With Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird missing from the lineup, the Storm lost their season opener to the Los Angeles Sparks 78-68 Saturday at the Staples Center.
LOS ANGELES — In beginning the season against the defending WNBA champions, the Storm demonstrated the ability to withstand the loss of two of its best players.
The Los Angeles Sparks needed a 7-0 spurt late in Saturday’s game to dispatch the Storm 78-68 in front of an announced crowd of 10,603 that included Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson at Staples Center.
Jewell Loyd scored a game-high 25 points, 18 in the first half. Ramu Tokashiki added 14 points and Crystal Langhorne contributed 13 points and a team-best six rebounds for Seattle.
Neither Breanna Stewart nor Sue Bird received clearance to play Saturday, and officially remain day to day as the Storm prepares for Sunday’s home opener against the Indiana Pacers. Both are recovering from knee injuries.
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“Of course, we miss them a lot,” Loyd said. “But we definitely competed throughout the whole game. The best thing about our team is that everyone can bring up the ball, pass and screen. We’re very versatile.”
Stewart, the WNBA’s rookie of the year last season, sprained the posterior cruciate ligament in her right knee in January while playing in China, and Bird is recovering from arthroscopic surgery on her left knee. Stewart dressed and sat on the bench while Bird remained in Seattle.
“We’ve got to reassess (Sunday),” Storm coach Jenny Boucek said. “We probably could’ve pushed them, but it wouldn’t have been smart. They want to play but they weren’t quite ready and we’re not going to put them in jeopardy. They’re too important to our franchise.”
Stewart expressed more emphatic optimism.
“I’m planning on playing tomorrow,” she said. “It’s just hard with a back-to-back. I don’t know if I’m supposed to be saying that but I’m going to be playing tomorrow.”
Nicole Quinn, who missed both of the Storm’s preseason games because of a bruised thigh, started in Bird’s place and finished with five points and eight assists in nearly 35 minutes.
“That was pure will and toughness that she played that many minutes against that pressure and defended the way she defended,” Boucek said. “She’s not really in game shape, yet.”
Meanwhile, Tokashiki replaced Stewart and demonstrated her ability to drive the lane and score from outside.
“We see her just continuing to get more comfortable, more confident,” Boucek said. “She’s starting to get freed up and find her confidence to really let her instincts guide her. She’s got a really bright future.”
Loyd’s 11 points in the first quarter enabled the Storm to hold a 21-20 lead at the end of the period. But the visitors missed 8 of 11 shots in the third quarter and scored just two points on free throws in the final 2:55 of that period, as Los Angeles built a 59-49 advantage with nine minutes to play.
Langhorne narrowed the Storm’s deficit to 67-64 with 4:56 remaining by making a layin while being fouled and converting the ensuing free throw. But Chelsea Gray and Nneka Ogwumike led the decisive 7-0 spurt.
Gray made a three-point shot from the right corner with 4:07 left. Ogwumike followed with a layin 35 seconds later. Then Gray sent a long pass to Ogwumike for another layin that gave the Sparks a 74-64 lead with 3:05 to go.
Ogwumike, the WNBA’s MVP last year, led the Sparks with 23 points. Odyssey Sims came off the bench to add 20 points, while Gray finished with 14 points and eight assists.
“This is a tough first game for us without Sue and Stewie just because they put so much pressure on you,” Boucek said. “Considering that, we found a way to hang around for most of the game. I was really, really proud of the effort and the composure despite a lot of pressure and people being outside of their normal roles.”