They are rolling now, picking up steam, picking up confidence, showing myriad ways to win and a cold-blooded aversion to losing.
For the Seattle Storm, this is its time. Historically, it always has been. It has been in three WNBA Finals as a franchise and brought home three trophies. And now, after a 104-91 win over the Las Vegas Aces in Bradenton, Florida, on Sunday that was harder than the score might indicate, they are on the verge of completing the task again with a 2-0 Finals lead in the best-of-five series.
With Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart in the lead, the Storm has the championship pedigree to turn everything up several notches in crunchtime, and peak when it matters most. And with a supporting cast filled with bona-fide stars in their own right, they have the depth to make their opponent pick their poison. You want to double-down on Stewie? Fine. Alysha Clark and Natasha Howard will toss in 21, as they did Sunday.
Oh, and Stewart will still get her 22, with Bird handing out her requisite double-digit dimes — “just” 10, after setting a record with 16 assists in Friday’s Game 1 win. The Storm set a finals record with 33 assists, a testimony to its flowing, unselfish offense that was described by Clark as accurately as one of her pinpoint three-pointers:
“We have the confidence in one another to pass up a good shot to get a great shot.”
Stewart put it slightly different, describing the pick-and-roll game that she and Bird have mastered with an artistic flair: “Either I’m going to have a shot, or she’s going to have a shot, or we’re making a play for someone else.”
Bottom line: The Storm is handling everything Las Vegas is throwing at them, weathering every furious comeback, snuffing every strategic point with a counter attack. And it has it on the brink of whatever level of joyous title celebration one is allowed in a socially distanced culture.
For Storm coach Gary Kloppenburg, the emphasis Sunday was keeping the physical, aggressive Aces off the free-throw line, where they have wreaked havoc all year en route to an 18-4 regular-season record that matched the Storm for best in the league. So he stressed straight-up, hands-up defense, no easy task against offensive forces such as league MVP A’ja Wilson and veteran Angel McCoughtry.
Voilà: Five free throws all game for the Aces, compared to 15 for the Storm. And it forced 15 turnovers while only committing 10.
Whereas Stewart and Jewell Loyd carried the offensive load in Game 1 with a combined 65 points, this time the Storm more characteristically spread the wealth with five players in double digits. Clark and Howard had been a combined 4 of 22 in the opener; they were 17 for 22 in this one, Clark bombing from outside, Howard muscling inside.
“To be honest, our performance today was probably better than it was in Game 1 just as far as having a balanced approach,’’ Stewart said.
And on Tuesday, when the Storm will try to finish the sweep and bring home another title?
“This is our moment to really finish the series and take home a championship,” Stewart said. “So we’re going to continue to be sharp, be better than what we were in Game 1 and Game 2, and leave it all on the court.”
The Storm fully expect the same from the Bill Laimbeer-coached Aces. They battled back from a 19-point lead to catch Seattle in the first game, and from a 13-point deficit to take a three-point lead early in the third quarter Sunday.
But, as they have throughout the series, the Storm had answers, outscoring Las Vegas by 16 the rest of the way. Stewart and Bird were obvious sparks, but Jordin Canada came off the bench for a three-basket flurry at the outset of the fourth quarter that provided a significant boost.
“This is a very, very good team we’re playing, or they wouldn’t be here,’’ Kloppenburg said. “So you know you’re going to get their best shot, and they’re going to make runs during the game. I thought they made their run, and I thought we withstood it.”
And now they need to withstand a run Tuesday by a Las Vegas team that will be playing with a magnitude of desperation. Kloppenburg called them “a prideful team” and pointed out that no one wants to get swept, so he expects an effort surpassing what they’ve seen thus far.
But this is where the Storm, over a 16-year span, has always been at its finest — with a title on the line. Kloppenburg said that Bird and Stewart, in particular, know how to close a team out.
“We know we’re going to get their best shot, so we have to be mentally and physically ready to try to match anything they throw at us, and come out with a lot of energy,’’ he said.
For two games, they’ve done precisely that.