etc. If Howard can get back to scoring 8-14 points a game for Seattle on top of Stewart, Loyd, and the others, I don’t think there will be another team that can compete with them.
While on topic of “the little things”, I’ve noticed Alysha Clark has picked up her offense over the past four games. Her shot was a bit off to start the season, but AC has now scored double figures in four straight games while Seattle has gone 4-0 during that time. She is knocking down her threes at a better clip and is showing more confidence in her ability to score. Clark is never going to be a juggernaut on the offensive end nor does Seattle need her to be. But if she can consistently put up 8-12 points a game while Stewart, Loyd and either Howard or Canada put up points as well, the Storm are going to win many, many games this season.
Jewell Loyd knocked down five threes in this game. The one that stands out the most was in the 2nd quarter with the shot-clock winding down pulling her defender out, putting a few dribble moves together to clear space, giving a slight hesitation and unloading the three in the defender’s face.
Ezi Magbegor got turned around down low with her back to the Mercury’s Kia Vaughn. Vaughn caught the lob pass down in the low post, Ezi was able to turn around and reject Vaughn’s shot in emphatic fashion. Seattle was able to recover the block.
Alysha Clark scored a quick five points in the 2nd quarter. First a nice midrange jumper off a Natasha Howard offensive rebound. Howard then got a steal on the next possession as they tried to lob a pass inside to Griner. Howard moved the ball up to Stewart who drove aggressively to the paint. The defense collapsed and Stewart kicked it out to a wide-open Clark for the three to put Seattle up 38-21 with just under
three minutes to go in the first half.
Stewart knocked down 3 three-pointers during a 90 second period late in the 3rd quarter. During one of those, Taurasi was on the bench for Phoenix and as soon as she saw Stewie get wide open for the three she yelled out “Nooooo!” as she couldn’t believe her teammates left Stewart wide open.
Around the W
Former Seattle Storm Coach Brian Agler, now with the Dallas Wings (3-4), led his upstart team to a victory over the Atlanta Dream (2-5) by a score of 85-75. The Wings leading scorer was Arike Ogunbowale who had 24 points and six assists. Kayla Thorton had 17 points and Allisha Gray added 12 more. The Wings also brought Dream’s rookie Chennedy Carter back to earth. After scoring a career high in back to back games (35 and 26), Carter was limited to 14 points on 5-14 shooting. Betnijah Laney topped scoring for the Dream with 16 points. Elizabeth Williams (15) and Courtney Williams (14) were the other players in double figures in the losing effort.
The Chicago Sky (5-2) continue to impress with a victory over the Connecticut Sun (1-6) hitting the century mark 100-93. The Sky had four players in double figures led by Allie Quigley’s 22 points. Cheyenne Parker added 20 points, while Kahleah Copper pitched in 17 points and Diamond Deshields, still recovering from an injury, netted 14 points off the bench. For the Sun, Jasmine Thomas was their leading scorer with 22 points and six assists. DeWanna Bonner had 15 points. Rookie Kaila Charles, who hasn’t seen a lot of playing time scored a career-high 15 points off the bench on 4-5 field goal shooting.
The Storm only get one day rest and will be back at it again on Monday August 10th. The game will be televised on ESPN2 at 6:00pm PST. Seattle will face the Chicago Sky (5-2) in what will likely be one of their toughest challenges of the season. The Sky had Seattle’s number a bit last season and will enter the game with one of the best records in the league. The Sky are one of the league’s best offensive teams, while the Storm’s defense has shut down most teams so far. This should be a good test to see where both teams are and how they match up this season.