Storm forward Gabby Williams flew to Las Vegas and was on the court Tuesday for the first time since suffering a concussion nine days ago.
The return of the defensive stalwart, who was voted to the WNBA All-Defensive second team earlier that day, elicited excitement from Storm fans that was dampened hours later when the team announced she will miss her second straight game.
Without Williams, No. 4 seed Seattle will once again turn to Stephanie Talbot, who was an unsung hero in the series opener, for Game 2 of the semifinals against No. 1 seed Las Vegas at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
“I thought Steph did an amazing job stepping in for Gabby,” guard Sue Bird said. “Defensively, we didn’t miss a beat. I thought she was everywhere.”
In just her second start of the season, Talbot made her biggest impact offensively in the first quarter while scoring seven points on 3-of-4 shooting.
“The second (defensive) possession of the game, she got a steal and layup and that was very Gabbyesque,” Bird said. “Offensively, they’re different players so from my standpoint just in spacing and where people need to be and the things we can run that changes a little bit. But not in terms of how our team functions.”
Following her steal and layup, Talbot drained a three-pointer off of an assist from Bird for a 13-4 lead that prompted a Las Vegas timeout.
“Talbot out there gives them a different look in that you’re concerned about her,” Aces coach Becky Hammon said. “You don’t want to give her too many free looks at the basket, where Gabby Williams you’d probably give a little more defensively. You can manipulate things a little bit easier with her out there at times.”
Talbot shot 39.7% (29 of 73) on three-pointers this season while Williams was 25.7% (18 of 70) behind the arc during the regular season.
“I don’t think it’s underestimate, but maybe a little unknown,” Talbot said when asked if the Aces underestimated her. “I’m different than Gabby. I’m more of a shooter, so where maybe they would (fall) off Gabby a little bit now they have to respect me on the three. I think it was just the change more than underestimating me. It was just a different look.”
The Storm, which has a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five series that shifts to Seattle on Sunday for Game 3, expects a concerted defensive effort from the Aces.
“What I do know is Becky is really smart,” Bird said. “And what I do know is we’re all going to be watching film and we’re all going to guess what the other team might go at.”
Talbot added: “I’m sure they’re going to change a few things up and we’re going to change a few things up, but we’re going to approach the game the same way.”
Jewell Loyd, Breanna Stewart and Tina Charles figure to draw the majority of the defensive attention from the Aces, considering they scored 26, 24 and 13 points respectively in Game 1.
Las Vegas sent extra defenders at Seattle’s trio, which gave Talbot and Bird good looks at the basket. Talbot drained 3 of 7 shots while Bird was 1 of 6.
It was the most shots Talbot has taken in the past 12 games since attempting seven on July 22.
“We have a lot of scoring weapons,” Talbot said. “Their main focus is going to be stopping Stewie and stopping Jewell and stopping Tina. So, if I can spot up, I’m going to get open looks. Obviously, they’re aware of me now being a shooter so they’re going to close out on me. So I’ll have to make the reads when the ball gets kicked out. That’s my job offensively. Space the floor and make the correct reads when it comes back out.”
On the defensive end, coach Noelle Quinn elected to assign Talbot on Jackie Young while Loyd defends Chelsea Gray, who normally draws Williams. Young finished with 11 points, which was four points fewer than her regular-season scoring average.
“Gabby was just named to the All-Defensive second team, so I’m trying to fill those shoes while she’s gone,” Talbot said. “And then knocking down open shots when I can.”
The pressure is squarely on the Aces to even the series, considering 15 WNBA teams have claimed a 2-0 lead in a best-of-five series and they are 15-0, including 12 teams winning in a sweep.
“We want to get another one,” said Talbot, who described a muted celebration from the Storm following Game 1. “We’ve still got two games to win in this series. So, we’re kind of like good job, celebrate the little win, but we’re moving on and we want to do it again.”