At the start of the season, the Storm insisted its defense wasn’t broken, despite a string of uninspiring performances in which opposing players tallied big scoring nights.
Las Vegas’ A’ja Wilson had 24 points in the season opener against Seattle and Aces guard Jackie Young tallied 21 three days later.
Minnesota’s Sylvia Fowles popped the Storm for 20 points before Dallas’ Arike Ogunbowale and Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones dropped 28 in consecutive outings against Seattle.
At the time, the Storm had a 4-1 record, but there were considerable concerns and questions about Seattle’s toothless defense that ranked next to last in the WNBA in points allowed while surrendering an average of 88.2 points per night.
“We were also playing very elite post players. We still were missing Cedes (Mercedes Russell) and Piph (Epiphanny Prince) wasn’t back as well,” Storm coach Noelle Quinn said. “I wasn’t quite nervous because we understand that we built a very good system and sometimes those numbers start to change and we trend upwardly as the season goes on and as our competition changes and the personnel changes.
“I wasn’t quite nervous because we needed this time to grow together and understand the strengths of our players and where we can really lock down on defense. But also understanding what is actually best for this team defensively and that’s what we’re finding out on a night-to-night basis. With (assistant Gary Kloppenburg) on my side, I’m never nervous.”
In the past three weeks, the Storm has held opponents to 75 points or fewer in seven of eight games, while allowing an average of 74.6 points, which ranks first in the league.
Heading into Thursday’s 4 p.m. PT game against Indiana (1-12), Seattle (11-2) is gaining more confidence in a new-look defense that appears to have finally adjusted to the offseason departures of stalwarts Natasha Howard and Alysha Clark.
“We understand that this team isn’t going to look like the teams of the past as far as defensively,” Quinn said. “So, we’re trying to figure out the strength of our players in those defensive schemes. I continue to say this, that with the limited training camp, you can’t gain that defensive chemistry, and what we’re seeing is a development of that.”
During its WNBA championship runs in 2018 and 2020, the Storm terrorized opponents with a trapping, ball-hawking attack led by Howard, Clark and Jordin Canada, who each garnered All-Defensive team honors in 2019.
This year’s version of the Storm defense is drastically different with 6-foot-6 center Russell replacing Howard, forward Katie Lou Samuelson taking over for Clark and Canada’s drastic dip in production. In 2019, she led the league with 2.3 steals per game and is averaging just 0.5 this season.
And yet, the Storm, which has led the league in points allowed in the past two years, is starting to win games with its defense like it has in the past.
“Maybe we don’t have one lock up defender like Alysha Clark, but what we have is a team defense where we’re rotating, we’re on the string and we’re helping one another,” Quinn said. “And I think that’s really what you’re seeing, the culmination of just a team effort, and that’s what our defense has to be this year. It is not going to be one or two players, it’s going to be a legit one through 12 coming in and making sure that we’re working together to stop a great player.”
Adding Russell, who averages 5.6 points and 6.1 rebounds, to the lineup has given the Storm its first big-bodied low post presence since Lauren Jackson retired in 2012.
“Sometimes you look and things don’t stand out about Cedes on a stat sheet, but if you watch the way she plays and what she does, she’s a very smart player,” Quinn said. “She takes away other big players’ strengths. Using her mobility to get in front. Making it tough on the inside and being a strong presence. Being able to wall up and use frame to deter shots.
“Sometimes she’s the one out there trapping. Sometimes she’s the one having to play on a switch and contain small guards. She’s done an excellent job at that …. We have size with her in the paint.”
Kloppenburg, who coordinates the Storm’s defense, has mixed in zone schemes to keep opposing guards out of the paint and forcing teams to play on the perimeter.
During Tuesday’s 87-70 win at Indiana, Seattle packed the middle and coaxed the Fever, which ranks last in the league in three-point percentage, into 3-of-17 shooting behind the arc.
“In May, we gave up a whole lot of points, but now we’re continuing to be better in all areas,” said forward Breanna Stewart, who is contending for first-team All-Defensive honors for the third time in four years. “And that’s what you want. We’re not complacent with where we’re at with however many wins we have. We want to continue to build and get better.”