Powered by Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd and enhanced defense thanks to new coach Dan Hughes, the Storm goes into Tuesday's game against the Sparks No. 1 in the WNBA.
At this point last year, the Seattle Storm was 8-9, having dropped eight of its past 12 games. A deep postseason run seemed like a remote possibility. The team ended the season with just 15 victories and, despite earning a playoff berth, bowed out of the postseason with a first-round defeat against Phoenix.
This season, though, the script has seemingly been reversed.
With the Storm’s 97-91 victory over the Washington Mystics on Sunday, Seattle secured the best record in the WNBA (15-5) and as many wins as it managed all of last year. With less than half the regular season remaining, the prospect of the team contending for the WNBA title — which would be its first since 2010 — is not just a remote possibility. It’s looking like a reality.
To Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart, the team’s two main offensive powerhouses, the divergence between the 2018 season and the past few years (the team hasn’t had a winning season since 2011) comes down to personnel acquisitions, a renewed focus on defense, and a desire to stop losing.
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While the Storm welcomed back the majority of its roster going into this season, it also had several new pieces to work with. Chiefly, Dan Hughes, the most experienced coach in WNBA history, came out of a one-year retirement to coach the Storm. In his first year in Seattle, he has brought a defensive-minded focus to the team, one that Loyd says has paid dividends.
“We’re winning a lot of games off our defense, which is something that we haven’t been doing in previous years,” Loyd said. “Our defense is really efficient and we’ve been able to find ways to win games late in the game.”
Despite progress on the defensive front — which has also manifested itself into improved rebounding — the Storm is allowing 80 points per game. But that isn’t much of a problem when you have the likes of Stewart and Loyd in your starting five, fueling the league’s highest-scoring offense (87.5 points per game). Stewart’s 22.4 points a game this season is her career high, while Loyd has chipped in an average of 16.1 points a game.
Yet this season’s offensive productivity hasn’t solely come from Storm returners, or starters for that matter. Natasha Howard, in her first season with the Storm after two seasons each with the Fever and the Lynx, earned a starting role after arriving in Seattle. Her 13.2 points a game is nearly double her previous career high from her rookie year, and she’s also been a force on the boards (6.8 rebounds a game). Loyd pointed to the production from Howard and others new to the team, such as veteran Courtney Paris and rookie Jordin Canada, as key additions on both sides of the ball. Paris has come off the bench to notch 5.9 rebounds a game, while Canada and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis have provided offensive depth.
“When we added our people — Courtney (Paris) and Jordin (Canada) and Tash (Natasha Howard) — we knew that defensively we were just going to get better because we are able to switch with almost everybody, everybody could guard,” Loyd said. “Also adding another piece of offense to our game that no one’s ever seen — the post-ups from Courtney and the versatility from Tash. That’s just a part of everyone coming together and we found the right pieces for our team.”
In addition to getting the right pieces on the court, the team has a renewed sense of urgency. Stewart expresses as much when reflecting on why things are different this season.
“If you look at this team, most of the players are accustomed to winning,” Stewart said. “As a team, we’re tired of losing. Individually I’m tired of losing.”
It makes sense that Stewart is aggravated by losing. She lost only five games in her entire collegiate career at Connecticut.
“Especially me coming from UConn, Kaleena coming from UConn — we don’t lose, that’s not how things work in our lives,” Stewart added. “And really (we’re) just trying to get back to that.”
Except that they aren’t just looking to finally get a winning season. They’re eyeing the WNBA title.
“We’re trying to win a championship,” Stewart said. “Anything less than that isn’t what we want.”
The team is fully aware of how much basketball is left to be played before they’ll have to put together a postseason run, and, if anything, things will only get more difficult from here. After the current home stand, the team will play all but three of its remaining 12 games on the road.
More urgently, the Storm will face the 2016 WNBA champion Sparks at KeyArena on Tuesday at noon. The Storm beat the Sparks in the previous two meetings this season (though the latter was without Sparks star Nneka Ogwumike), but after losing three consecutive games, L.A. comes to Seattle desperate for a victory.
The Storm recognizes that success in the first 20 games of the season means only that, with nothing else guaranteed.
“Every night is a dogfight (in the WNBA) so we don’t get too caught up in the winning streaks and our record,” Loyd said. “We’re just really concerned about making sure everyone is healthy and staying focused and enjoying the moment.”
“This is new territory for all of us and we’re trying not to look too far ahead,” Stewart added. “We have the same amount of wins that we had last year which is crazy because we have a lot of games left, but we still know anything can happen, so just trying to focus and take care of things just one game at a time.”