Just as she did in 2018, Breanna Stewart finished the WNBA season wearing ski goggles, drenched in championship champagne and looking to party.
“There’s plenty of alcohol in the bubble so that’s how we’re going to celebrate,” Stewart said after capping an incredible injury comeback and leading the Storm to the top of the WNBA once again.
With Stewart leading the way, the No. 2 seed Storm crushed top-seeded Las Vegas 92-59 in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals on Tuesday night.
Perhaps it was fitting Seattle, which was undefeated in the postseason, punctuated its three-game sweep in the best-of-five series with the most lopsided victory in finals history for a record-tying fourth championship.
Seattle, which won the title in 2004, 2010 and 2018, joins the Minnesota Lynx and the defunct Houston Comets as the only WNBA teams with four titles.
“The city of Seattle has always had our back,” Stewart said during an on-court trophy ceremony. “Even though we had to come to the wubble and we were playing from afar, we had the utmost support from everybody and now we’re bringing another one back.”
When it over, several players wearing t-shirts and baseball caps that read “Champions” sprawled out on the floor at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida and made confetti angels as tiny strips of green and gold colored paper rained down from above.
Several minutes later, Stewart, the unanimous pick for the WNBA Finals MVP award, sat in front of a camera and reflected on the long road back to the pinnacle of the sport following an Achilles tendon rupture that forced her sit out in 2019.
“I remember where I was last year during the WNBA Finals, and I was in North Carolina with my family, and it was hard for me not to be upset because I wanted to be a part of the league,” Stewart said. “Obviously I wanted to be with my team and have the opportunity to be back and defend our title.
“To be able to be here, to get through all that we’ve gone through as a team, … it’s an amazing feeling. There’s so much of an unknown that you don’t know after rupturing my Achilles, but I’m super — I don’t know if I’m proud of myself but, you know, proud of what I’ve done. I think it’s hard to see it because it was so close, but really proud of just being able to be back.”
Stewart, the 2018 WNBA Finals MVP, is better than she’s ever been.
The 6-foot-4 forward averaged 19.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.3 blocks in the shortened 22-game regular season.
During Seattle’s 3-0 sweep over No. 4 Minnesota in the semifinals, she raised those numbers to 23.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 2.3 steals and 1.7 blocks.
And in the WNBA Finals, Stewart poured it on while averaging 28.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.7 blocks and 1.0 steals.
“Stewie is just one of those players, a generational player that comes through once in awhile that can face adversity and even get stronger because of it,” coach Gary Kloppenburg said. “I think that’s what we saw with her. She really missed that whole year and she came back as a better player in pretty much every category, on both sides of the ball.
“Pretty incredible testament to her work ethic and her desire to be such a great player and such a great teammate. She wouldn’t care if she scored zero as long as we won. That’s the way she is.”
Stewart was sensational once again in Game 3 while scoring 26 points on 10-for-14 shooting, including three three-pointers in just 24½ minutes. It was the sixth straight game Stewart scored at least 20 points in the WNBA Finals, which is the longest streak in league history.
Las Vegas had a chance to take control of the game midway in the second quarter when Stewart collected her third foul and went to the bench for the remainder of the period with 7:13 left and the Storm up 27-25.
However, Seattle finished the period with a 15-6 run. During the spurt, Sue Bird directly contributed to 11 points and Seattle led 43-34 at halftime.
Then Stewart slammed the door on Aces in the third quarter with 12 points when Seattle outscored Las Vegas 32-14 in the period.
“We knew they were going to come and make a push and it might have been their last push, but we wanted to make sure we made our own,” Stewart said. “We were continuing to be aggressive knowing that we wanted to win, and what was on the line was winning a championship.
“And that’s what we did. We continued to just wear them down and do what we do.”
In essence, a shorthanded Las Vegas team that was playing without forward Dearica Hamby, the reigning two-time Sixth Woman of Year, ran out of gas in the third.
Leading 63-44 with 3:21 left in the period, Bird went to the bench and never returned while Seattle’s reserves finished the rest of the game.
“I think I’m having this in-shock moment,” said Bird, who finished with seven assist, including a pair of highlight no-look dimes, and five points. “It doesn’t really feel real that we just won and that I was able to contribute in the way that I did.”
Bird, the WNBA’s oldest player who turns 40 on next week, became the 10th player in league history to win four WNBA titles. She trails Rebekkah Brunson who is the only player with five championships.
“It is 100 percent something that when it’s all said and done, I will be incredibly proud of that from 2002 to 2020,” said Bird when asked about her storied 17-year career. “I was able to win four times with the same franchise.”
There were plenty of stars for the Storm, including Jewell Loyd, who finished with 19 points, nine rebounds, four assists and two steals.
Jordin Canada came off the bench and added 15 points, five rebounds and three assists while Alysha Clark had 10 points, seven rebounds and five assists for Seattle, which shot 47.5 percent from the field.
Las Vegas forward A’ja Wilson, the 2020 WNBA MVP, scored 14 of her team-high 18 points in the first quarter. However, she had difficulty solving Seattle’s double teams and attempted just five shots in the second half.
“We couldn’t get our shots to go in,’” Aces coach Bill Laimbeer said. “Our guards were struggling. They didn’t give us any open looks at the guard position. They played a solid team defense. We couldn’t capitalize.”
Reserve guard Jackie Young added 11 points and no other player scored in double figures for Las Vegas, which shot 34.4 percent from the field.
“To be able to be in this position right now, it’s special”,” Clark said. “I can’t even believe I’m sitting here a two-time champ. Like, this is amazing.”
The Storm overcame several challenges on and off the court during its 97-day stay inside the bubble, including the absence of backup guard Sami Whitcomb, who returned to Australia before the championship round to be with her wife for the birth of their first child.
Seattle also played this season without its coach Dan Hughes, a 65-year-old cancer survivor who opted out due to medical reasons.
Kloppenburg, a long-time assistant, took over and became the fourth coach to guide the Storm to a title. The reputed defensive whiz put his stamp on this team, which led the league in scoring defense during the regular season.
In Game 1, the Storm negated Las Vegas’ vaunted interior attack and held the Aces to just 18 points in the paint for a 93-80 win.
In Game 2, Seattle limited Las Vegas to just five free throws during a 104-91 victory.
And in Tuesday’s elimination game, the Storm turned 19 Las Vegas turnovers into 18 points, while holding the Aces to its fewest points since May 13, 2018.
“This is just a special team,” Kloppenburg said. “We’ve been through so much and this will be a year I’ll always remember.”
Stewart’s playoffs performance won’t soon be forgotten.
There were times last year while sitting out for the first time in her basketball career when the 26-year-old star doubted if she’d ever make it back here.
But for the second time in three years, Stewart and the Storm are the best in the WNBA.
“This season wasn’t easy and it wasn’t easy in a whole bunch of different areas, with the coronavirus, with the social injustices going on in this country and the day-to-day being stuck here in the bubble,” she said. “But our team is resilient. We continued to keep going, no matter what’s going on, and I’m super proud to kind of be a part of this.
“This one is different than 2018, but it was harder and it means more.”