At times during the WNBA semifinals, the No. 2 seed Storm has seemingly enjoyed a 3-1 advantage in bench production over No. 4 Minnesota.
Lynx coach Cheryl Reeves has tightened the rotation, relied heavily on starters who are logging between 32 to 34 minutes while backup sharpshooter Rachel Banham is the primary support on the sidelines.
Minnesota is also short-handed without All-Star center Sylvia Fowles (calf), who is listed as questionable for Sunday’s noon Game 3.
Meanwhile, Storm coach Gary Kloppenburg has three viable game changers on the bench in Jordin Canada, Sami Whitcomb and Mercedes Russell, who have helped the Storm to a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series.
“They started all last year and were major contributors,” he said. “Their role has changed, but they are ready to come in. When they come in off the bench, they are ready to contribute.”
In Seattle’s 88-86 victory in Game 1, Canada, a third-year point guard, led all reserves with seven points on 3-for-5 shooting in 16 minutes of relief.
In Game 2, Whitcomb tallied eight points and three assists while Russell had seven points on 3-for-3 shooting and three rebounds for Seattle, which benefited from a 21-8 point disparity among the reserves in the 89-79 win.
Russell, a third-year center, had her biggest impact in the second quarter while temporarily negating Minnesota’s Damiris Dantas.
And Whitcomb, a third-year shooting guard, put the game on ice early in the fourth quarter with a series of plays that included a three-pointer, a steal and a finger-roll layup for a 14-point lead.
“Knocking down shots is important,” Whitcomb said. “But just providing that spark, playing solid defense, rebounding, taking care of the ball. Those things, I think, are even more valuable.
“Doing things that can allow our starters to rest as much as possible. If we can continue to do that, that will go a long ways in this series and then hopefully if we advance in a Finals series as well.”
Seattle’s starters have outscored their Minnesota counterparts by just one point, which highlights the disparity in the bench production between the two teams.
In Game 2, the Storm overcame Natasha Howard’s foul trouble and an off performance from Sue Bird because Russell, Canada and Whitcomb made significant contributions.
When Minnesota star forward Napheesa Collier collected her third foul and spent the last 5½ minutes of the second quarter on the bench, the Lynx fell apart and Seattle went on a 14-0 run to end the first half and take a 46-33 lead into halftime.
“We have five people coming off the bench that could be starters on any other team in this league,” forward Alysha Clark said. “When you have that type of depth, that’s what really helps separate you from other teams. When it gets into the playoffs and deep, that’s something that can help push you over the edge and give you that advantage.
“They all have confidence and most of that you can contribute to last year being in starting roles and being in roles that were much bigger. So now that they are coming they’re confident in what they are able to do. They’re confident in what they can bring. And that’s something that is dangerous heading into the playoffs.”
In 2019, Russell started 30 games, Canada 29 and Whitcomb 13 for an injury-riddled Storm team that finished 18-16. The trio enjoyed breakout seasons and their return to the bench in 2020 is one of the major reasons why Seattle is considered the odds-on favorite to win the WNBA title.
“Everyone on this team is confident,” guard Jewell Loyd said. “We give confidence to each other daily. Our coaches give confidence to everyone.
“We’re never scared of the moment. Obviously, last year having people play more minutes and different roles builds confidence. Everyone on this team is a baller. If you watch them overseas, they dominate.”
The same might be said of the Storm, which goes for the sweep Sunday. Despite an eight-game winning streak against Minnesota, Kloppenburg cautions Seattle players to avoid being overconfident.
“The third win in a series is often the most difficult because the team you’re playing is desperate,” he said. “They don’t want to go home. They want to continue the series. You can’t come out with a relaxed attitude. You’ve got to come with high intensity early on to try to set the tone with how you want to play.
“I think they understand that. I would anticipate that we would come out (Sunday) with a lot of intensity and a sense of urgency. Our players really want to get this series over with and start looking forward to the Finals.”