After a 10-week delayed start to the season and an abbreviated training camp due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Storm was predictably sluggish and out-of-sync at times in Saturday’s opener against the New York Liberty.
However, WNBA All-Stars Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird carried Seattle early on until its superior depth pulled it away late for a comfortable 87-71 victory at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
Stewart, who sat out last season due to an Achilles injury, finished with 18 points, eight rebounds and a career-high four steals in her first WNBA game in nearly two years.
Aside from five turnovers, the 2018 WNBA MVP looked as if she’s ready to reclaim her title as the league’s top player while connecting on 6 of 12 field goals, including two three-pointers in 28 minutes.
“She was aggressive at both ends of the floor,” Storm coach Gary Kloppenburg said. “She changed some shots. I thought she looked really good for not having played in quite awhile.
“Just excellent job by her in scrambling and hustling and getting on the floor for loose balls. I was really happy for her to get back into the flow.”
Loyd, who sat out most of the third quarter with an apparent back injury, poured in 14 points while Bird finished with 11 points and five assists and Jordin Canada added 10 points.
Bird, Canada and defensive stalwart Natasha Howard combined to hold touted Liberty rookie Sabrina Ionescu to a relatively quiet 12 points, six rebounds, four assists and four turnovers in her 34-minute WNBA debut.
If not for veteran guard Layshia Clarendon, who scored 20 points in her first game with New York, the Storm would have had a much easier time with a scrappy Liberty team that consists of seven rookies and first-year coach Walt Hopkins.
The Storm controlled the first quarter and led 24-16 at the end of the period, but New York went on a 13-0 run and took a 25-24 lead early in the second.
Soon after the Liberty lost WNBA All-Star Kia Nurse to an apparent left ankle injury, but New York didn’t go away quietly.
After the Storm took a 42-35 lead into halftime, the Liberty closed to within four points (45-41) early in the third when Ionescu dribbled past Howard for a crafty layup.
Still, Seattle outscored New York 24-22 in the third and went into the fourth ahead 66-57.
That’s when Canada took over while scoring three straight baskets to effectively put the game away and lift the Storm to a 73-60 advantage. The Liberty never got closer than 11 points the rest of the way.
With the exception of newcomer Morgan Tuck, who has been dealing with a nagging knee injury during training camp, the Storm emptied its bench and 10 players logged at least 11 minutes.
The Storm received significant contributions from reserves Canada, Mercedes Russell, Sami Whitcomb, Epiphanny Prince and rookie Ezi Magbegor, who collectively outscored New York’s reserved 34-22. Magbegor made a good first impression with seven points and three rebounds in her WNBA debut.
Stewart and Alysha Clark were the only Storm starters who played more than 24 minutes. Bird didn’t play in the fourth and logged 19 1/2 minutes.
“We want to be careful and be conscientious of everybody’s body and the minutes that they’re playing just because of the schedule,” said Kloppenburg noting the Storm’s 22-game regular-season schedule over the next 49 days. “That’s why we really want our bench to be ready to step up and help us and they did that in the second half.”
Following a two-day rest, the Storm (1-0) plays three games in a five-day span starting with Tuesday’s matchup against Minnesota.
Considering the arduous road ahead, Kloppenburg was somewhat forgiving of the first-game foibles, including 12 turnovers and an overly aggressive defense that sent New York to the free-throw line 22 times.
The return of Stewart and Bird yielded immediate results for a Storm team that struggled offensively last season while averaging 74.8 points.
“I really liked our pace,” Kloppenburg said. “We were running on makes. We were running on misses and running on turnovers. Because of that we got some good runs offensively. I thought we sustained our pressure defense pretty well. They got a few in there, but we made them take a lot of difficult shots and contested threes.
“It was a good opening games to kind of get the cobwebs out and get that nervousness out. Now I think we can get into a pretty good rhythm.”
It appeared to be a sterile and sanitized environment at the Feld Entertainment Center where the WNBA will play all of its games. Players were socially distanced on the sideline and there just a handful of courtside spectators, including Bird’s girlfriend and soccer star Megan Rapinoe.
The game had an emotional start with Stewart standing on the court next to Clarendon who delivered a speech about the WNBA’s season-long dedication to the Black Lives Matter movement and Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black emergency medical technician who was shot and killed by Louisville police in her apartment on March 13.
Players left the court during the national anthem. Before the game, they stood in silence for 26 seconds in honor of Taylor and wore jerseys with her name on the back.
Afterward, Storm players avoided questions about the game and talked about Taylor.
“Today and this season is about honoring Breonna Taylor’s life and it’s about bring awareness to the fact that her murderers have not been brought to justice,” Bird said. “We have no justice for her. They have not been arrested. That’s really all I’m going to talk about.
“That’s why we’re here. Yes, we play a game of basketball, but right now we have a platform to bring awareness and that’s what we’re focused on.”
Stewart said the Storm will continue to wear Taylor’s name on their jerseys for the rest of the season.
“We’re just going to continue to talk about her and make sure that our voices are heard and her name is heard,” Stewart said. “It’s more than what we do and what we wear. It’s how we act on it and we’ll continue to do that and continue to put pressure on (Kentucky Attorney General) Daniel Cameron.”