One for the ages: Storm gets crown jewel in classic WNBA semifinals victory over Phoenix

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Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart celebrate the Storm’s 94-84 come-from-behind win over Phoenix in Game 5 of the WNBA Semifinals. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

There might not have been a better WNBA game played in KeyArena history as the Storm and Phoenix Mercury went back and forth in a deciding Game 5 until Sue Bird took over for good.

You wouldn’t understand by just looking at the box score. The 10-point disparity doesn’t do it justice.

But if you were in KeyArena on Tuesday night, you were treated to one of the finest basketball games that’s ever taken place in this town. That’s not living in the moment — it’s understanding it.

The first four games of the these WNBA semifinals suggested we might see a particularly exhilarating climax. The Storm won the first two despite Diana Taurasi’s typical late-game heroics. The Mercury won the next two despite Seattle holding seemingly insurmountable leads.

The bar for Tuesday’s winner-take-all Game 5 to be the crown jewel of the series was high enough to strain the neck of anyone who looked up at it. Yet these two teams pole-vaulted right over it.

“That was some of the best basketball that I’ve ever seen in the WNBA,” Storm coach Dan Hughes said. “I thought it taught us a lot of what it really takes.”

For a moment it looked as though Seattle would meekly sputter out of contention. Phoenix scored 11 of the game’s first 13 points, 16 of the first 26 and led by as much as 11. It also had Brittney Griner scoring virtually whenever she wanted, unless the Storm’s double teams freed up teammates for wide-open layups.

But this wasn’t going to be a suspense-free dismantling in which Taurasi improved to 14-0 in winner-take-all situations. It was going to be a back-and-forth brouhaha that will have fans talking to each other about it for weeks…assuming they can still hear.

Who do you want to start with? Breanna Stewart. The recently-crowned WNBA MVP tallied 28 points and seven rebounds, but also helped slow down Griner in the second half while playing all 40 minutes. It was the most important game she’s played as a pro and, up until the last five minutes at least, was the best player on the court.

What about Taurasi, the league’s all-time leading scorer and three-time WNBA champion? She only had 17 points, but it seemed all of them came as the Storm was closing the deficit.

A pull-up three here, a sweeping hook shot there. She seemed to be the principal reason Seattle failed to tie the score until midway through the third quarter .

But then Washington graduate Sami Whitcomb, who had 11 points off the bench, would come down and hit a 3 and cut the lead to five. And then Stewart would hit a turnaround and cut it to three. And then Alysha Clark would pop a three of her own to tie the score at 57-57, unleashing the larynxes of all 8,992 in attendance.

“Seattle is going to be rowdy,” Taurasi said. “If they make a shot, they’re going to blow the roof off this place.”

But it didn’t seem to rattle the Mercury, which would push its lead back to six. Then the Storm would score nine straight to take the lead, only to watch Phoenix snatch it back.

Then Sue Bird, who has played more games than anyone in WNBA history, had perhaps the best five-minute stretch of her life.

Shortly after getting popped in the mask that was protecting her broken nose, an infuriated Bird took over the basketball game. She scored 14 points in the fourth quarter, all of which came over a five-minute stretch.

“I don’t even know what happened. We weren’t running set plays for me to get 3’s,” said Bird, who made four 3-pointers during that fourth-quarter stretch. “As far as stretches go, it’s up there. I don’t know if I’ve had a fourth quarter like that in such a big game in my life.”

The game, which ended in a 94-84 win for the Storm, had it all. A comeback. Lead changes. Clutch moments from a sub like Whitcomb. Dominant stretches from a force like Stewart. Five minutes of unconsciousness from a legend like Bird.

Attendees Tuesday included the likes of Lenny Wilkens, Nate Robinson and Slick Watts — all of whom have seen their fair share of playoff basketball. They’re going to be talking about this one, too.

Friday the Storm will host the Washington Mystics in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals. Should be boisterous, should be intense, should be downright fun. But Tuesday was one for the ages. Everyone in that building can confirm.

In a game in which the Storm never looked like the dominant team, Seattle turned the tables on the visiting Mercury in the fourth quarter, and Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird powered the Storm to a huge 94-84 victory.
Matt Calkins: or mcalkins@seattletimes.com. . Matt Calkins joined The Seattle Times in August 2015 as a sports columnist after three years at the San Diego Union Tribune. Never afraid to take a stand or go off the beaten path, Matt enjoys writing about the human condition every bit as much as walk-offs or buzzer-beaters. His mom reads the comments so take it easy on him.