For long stretches of Monday’s big showdown, the red-hot Storm played without its top three point guards.
Seattle still had Breanna Stewart, though.
The 2018 WNBA most valuable player dissected the Chicago Sky with a game-high 25 points and the Storm defense stifled the league’s highest-scoring offense for its fifth straight win, an 89-71 victory Monday at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
In a battle for first place in the WNBA, the Storm (7-1) delivered an early statement to the league with another dominating offensive and defensive performance for a 1 1/2-game lead in the standings.
“We knew it was a big game,” Stewart said during a postgame Zoom call. “But the fact is, we want to make sure that we solidify our spot for the rest of this regular season and beyond.
“At the same time, get familiar with how we want to play these teams and continue to grow as a team. It was an important win and stuff like that, but it’s more about how we’re going to continue to get better.”
It’s difficult to imagine the Storm getting much better than it was in a matchup that pitted the WNBA’s best offense against the league’s top defense.
Chicago was first in points, field-goal percentage, three-pointers made and three-point percentage, while Seattle was first in fewest points allowed and opponent field percentage.
And yet, this game was close for maybe the first six minutes.
The Sky led 7-3 at the start and the Storm seemed to be in trouble when point guard Jordin Canada went to the bench with her second foul.
Without Canada; Sue Bird, who missed her fifth straight game with a bruised knee; and backup point guard Epiphanny Prince, who left the WNBA bubble due to personal reasons, the Storm leaned heavily on Stewart to run the offense.
The 25-year-old star, who connected on 10 of 17 shots, was too quick for Chicago forwards Cheyenne Parker (12 points) and Kahleah Copper (11 points) while driving to the rim for layups. And Stewart had little difficulty shooting over Azura Stevens (10 points) and Ruthy Hebard (11 points) on the perimeter while canning two three-pointers.
Stewart also tormented the Sky defensively with four steals and five rebounds.
However, she had her biggest impact doling out a season-high seven assists.
“That’s just how the game went,” Stewart said. “I noticed right away they were guarding me really close and they weren’t really helping off at all. So I know that if I’m driving, especially in transition, I know that they’re going to collapse and I found the open person.”
During the first two weeks of the season when the Storm raced to the front of the WNBA pack, critics wondered what would happen if Canada couldn’t play major minutes while subbing for Bird.
However, the Storm continues to find answers on the sideline.
This time, the Australian duo of Sami Whitcomb and rookie center Ezi Magbegor combined for 30 points. Whitcomb tallied 17 points on 6-for-9 shooting, including three three-pointers and six assists, while Magbegor finished with 13 points on 6-for-8 shooting.
“We’ve had funky lineups with Sue and Piph out and the next person stepped up,” Stewart said. “Jordin got into foul trouble and we continued to play our game.
“The Australians, they’re helping us out a lot.”
With Stewart, Whitcomb and Jewell Loyd (10 points) directing the offense, the Storm took control in the first period and outscored the Sky 33-18.
Seattle, which led 46-28 at halftime, raced to a 21-point lead early in the third and weathered a 17-6 Chicago run that cut the Sky’s deficit to eight (55-47).
The Storm finished the third with a 16-9 run for a 71-56 lead to start the fourth and was never seriously challenged the rest of the way.
Alysha Clark added 12 points for Seattle, which shot 51.4% from the floor.
Allie Quigley led five Sky players in double-figure scoring with 13 points. Chicago, which fell to 5-3, finished 17 points below its scoring average.
“We don’t even have two players,” Stewart said. “I’m just excited to see when we have all of our pieces together.”