Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart saw the changes — rebounding vigor, tighter defense and better balance — as soon as they returned from their gold-medal Olympic stint.
When the WNBA went on hiatus in July, the Seattle Storm was reeling. It stood 9-15, teetering on exclusion from a generous playoff format that welcomes 67 percent of the league.
But after that monthlong Olympic break, the Storm has been transformed. It has won six of its past eight, including a current four-game winning streak that has assured the Storm its first postseason berth since 2013.
If it looks like a new ballclub, one with renewed rebounding vigor, tighter defense and better balance, well, you’re right. The seeds of change were apparent to Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart from the moment they returned from their gold-medal Olympic stint.
Storm @ Phoenix Mercury, 7 p.m.
“Coming back from Rio, Sue and I were able to sense it, that the team was a little bit different,” Stewart said Tuesday. “People’s mentality was different — more confidence.”
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It could go down as the 35 days that changed a season, one that has two games left before Seattle starts the playoffs Sept. 21 (with seeding and site to be determined). As such, it’s a little more complicated than meets the eye.
Stewart believes a young team just needed a little time to build chemistry, many of the players returning from overseas and almost immediately getting thrown into the start of the season. Several early losses went down to the wire — games the team is now pulling out.
“It’s well known in the WNBA that the teams that have had groups of players together for two, three, four years — Minnesota, L.A. — tend to get off to better starts,” Bird said.
“For us, it’s been about this process and going through it. I don’t know if we’d be here if we didn’t have a 9-15 start.”
But beyond that, the players who stayed behind worked assiduously on their game, honing the team concept preached by coach Jenny Boucek.
“A month is a long time — long enough to make change,” Bird said. “We came back, and you could see it immediately.”
Boucek saw firsthand the hard work put in by what she calls “the non-Olympians” who remained in Seattle.
“We had a concentrated, intensive chance to really solidify the things that had been cultivating for a year and a half,” she said. “When you work in a very intentional, specific way, you get confidence.”
Boucek believes fervently the Storm had planted the seeds for success long ago, but that its style of play — “synergistic,” in her words — takes longer to blossom “because it’s based on interdependence and not individual play. Some coaches don’t want to do that because it takes longer.”
The break, said guard Jewell Loyd, allowed Storm players to rest their bodies, reset their minds, and then pour themselves into such esoteric endeavors such as figuring out ways to stop the rhythm of opponents’ offense.
“It’s really worked in our favor,” she said.
The Storm’s success clearly has been fueled by its dynamic combination of Stewart and Loyd, the former a strong candidate for WNBA Rookie and Defensive Player of the Year, the latter for Most Improved.
And speaking of which, Bird is playing as well as she has in years at age 35 (soon to be 36), reaping the benefits of a return to full health while providing invaluable leadership on the court.
“To have a point guard you’re that in sync with on and off the court after working together for 15 years, is a coach’s absolute dream,’’ Boucek said.
The Storm’s supporting cast, including Alysha Clark and Crystal Langhorne, has been invaluable.
But in Stewart and Loyd, Boucek sees the same characteristics that marked the Storm’s run to WNBA titles in 2004 and 2010 in the heyday of Bird and Lauren Jackson.
“We had two superstars, once-in-a-lifetime players, in Lauren and Sue,” Boucek said. “But what made this franchise so great was that they weren’t just elite talents, but they were incredibly high-character, one-in-a-million teammates. People wanted to play with them, and for them, because of their humility and character and embracing of team. They have no ego.
“And Stewie and Jewell are the same. Great talents, but they’re great teammates and high character. They’re all about team.”
As a bonus, they have had Bird and, to a lesser extent, Jackson to draw upon as role models.
Boucek is well aware it is an extraordinary gift to have such a combination present itself to a franchise not once, but twice.
“They’ve got a chance to be franchise-changing players, not just because of their talent, but because of their character and what great teammates they are, and that humility,” she said.
In the short term, franchise-changing took a back seat to the hard work of season-saving — and the Storm hopes to keep that wave of success going right into the playoffs.