Storm’s hot start drowns LA Sparks 81-75

by Kevin Nesgoda

(Bradenton, FL) The importance of getting off to a hot start in the WNBA has been all too apparent for Seattle in their past two games. On Thursday night the Washington Mystics absolutely blitzed Seattle out of the game with a barrage of three-pointers. Washington knocked down 10 of them in the first half on their way to a dominant 50-32 half-time lead. They knocked Seattle out of the game early and the Storm were never able to recover.

On Saturday, Seattle reversed course and jumped all over the Los Angeles Sparks to begin this game. The Storm used a 17-4 run to start the game which was built by Jewell Loyd’s hot shooting. Loyd knocked down 3 three-pointers in the opening frame and had 11 points in the first quarter. Seattle would hold a 27-16 edge after one and a 45-29 lead at the break. Unlike, the Washington game however, the Sparks would use a furious second-half rally to cut Seattle’s lead to a one-possession game in the 4th quarter. Ultimately, the Storm would hold and execute in the final minutes of the game to secure the 81-75 victory. It was the Storm’s 350th victory in franchise history!

“You Want to be the team that comes out and punches the other team in the face first!” ~ Breanna Stewart

Stewart continued, “That’s what happened to us the other night. Continuing to be the aggressors, continuing to bring the energy. When we’re in Seattle we rely a lot on our fans. But without them, we have to continue to create that ourselves. We have to bring that energy and that goes for the starters, the bench players, the coaches, the support staff. We need everyone to be as loud as they can.”

Jordin Canada also talked about the importance of coming out strong to start the game.

“We had a bad game last game, so we knew it was important for us to play at our pace (tonight), moving the ball, taking great shots, that’s when we’re at our best. We knew LA is a great team so we knew we had to punch first and punch often!”

Seattle improved to 3-1 on the season. They are currently tied for the best record in the WNBA with Washington, Chicago, and Minnesota.

The Storm shot 50% from the floor (31-62) and 35% from beyond the arc (8-23) while holding Los Angeles to 39% shooting (29-75) and just 29% from three (7-24). Seattle continued to struggle with turnovers after having 18 against the Mystics they had 16 against the Sparks. That’s something they really need to clean up. They out-rebounded Las Angeles 36-33 and held a 19-14 edge in assists.

Seattle had five players score in double-figures including four starters. Breanna Stewart led the way with 21 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 steals. Jewell Loyd had her best offensive output of the season with 17 points and four assists, and Jordin Canada added 16 points and three assists. She did have the six turnovers (more on that later). Twenty year old Ezi Magbegor scored 12 points, the first time she has reached double digit scoring in her young WNBA career. Alysha Clark added 11 points and led the team with six assists.

For Los Angeles, they were led by the 19 points of Candace Parker. She had a nice double-double with 12 rebounds as well. Four players in total scored ten or more with Riquana Williams getting 16, Nneka Ogwumike adding 14, and Seimone Augustus with 12 points off the bench.

No Bird? No Problem (Sorta)

The Storm were without starting point guard Sue Bird. The team had her rest for this game as part of load management for the 39 year old. This was Seattle’s 4th game in just seven days, playing most games on just one day’s rest.

After the game, Coach Kloppenburg mentioned that they also had Bird rest because she hyperflexed her knee against Minnesota and was still feeling that a bit. Coach said he fully expects Bird to be back for the next game and they will just see how she does.

In a previous media call, I had asked if they still planned to give Bird some rest days despite only playing 22 games in this shortened season. They’ve sat her 3-4 games each in 2017 and 2018 before she sat out the entire 2019 season. Coach Klop did indicate that would likely be the plan to give his veteran rest this year as well. So this seems to be more an indication of that and less about her knee.

So how did Seattle fair without their veteran All-Star? Well, they won the game and for most of the game they looked fantastic building a 17 point lead and leading by double digits throughout most of the game.

But it wasn’t perfect. With two and a half minutes to play in the third quarter Alysha Clark made a scoop layup to put Seattle back up 17 points at 64-47. It looked like Seattle was well on their way to blowing out another opponent. That’s when things started to fall apart.

The next five possessions to end the third quarter saw Seattle commit four turnovers, get fouled and miss a Free Throw. LA on the other end made three shots and got fouled and made both free throws. The Sparks finished the final two minutes of a third quarter on an 8-1 run to cut Seattle’s lead to ten at 65-55.

To start the fourth quarter, Seattle missed 3 of 4 free throws and Seimone Augustus went on her own personal 8-1 run including back to back threes to cut Seattle’s lead to a one possession game (66-63) with 6:48 left to play. Between the final two minutes of the third period and the first three minutes of the 4th quarter the Sparks outscored the Storm 16-2.

In the 4th quarter, you saw the best and worst of Jordin Canada. There were moments where you wanted to pull your hair out. As Seattle’s lead was cut to single digits, Canada missed four critical Free Throws and committed three costly turnovers, including two in the final two minutes with the game on the line. But there were positives, Canada was extremely aggressive attacking the basket numerous times leading to eight free-throw attempts in the quarter (4-8), she scored six points, had two assists and got an crucial steal with under 40 seconds to play in the game.

Seattle missed Sue Bird’s steady hand and clutch moments in this one. But this was an excellent learning opportunity for Canada who came through for her team in the end.

Without Bird, Seattle had to rely on Canada heavily. And when she wasn’t in the game Epiphanny Prince was running the point. Prince has had some good moments this year, but this game wasn’t one of them. Prince finished the game with zero points on 0-3 shooting, one rebound, zero assists, and one turnover. Similar to Shavonte Zellous last season, Prince isn’t a natural point guard but can play the position in a pinch.

Coach Kloppenburg talked about Jordin’s night after the game.

“It’s tremendous. [Jordin Canada] was a starter all last year on a pretty good team so she can step right in and do that in situations like that. We felt like we struggled a little bit, we did
n’t have another backup, a true backup point guard. I think she played some pretty high minutes. You know, [she was] getting pressured, so I think there was some fatigue down the stretch, but she made some pretty big plays too. She got down in the lane, made a couple layups. We didn’t shoot free throws very well, we wanted to get to the line and we did that, we just didn’t really convert at a high rate. It’s just one of those kind of games that wasn’t a smooth flowing game, but we dug in and got a couple of stops when we had to get them and we went down and got a couple buckets mixed in there. We were able to kind of scratch this one out.”

Seattle is in a very interesting situation when it comes to the point guard position. They have two high-quality starters in Sue Bird and Jordin Canada. Sue is a legend, clutch shooter, and the best point guard the league has ever seen. Jordin is the super quick, aggressive, scrappy guard that is an elite finisher at the rim and an absolute pest on the defensive end of the court. Canada has All-Star potential and should be Seattle’s starting point guard for the next 5-10 years after Bird eventually retires.

Seattle is in a little bit of limbo with this. As long as they have Bird and Canada they are set at PG. And just have worry about the games where Bird sits out. The more games Bird misses, the larger problem this becomes.

But Seattle will have to eventually draft or acquire Jordin’s replacement as a legitimate backup point guard. It’s why a lot of mock drafts had Seattle selecting Crystal Dangerfield with the 11th overall pick this past April. In my own mock, I had Seattle drafting Te’a Cooper out of Baylor. Dangerfield ended up going 16th overall to Minnesota and has performed quite nicely for the Lynx. Cooper was drafted 18th overall by Phoenix but was cut by the Mercury before signing with Los Angeles at the start of the season. She had four points and made some nice defensive plays forcing Canada into a turnover late in the game.

The Curious Case of Natasha Howard

Fans started asking me after the game was over, “What’s wrong with Natasha Howard?”

Howard, the most-improved player in 2018 and All-Star and Defensive player of the year in 2019 has really struggled out of the gate this season. Here are Natasha’s stat lines through the first four games.

Game 1: 6 points on 3-7 FG shooting, 7 REB, 2 STL, 1 BLK
Game 2: 7 points on 3-6 FG shooting, 2 REB, 1 STL, 0 BLK
Game 3: 6 points on 3-7 FG shooting, 2 REB, 0 STL, 0 BLK
Game 4: 1 point on 0-1 FG shooting, 5 REB, 2 STL, 0 BLK

Seattle desperately missed Howard’s scoring against Washington when only Breanna Stewart and Sami Whitcomb scored more than 10 points. And Howard simply hasn’t looked herself early on.

Leading up to the start of the season media was informed that Howard did not join the team right away and did not get to participate in as many practices during training camp as the other players did.

Coach Kloppenburg has mentioned a couple times about the need for Howard to get back into playing shape. Her late arrival to training camp and potentially the lack of open gyms due to COVID19 over the past few months seem to have affected Howard’s game this season.

Prior to the start of the season, I wrote an article about the Top 5 story-lines we would see in the off-season and on the court in the 2020 season. One of the major questions I had was how would the return of Breanna Stewart affect Natasha Howard.

Howard averaged over 18 points a game in 2019, up from around 13 PPG in 2018. Howard also increased her Field Goal Attempts (FGA) from 9 in 2018 to 15 in 2019. It’s only been four games, but right now Howard is only averaging around five shots and five points per game. That needs to go up if the Storm want to win the championship this season.

Standout Plays

  • Jewell Loyd was on fire to start this game. Loyd hit a three to get the Storm on the board. Then quickly got a steal and an uncontested layup on the other end. Loyd would follow that up with back-to-back shots from beyond the arc scoring 11 points within the first four minutes of the game.

  • Jordin Canada had the fanciest play of the game dribbling behind her back and between two LA defenders for the layup in the first quarter.

  • Loyd deflected a pass, Prince got the steal and passed up to Loyd who attacked the basket and drew the defender in. Loyd then lobbed the ball up to Breanna Stewart who finished off the beautiful play with a nice left-handed layup putting Seattle up 33-20 four minutes into the 2nd quarter.

  • The worst play of the game for the Storm was in the third quarter where they allowed Candace Parker to get a defensive rebound and nobody decided to guard her as she drove nearly 90ft to the other basket, laid it up and even got fouled completing a three-point play on Seattle’s worst defensive possession of the game.

  • To begin the 4th quarter, Seimone Augustus knocked down a jumper and then followed that up with back-to-back triples scoring eight unanswered points and cut Seattle’s once 17 point lead down to just three.

  • With just 25 seconds remaining in the game, the Storm up four (79-75) and LA needing to foul to extend the game, the Sparks defenders were all up on the perimeter looking to foul as soon as the ball was brought into play. Ezi Magbegor recognized this and slipped freely to the basket where Alysha Clark found her. Clark, the inbounder, was able to fire a pass to a wide-open Ezi who completed the easy layup and secured the victory for Seattle.

Around the W

The Washington Mystics finally lost a game. The Mystics (3-1) fought an extremely competitive game against the Chicago Sky (3-1) but fell short as Chicago won the game 88-86. Five players on the Sky scored in double figures led by the 16 point a piece from Cheyenne Parker and Gabby Williams. Parker had the game winning basket in the final 30 seconds of the game. Ariel Atkins led the way for Washington with 24 points and Aerial Powers added 20. With the Mystics loss, there are no more undefeated teams in the WNBA after just four games.

For the second time this season, the Minnesota Lynx (3-1) trailed the Connecticut Sun (0-4) by double digits and rallied to win the game 78-69. The Lynx outscored the Sun 43-27 in the 2nd half of the game. Sylvia Fowles is having a very strong start to her season, she led the way for Minnesota with another double-double of 21 points and 13 rebounds. Napheesa Collier had 17 points and 9 rebounds. And rookie Crystal Dangerfield had a career-high night with 17 points as she continues to impress.

In the loss, DeWanna Bonner continued to put up monster numbers with 28 points to lead all scorers. But the rest of her team really struggled with only Brionna Jones scoring in double figures with 15 points.

Up Next

Seattle finally gets a couple days of rest before returning to the IMG Academy courts to face the Connecticut Sun on Tuesday at 6:00pm PST on ESPN2. DeWanna Bonner is the WNBA’s leading scorer and an early front-runner for MVP or she would be if it weren’t for the Sun’s early season struggles. Connecticut, who reached the WNBA Finals last year but are without All-Star Jonquel Jones have started the season 0-4. They will be hungry for a win, so the Storm will need to be ready.

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