That was the last time the Seattle Storm were crowned champions of the WNBA.
Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd were still high school students, Natasha Howard was a freshman at Florida State University and Alysha Clark was a rookie in the WNBA.
Sue Bird is the only remaining player from that year. Since then, the Storm’s return to the Finals has been mired with serious injuries, below .500 seasons and management and coaching changes.
In 2016, Bird’s contract was expiring and she had the option to look for greener pastures, especially during a time when Seattle had missed two consecutive years in the playoffs and were at a rebuilding stage. But the all-time leader in assists chose to stay and persevere and eight long years later, Bird raised the trophy with a young and talented cast.
On Wednesday night the Storm completed a three-game sweep of the Washington Mystics with a commanding 98-82 victory on the road. Seattle had a dominant lead for most of the game but it was in the fourth quarter where they were tested, after the Mystics cut a double digit lead down to five points with seven minutes remaining. It was an acrobatic shot in traffic from Stewart, the current WNBA Most Valuable Player that set off an 8-0 run that would annul any chance Washington had and put the Storm back up by double digits to win the game.
The 24-year-old recorded 30 points, shooting 11-of-22 from the field and 4-of-5 from beyond the 3-point line to add to her eight rebounds, three assists and two blocks to become the youngest WNBA Finals MVP. The championship caps a great year for Stewart, who is now the sixth player in the league to win a Finals MVP and a regular season MVP in the same season.
It’s also a great year for Sixth Woman of the Year, Natasha Howard, who was traded to Seattle after serving as a reserve for the Minnesota Lynx, last year’s title winner. With a bigger role and more minutes, Howard made a monumental impact on the team. Mystics coach Mike Thibault called the forward, “the biggest difference between the Storm this year and last year.” This is clearly evident with her double-double outing of 29 points (on 11-of-14 shooting from the field) and 14 rebounds. She has been consistent throughout the playoffs, notching six games with double digit scoring while also dominating the glass and making critical stops at the other end of the court.
And the statistics may not reveal it, Alysha Clark has been the core of Seattle’s stout defense that had the league’s third best defensive rating of 98.8 and limited opponents to a fourth best 79.7. She recorded the highest plus/minus (of +22) off the night and added 15 points in the series closer.
Jewell Loyd and Simone Whitcomb have been perimeter assassins for Seattle, especially in moments when they needed a lift. The Storm are 12-0 this season when Lloyd scores 20+ points which made the young shooting guard a target as teams would throw their best defender on her (see Phoenix Mercury series). And when she wasn’t lighting up the scoreboard, the 24-year-old found other ways to contribute.
The talent means nothing without the guidance of head coach Dan Hughes, who came out of retirement to fill the post after the front office decided to make changes in the coaching staff. Before he came on board, the Storm finished the last season with a 15-19 record and the year before with a 16-18 record.
But Seattle’s reinvention doesn’t happen without Bird. She acted as a leader for the young core while still fulfilling her point guard duties, averaging a league second best 7.1 assists per game and averaged 6.9 treys per game during the playoffs – the best mark out of any player in the Finals, despite being the oldest player on the court. Her late game heroics were vital in overcoming the Phoenix Mercury as she recorded 19 points in Game 2 of the series and 22 points in the elimination game that booked their ticket to the Finals. She did all of this with a broken nose (the fifth she’s incurred in her tenure) which forced her to wear a mask that impaired her peripheral vision.
“You just never know when you’re going to be back and I didn’t think I’d be back. To do it with this group, the way we did it, I don’t even know how to react,” said Bird during a post-game interview.
And as the champagne pours and the celebrations continue, Seattle has established itself as a strong competitor it once was eight years ago.
All statistics and quotes were provided by WNBA.com, Basketball-reference.com and ESPN.com unless otherwise indicated.
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