Heading into a winner-take-all Game 5 in the WNBA semifinal against rival Phoenix, it’s Breanna Stewart’s time to shine.
No, that’s not some hackneyed observation from media folks holding microphones and cameras, but it’s the advice the Storm star received during a recent out-of-the-blue conversation with Lauren Jackson.
The Storm’s most dominant superstar who led the franchise to WNBA titles in 2004 and 2010 unexpectedly called her heir apparent to remind her of what’s at stakes in these playoffs.
“She was saying congrats and all of that stuff and (told me to) get it done,” Stewart said. “I appreciated it and I was just like, ‘Thanks, I’m trying to get the franchise back to where you had it.’
“To have someone like that reach out to you, it kind of puts things in perspective and motivates you a little bit more to remember who you’re representing and what you’re representing.”
Fair or not, whether the top-seeded Storm beats No. 5 Phoenix in a 7 p.m. Tuesday rubber match at KeyArena to advance to the WNBA Finals is Stewart’s burden to bear.
“The fact that we have Game 5 at home is huge for us,” said the 24-year-old WNBA MVP. “The fans throughout this entire series have been amazing.
“The league MVP? That stuff is all over with. The postseason is like a whole ‘nother season. You just go out and play. There’s nothing to prove. I won MVP and now how do we win a championship?”
For starters, Seattle will need to reclaim momentum and avoid becoming the first WNBA team to lose a five-game-series after claiming a 2-0 lead.
Sue Bird’s return should help.
The 37-year-old All-Star point guard has been medically cleared to play Tuesday after breaking her nose late in the second quarter and sitting out the second half of the 86-84 Game 4 defeat Sunday in Phoenix.
“It’s very fitting that she gets a chance (to play),” Seattle coach Dan Hughes said. “We worked all year to get home-court advantage and now to have her back in the lineup, obviously that’s a plus.”
Bird, who has broken her nose five times during her 17-year career, will wear a protective facemask and might need surgery after the season.
“I have a bunch of little breaks in there,” Bird said. “It is what it is. I’ll get it fixed when I’m done.”
Whether the season ends Tuesday night depends on the Storm solving a few perplexing riddles that’s plagued the team in this series.
— Will Jewell Loyd pull out of a postseason tailspin?
Since scoring 23 points on 9-for-16 shooting in Game 1, the All-Star guard is averaging 8.6 points and shooting 22.6 percent (7 of 31) from the floor in the past three contests.
“Just continuing to build her up, build her confidence up,” Stewart said when asked about Loyd’s shooting slump. “(Sunday) going into the game my focus was let me try to get other people going and then I can get going later on just because we need to show them how important they are.
“In the first half she did great. I think the second half, things got a little tight. But she knows we have confidence in her.”
— Can the Storm wear down Phoenix’s Big Three?
Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and DeWanna Bonner have been dominant, indestructible and surprisingly durable. They’ve accounted for 76.6 percent of Phoenix’s scoring in the series.
Despite being short-handed and requiring its stars to log heavy minutes, Phoenix (23.5 points) is outscoring Seattle (11.8) by 12 points in the fourth quarter.
“They know they’re on the court, but they’re probably looking at how they can have the energy for a finish,” Hughes said. “They’re veteran and they understand the moment of the fourth quarter.”
— Is Stewart ready to carry the Storm to a win in a big game?
The two-time All-Star has been really good while averaging 23.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.3 steals. But Stewart has been outplayed in her matchup against Bonner, who is averaging 25.7 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.0 blocks and 1.5 steals.
Bird and Loyd proved to be clutch performers in a pair of victories, while Stewart has twice come up short in the series.
Admittedly, she would have made a different choice Sunday with the ball in her hands on the game’s final play. Down two points, the 6-foot-4 forward drove into in the paint against the 6-9 Griner and never got off a shot as time expired.
“If I could have done it over again, I probably would have just gotten the ball back from the top and had a screen or a walk-up three type of a situation,” Stewart said. “If you make it you go the finals and if not, you come back home for Game 5.”
In Game 2, the Storm put Stewart in position to hit a potential game-winner in the final seconds, but her mid-range baseline jumper rimmed out.
Following Seattle’s 91-87 overtime victory, Stewart said: “In those moments, I want the ball in my hands and I’ve got to deliver.”
Ahead of her biggest WNBA game, Stewart, who won four NCAA tournament titles at the University of Connecticut and a 2016 Olympic gold medal with Team USA, isn’t feeling the slightest bit of nervousness.
“I don’t know if there’s pressure,” she said. “I’m honestly looking forward to it.”
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