No one picked the Storm to win the WNBA title, but they surprised everyone — including themselves — en route to winning a third championship.
In hindsight it was an overreaction, but at the time Sue Bird worried the Storm was in serious trouble – the type of trouble that could ruin a season.
Seattle lost its regular-season opener 87-82 at home against Phoenix and the 17-year-veteran was so concerned she called a players-only meeting before a rematch with the Mercury three days later.
“It was just a feeling that we all had where it was like, that didn’t go well, we didn’t play well and that’s not who we are,” Bird said. “Looking back, it’s almost ridiculous to have those thoughts that early, but you know how it is in a season. Things happen very fast, and you don’t want things to grow and spin out of control.
“It wasn’t a meeting like, guys what are we doing? But more, hey does everyone understand what we’re trying to do offensively and defensively? Just a meeting to iron some things out. From that point on, we kind of turned a corner.”
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As the Storm took one last look back on a 2018 season that ended with a WNBA Finals sweep, the players had varying accounts on the turning points that resulted in the team’s third league title.
For Bird, the five-point defeat in the opener served as an early wakeup call.
“I was like ‘Oh crap what kind of year is this going to be?’ Partly because of everything we’d been through the past two years,” Bird said, referring to single-elimination defeats in the first round in 2016 and ’17. “That really was a pivotal moment for us. We really bonded together.
“Right away, we really came together and relied on each other. And it’s been unique for me to have a team like that go through the whole season playing that way.”
As seven-year veteran forward Alysha Clark, the second-longest tenured Storm player put it: “We all played our role. We all owned what we do.”
Following the season-opening defeat, Seattle won five straight games and never looked back.
After 20 games, the Storm climbed to the top of the standings at 15-5.
“I don’t like to compare teams, but the thing I saw about the (Storm) that reminded me of Minnesota is we didn’t let one loss get us down for too long,” said newcomer Natasha Howard, who won a 2017 title with the Lynx. “We could bounce back pretty good.”
The Storm, which had four five-game winning streaks, never lost consecutive games in the regular season. Seattle was 19-7 at the All-Star break and won seven of its final eight games to finish with a league-best 26-8 record.
It was a stunning reversal for a team that hadn’t had a winning season since 2011 and posted 15 and 16 wins in the previous two seasons, respectively.
The postseason disappointments – in part – prompted president Alisha Valavanis to fire coach Jenny Boucek in 2017 and pull Dan Hughes out of retirement.
The 63-year-old coach developed a reputation as a defensive guru during a 17-year career that included stops in Charlotte, Cleveland and San Antonio.
Hughes didn’t need to overhaul Seattle’s high-scoring offense, but he had to tinker with a defense that ranked near the bottom of the league in rebounding and opponent’s field goal and three-point shooting percentages.
In coordination with assistant Gary Kloppenburg, Hughes made the defense a top priority, and at the midpoint of the season they began seeing signs of improvement. Seattle finished the season among the league leaders in rebounding and defensive field goal and three-point percentages.
“I can’t remember which game it was, but I looked at the defensive numbers and I realized that we were trending in the right way,” Hughes said. “That was the moment.
“I kind of knew offensively where we were going. … But when we started trending defensively and we started trending rebounding-wise, it was that moment that I said ‘You know what, we just raised the ceiling on what this team can be.’ Whatever the expectations were, I think they’re higher now.”
As the No. 1 seed with homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs, Seattle was favored to win the title.
Still, the Storm needed to survive a hard-fought five-game series against Phoenix.
The dramatic 94-84 win in Game 5 included clutch performances from Bird, who tallied 14 of her 22 points in the fourth quarter. In addition, backup guard Sami Whitcomb came off the bench in relief of All-Star guard Jewell Loyd, and tallied 11 points while playing the entire fourth.
“That’s the game that will forever stick out to me as the time I knew we had something special,” Hughes said. “I told Jewell to be ready, and she says just keep Sami in. … When you put the team above yourself, great things happen. I felt really good about our chances against whoever we played after that.”
Added Bird: “No offense to Washington, but the semis against Phoenix felt like the championship.”
Indeed it was.
The Mystics had a chance to steal Game 2 before falling 75-73. Otherwise, the Storm dominated a series that ended in a sweep after a 98-82 win at EagleBank Arena in Fairfax, Va.
Following her first WNBA title, 24-year-old Breanna Stewart, the youngest Finals MVP in history who also won the league MVP, said gathering in April with Bird and Loyd for private workouts weeks before training camp proved to be the start of a special season.
At the time, the three All-Stars talked about what it would take to win a championship and five months later, they delivered.
“At this point, it’s about winning championships,” Loyd said at the time. “That’s where I’m at right now. I’m in a very good place, mentally, emotionally and physically. And to be honest, it’s kind of the first time since I’ve been in the league where everything is all together.
“It’s taken me a little while to get to this point, and I’m super excited about what’s next. Big year. Could be a really big year.”
Turns out, Loyd knew what she was talking about.
“When I got together with Sue and Jewell for some workouts in Seattle, we were training for a (Team USA exhibition game against China in April),” Stewart said. “We had a chance to just make sure that we were all on the same page.
“That’s really hard to do in this league because normally there’s not a lot of time before the season. But real quick, we jumped into that championship mindset, put in the work and it paid off.”