Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird returned from a two-game layoff Friday night to help the Storm avoid a third straight loss.
And though Seattle was happy to have its superstars back, it was Jewell Loyd’s 29-point performance that carried the Storm to a 99-83 victory against the New York Liberty at the Barclays Center.
“Jewell is great in her role for us when she’s able to focus on scoring and focus on defending and not have to carry a huge load,” coach Noelle Quinn said. “When you have elite players in Sue and Stewie to just kind of fit with one another, they fit so well.
“Those last two games, we had a bigger load for her to carry. She still was giving us her best effort, but the efficiency comes when she has her comrades on her side with her.”
Loyd, who began the season with a scintillating nine-game scoring streak that put her on an early MVP watch list, tallied a short-lived season-high 26 points Monday during an 87-85 overtime loss at Chicago.
Two days later, the three-time WNBA All-Star guard poured in a career-high tying 35 points, including 21 points in the third quarter, during an 83-79 loss to New York.
Against Chicago, Loyd attempted a career-high 30 field goal attempts and made seven. She converted 50% of her shots (13 of 26) during the first game against New York, but missed her last seven attempts while the Storm was outscored 21-7 in the fourth quarter.
In the rematch against the Liberty, Loyd proved to be economical and efficient while canning 8 of 13 shots, including 7 of 9 three-pointers. She also sank all six of her free throws.
“The other two games we didn’t have Stewie and Sue so I had to do a little bit more,” said Loyd, who also finished with five rebounds and four assists. “Honestly, I felt like I was taking the shots that were open. They were good shots. They were all in rhythm.
“Tonight, the game plan was a little bit different. Things were a little bit more open with them on the floor. I was trying to stay in a good rhythm. It helps with Stewie and Sue on the floor.”
Loyd’s seven threes tied the franchise record for most in a game, which was set by Bird during a triple overtime win July 22, 2009.
“The first two games after the break, she was playing really well, and I think at one point just kind of got maybe a little fatigued, and the shots became a little bit harder,” Bird said. “It also helps when the whole team starts playing well. It takes off the pressure, which she had a little bit of pressure on her to carry the load.
“You add Stewie back in. Other people were hitting shots and that helps as well. … When Jewell is playing like that, she’s virtually unstoppable.”
And it seems that when the Storm’s Big Three is intact, they’re unstoppable as well. The last time they shared the court, Seattle rolled to a 79-57 win last week over the Connecticut Sun to claim the inaugural WNBA Commissioner’s Cup championship.
Still, the Storm (17-7) elicited a fair amount of concern from its fans following back-to-back losses that dropped it to third in the WNBA standings.
“It was definitely a must win,” Quinn said when asked about the importance of Friday’s game. “Every game from here on out, we understand as if it’s going to be a playoff game. Obviously, it’s playoff implications. We understand that we are jockeying for position. The goal is to get the top two (playoff seed) so the seriousness, the magnitude and the sense of urgency in this game was needed and definitely a must win to get us back in the win column.”
In the first half, the Storm drained 9 of 12 three-pointers while the Liberty converted 6 of 14 from downtown.
However, Seattle committed 12 turnovers and went into the break down 47-46.
The Storm put the game away in the third quarter, outscoring the Liberty 30-16 to take a 76-63 lead.
“We had zero turnovers in the second half, and that was huge,” Quinn said. “In that third quarter, knocking down shots and being efficient with our offense.”
Loyd scored 12 points in the third quarter and drained three straight free throws to put the Storm up 76-63 at the end of the period. New York (11-13) never got closer than 12 points in the fourth.
“Jewell is continuing to play aggressive,” said Stewart who finished with 19 points and 14 rebounds. “Tonight was her best performance even despite having 21 in the third in the last game because it was the most efficient. She came in, and she knocked down shots. Seven of nine from 3 is incredible.
“But Jewell is doing exactly what Jewell does. And I just appreciate the opportunity to play with her, the opportunity to share the court with her and know that we’re going to continue to do that hopefully for a long time.”
Bird tallied 10 points and six assists while Jordin Canada and Ezi Magbegor each chipped in 10 points off the bench.
Sami Whitcomb led New York with 26 points. The former Storm sharpshooter connected on 5 of 9 three-pointers, including a 37-footer over Bird to beat the shot-clock buzzer midway in the first quarter.
Sabrina Ionescu added 16 points while Rebecca Allen had 13 and Natasha Howard 11 for the Liberty.
Seattle finishes its five-game road trip with Sunday’s game at the Washington Mystics followed by Tuesday’s stop at Minnesota.
On Monday, the Storm visits President Joe Biden at the White House to commemorate the team’s 2020 WNBA championship.
“You want to be playing really well at the end of the season and peaking at the right time,” Loyd said. “That’s what we’re trying to do to finish out this road trip.”