The lights, music, new logo and sound of bouncing basketballs returned to Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett as the WNBA defending champion Seattle Storm returned home to begin their title defense.
It all started tonight with a repeat match-up between last year’s finals opponent the Las Vegas Aces. It ended the same way last season did with Seattle taking a big 97-83 win.
The Aces have been chosen by many to be the last team standing so the game between two strong opponents gave both teams a chance to see where they are and where they need to go.
The Storm were the winners of two of the last three championships (2018, 2020) and despite changes of their championship roster, they are still primed to be there at the end for the chance to win a league record fifth championship.
It’s a championship attitude that Seattle guard Jewell Loyd says is ingrained in the Storm legacy and all players who come here become a part of that championship attitude.
“You know, the people who were brought into our system want to be here,” said Loyd. “They want to be a part of what we do here in Seattle and I think everyone who’s been in this locker room knows how our culture is. We know the pieces might be different but we’re from a winning culture here and that’s what we are a part of and that’s what we preach so when you come here that’s what you’re a part of right away. That’s what it is about. It is all about having people buy in, which everyone has done, and then doing what they do best…being themselves and playing to their strengths.”
Before the game began the fans, limited but loud, were treated to a unique championship ring ceremony that saw the five remaining champions on the roster receive their rings and get surprise congratulatory videos from their families.
It was a treat that may not have happened had the full squad been there to receive their rings. Storm guard Sue Bird talked about the difference of this ceremony to her three previous.
“Well two things, they’re both kind of connected,” said Bird. “Not having a full building changes things a little bit. You know, the fans are just such a crucial part of what we do here in Seattle the support we get from them. The fact that we’ve had one of the best home court advantages definitely in my time… (makes it) not quite as special to not be able to share it with them. But then there was this moment where the five of us who are present today, the five returners, you know we got to see special messages from our families and that wouldn’t happen in a quote/unquote normal year. So when my nieces, I very rarely get emotional. It’s interesting the times, the night before…like last year a game three win the whole thing if we win that game. The night before I can feel my emotions kind of brewing but very rarely do I get overwhelmed by emotion when we actually do win and yet when my nieces popped up on that screen it was tough to hold it back…because there’s just so much meaning when you have family members (a part of it). For me to have my two little nieces be a part of that was super, super special. So, sad to not have the fans, but I think for us five it was pretty amazing to have special messages from our families.”
As the game began Las Vegas took the early lead looking smooth in their transitions while Seattle seemed to still trying to find their footing.
Loyd began finding open lanes to the basket and rookie-no-more Ezi Magbegor came in and her first two offensive touches produced three and two points respectively as she showed she can hit the three and come up strong underneath the basket.
From there it didn’t take long for Seattle to get into their groove as they put their well-known defense into play to start a comeback.
“When this team plays out of its defense there’s a lot of potential for runs,” said head coach Dan Hughes. “And that’s what I saw. I saw stops that let us play and transition. The three ball was very much a part of that in a way. That’s Storm basketball, that’s the way we want to play. And it was just good to see with so many new pieces and new roles, that it still reminded us of what we’re trying to do.”
With Loyd and Magbegor leading them early the Storm brought the game to within one with 45 seconds left in the first quarter when center Candice Dupree, who was having a strong showing as well, put the Storm up and despite the Aces taking back the lead guard Jordan Canada entered the game and did her part putting in two to end the first half with Seattle up by one 27-26.
In the second quarter the usual suspects took over for Seattle including forward Breanna Stewart who played tough on both ends of the court ending the game with a double-double of 28 points and 13 rebounds.
The Storm found their chemistry and with newcomer Stephanie Talbot bringing in her energy Seattle began to pull away in the second quarter. Outscoring the Aces by eight points in the second the Storm ended the first half ahead 49-40.
The first half also saw another Sue Bird record as she passed Lisa Leslie in career scoring to move into seventh overall in WNBA history.
Bird started the second half with a three point shot to make the lead 52-40 in favor of Seattle. Stewart followed a few minutes later with a fall away jumper and the Storm looked solidly in control.
Magbegor continued to show no shyness jumping into the paint as she took a rebound and put it in for two and after Stewart hit a three the Aces took a time out with two minutes gone in the third quarter and without having scored to see Seattle leading 59-40.
As the quarter ended the Storm had taken a significant lead into the fourth quarter 72-57 and Seattle would need all of it as Las Vegas found their shooting in the final quarter while Seattle and their fans got a scare from one of their players.
The teams traded baskets for a few minutes into the fourth when Bird and Aces center Liz Cambage collided at the top of the key sending Bird to the floor in obvious pain and grabbing her knee.
As Storm fans gasped Bird immediately called to come out of the game. As she left the arena to be looked at it was anyone’s guess as to if she would return.
But Bird didn’t keep anyone guessing long as she came back into the game with four minutes left to the relief and cheers of the fans.
Despite Las Vegas outscoring Seattle in the fourth 26-25 the Storm were able to stretch their win streak over the Aces to four (including last season’s finals games) to take the win.
Along with Stewart’s double-double Seattle had four in double-digits with Loyd finishing with 22 points, Dupree with 12 and Bird with 11 plus eight assists.
Las Vegas was led by A’ja Wilson with 24 points, Cambage had 16, Jackie Young had 12 and former University of Washington guard Kelsey Plum came off the bench to drop in 11 points.
The teams meet again at 7pm on Tuesday, May 18 at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett where the Aces hope to turn the tide and Seattle will look to make it five in a row. The game will be available on ESPN2.