Seattle loses despite 33 points from Jewell Loyd; Bird gets only half of the six assists she needed to break the career WNBA mark.

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On a night when the Storm’s Sue Bird was forecast to break the WNBA career assists record, it was three other elite players — Jewell Loyd, Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi — who delivered the most memorable performances.

Loyd had a dazzling career-high 33 for Seattle, but Phoenix’s Griner scored 29 and Taurasi canned a coldblooded three-pointer with 15 seconds left to give the Mercury a 75-71 victory over the Storm on Sunday night in front of 13,882 at KeyArena. It was the largest crowd of the year in the Storm’s final home game of the regular season.

The Mercury (16-16) clinched a playoff berth with the victory. For the moment, the Storm (14-18) holds the eighth of eight postseason positions with two road games left.

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“We need to win, either one or both to make sure we can get in,” said coach Gary Kloppenburg. “It’s a hard league. Our league, from top to bottom, talent-wise, is very close. I expect both those games to be a war out there on the East Coast.”

The game Sunday featured 16 lead changes and 16 ties. Neither team led by more than four points until Phoenix put together a 10-0 run with two buckets at the end of the third quarter, then back-to-back corner threes by Camille Little and another by Taurasi, who finished with 18 points, to put the Mercury ahead 57-49 early in the fourth.

Seattle responded with an 11-2 burst, highlighted by a corner three by Bird for a 60-58 lead.

Loyd answered a three-point play by Griner with one of her own with 1:02 left, tying the game at 69-69. Phoenix followed with consecutive three-pointers by Leilani Mitchell and Taurasi to put the game out of reach.

Seattle could manage only two free throws by Breanna Stewart (13 points, nine rebounds) in the final minute of play. The Storm turned the ball over on a mishandled pass while trailing 72-71 after Mitchell’s three with 44 seconds left.

Bird was aiming to become the career WNBA leader in assists. She needed six to pass Ticha Penicheiro, who owns the top mark with 2,599, but finished with three. She was averaging 5.5 assists per game coming in.

Bird, 36, finished with 10 points on 3-for-10 shooting and three turnovers. She smiled when asked about falling just short of claiming the assists record on her home floor.

“It’s a career record, not a one-night record,” she said. “Sure, it would have been great to get it. People came here to see it happen, and it would have been nice to have it happen on my home floor, but what can I do? This is how the schedule came down.”

What factors proved decisive?

“You have two teams trying to make the playoffs, and it was a really tough-nosed game,” Bird said. “Sure, we’ll watch some film and maybe pinpoint some areas where we could have done better. But sometimes it’s just about who makes more plays than the other team at the end. They were able to go to Brittney Griner a lot down the stretch, and she was the difference-maker.”

The 6-foot-9 Griner scored nine of her 29 in the fourth quarter and finished with eight rebounds, tied with Emma Cannon for the team lead.

Seattle shot 25 of 60 from the field (41.7 percent), better than the Mercury’s 25 of 63 (39.7 percent). Phoenix hit seven three-pointers, three in the final two minutes, to Seattle’s four.

“I thought we struggled all night offensively to get into any kind of rhythm,” Kloppenburg said. “Jewell got going there late, kept us in the game. We missed a couple free throws. I thought our turnovers — 15 turnovers, and they score 18 points off it — to me that’s a major key to this game. We can’t turn the ball over this much, especially in a tight game like this.”

Loyd shot 12 of 22 from the field with one three-pointer, scoring nine of Seattle’s 11 points in the final four minutes.

“I’d rather have two points and get a win,” she said. “I’m just trying to bring some energy, try to get things going. If I get that steal there from Griner, she (Mitchell) doesn’t hit that three. So I’m kind of focused on that more than my scoring.”

Loyd viewed her night as nothing unusual. “These are game shots that I practice all the time,” she said. “I was just trying to get in a rhythm and get a win.”

WNBA career assists
Player Years Assists
Ticha Penicheiro 1998-2012 2,599
Sue Bird 2002-current 2,597
Lindsay Whalen 2004-current 2,244
Becky Hammon 1999-2014 1,708
Diana Taurasi 2004-current 1,653
Source: basketball-reference.com