The Storm lost a game and won a lot of money Friday night, which were two divergent results that elicited similar ho-hum reactions from a championship-contending squad that’s not accustomed to losing or receiving prize money from the WNBA’s new in-season tournament.
In a perfect world, Seattle would have beaten a short-handed Phoenix Mercury squad to extend its winning streak and secure a spot in the league’s Commissioner’s Cup championship game.
However, Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith had other plans.
Without WNBA great Diana Taurasi, who missed her second straight game due to a hip injury, the Mercury All-Star duo turned in spectacular performances to hand the Storm a baffling 85-77 defeat at Phoenix Suns Arena.
Despite the loss, the Storm earned a spot in the Commissioner’s Cup championship game when the Las Vegas Aces lost to the Minnesota Lynx later Friday.
“We always want to take care of business ourselves and obviously if we could have won tonight and clinched, that would have been the ideal situation,” Breanna Stewart said. “Obviously, it can be done in different ways.”
It was a strange outing for so many reasons, namely Seattle’s inability to slow down Griner who had 29 points and 15 rebounds – both game highs – and Diggins-Smith who added 26 points and six assists.
No other Mercury player scored more than eight points.
“Tough one,” coach Noelle Quinn said. “We knew coming into this game that BG was playing at a high level as was Diggins. Just a tough battle. But again, those tiny possessions coming down on both ends of the floor that we have to tighten up in crucial moments in the game.
“I thought we played hard. We battled. Just kind of didn’t lock in at timely moments in the game.”
Late-game miscues have been a bugaboo for the Storm (15-5) in four of its five losses, and its latest setback was no exception.
Seattle trailed 80-77 with 29 seconds left and during a timeout Quinn instructed the Storm to intentionally foul Phoenix and force the Mercury to connect on a pair of free throws.
It was a curious strategy considering center Mercedes Russell fouled Diggins-Smith, who is shooting 84% at the line this season. Russell also fouled out, which left Seattle without its primary low-post defender.
Diggins-Smith canned both free throws, which pushed Phoenix’s lead to five points (82-77). Following Stewart’s missed three-pointer, Diggins-Smith hit two more foul shots with 19.1 seconds remaining to seal the win.
“I just wanted to extend the game,” Quinn said. “Just watching through some games lately, this was a scenario that was playing in my mind. We had three timeouts. Understanding where we were in the game. I think that it was Cedes who fouled at that moment. But just trying to extend the game and put pressure on them at the free throw line and having to execute at the end. Just couldn’t connect on a basket.”
The Storm had difficulty connecting offensively all night while shooting 38.2% from the field and 30.8% (8 of 26) on three-pointers.
Meanwhile, Phoenix shot 47.1% from the floor largely because Griner was 14 of 24 and Diggins-Smith was 8 for 13.
Phoenix’s Dynamic Duo overpowered a balanced Seattle attack in which all five starters scored in double figures for just the second time this season.
Jewell Loyd finished with a team-high 16 points, Stewart had 15 points and 13 rebounds, Katie Lou Samuelson added 14 points while Russell had 12 points and Sue Bird 10.
However, when it mattered most, the Storm’s Big 3 came up short at the end.
Stewart tallied just five points in the second half while Loyd and Bird were scoreless in the fourth.
“To be honest, I should have been more aggressive,” said Stewart, who converted 5 of 13 shots. “I don’t think 13 shots is enough for me. (I have to) continue to put pressure on the defense that way so that’s going to be something that I’m looking to do on Sunday. Just be aggressive from start to finish the entire game. And Jewell is going to do the same. The shots we took are the shots that we’re going to continue to take.”
Both teams were limited in personnel Friday night.
In addition to Taurasi, Phoenix was without backup guard Bria Hartley (right knee) and Sophie Cunningham (concussion), who left the game in the first half after an incidental collision with Stewart.
Meanwhile, Seattle was absent Australians Ezi Magbegor and Stephanie Talbot who left to train with their national team in preparation for the upcoming Summer Olympics.
Without Magbegor, the Storm was limited in the post and had just two players 6-foot-4 or taller in Stewart and Russell to contend with Griner.
Phoenix’s seven-time WNBA All-Star center torched Russell for 17 points 11 points in the first quarter and had 17 on 8-for-10 shooting at halftime when Seattle trailed 39-34.
The Storm fell behind 51-43 before using a 14-5 run to take a 57-56 lead late in the third. However, Phoenix scored four straight points to end the quarter and go up 60-57.
The Mercury looked as if it would blow the game open while holding a 79-70 lead with 2:20 left.
However, Seattle cut its deficit to 80-77 before Phoenix finished with a 5-0 run.
The Storm gets another crack at the Mercury (9-9) at 3 p.m. Sunday in the final game for both teams before the WNBA’s five-week break for the Olympics.
“Realize how it feels to lose a game and realize that Sunday is a big one,” Stewart said. “Tonight was a big one and we didn’t come out with that energy. And we need that for Sunday. Everybody looking within individually and taking that further as a team. I don’t think this is anything to be super concerned about, but obviously everybody knows these two games are super important.”
The Storm is looking to even the regular-season series with Phoenix, which could have postseason implications.
Still, Seattle won’t have to worry about the Cup race anymore. The Storm is 7-2 in the Western Conference Cup standings ahead of Minnesota 6-3. Both teams have one Cup game remaining and Seattle holds the tiebreaker advantage over the Lynx.
Seattle will face the Connecticut Sun in the WNBA’s inaugural Commissioner’s Cup finale on Aug. 12 with $500,000 in prize money on the line.
Each player on the Cup’s winning team receives $30,000 while the runner-up gets $10,000. The Cup MVP will earn an additional $5,000.
- Storm star Jewell Loyd will compete in next week’s 3-Point Contest at the WNBA All-Star contest along with New York’s Sami Whitcomb, Chicago’s Allie Quigley and Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones. The competition will take place during halftime of Wednesday’s game between the WNBA All-Stars and the U.S. national women’s basketball team that’s going to the Tokyo Olympics.
- Bird, who holds the WNBA all-time assists record, became the first player in league history to surpass 3,000 assists Friday with a low-post feed to Mercedes Russell late in the third quarter. Bird has 3,0001 assists in her career.