If the Seattle Storm had failed to make the playoffs in defense of their 2018 WNBA title, it would have been an excused absence.
After all, they’ve been inundated with all variety of adversity – the storm before the Storm.
- The league’s reigning MVP, Breanna Stewart, and its most decorated player, 11-time All-Star Sue Bird, both missed the season because of injuries.
- Coach Dan Hughes missed the first nine games after surgery to remove a cancerous tumor in his digestive tract.
- Veteran stalwart Jewell Loyd missed a month – a significant chunk of the league’s 34-game season – because of an ankle injury. Bird’s point-guard replacement, Jordin Canada, missed four games because of an injury.
- Natasha Howard, who has stepped up to become a strong MVP candidate, was the subject of domestic-abuse allegations in July by her wife, Jacqueline Howard. Natasha Howard has denied the allegations, and the WNBA is conducting an investigation.
- With KeyArena, the home court for of all three of their WNBA championships, under reconstruction, the Storm players and coaches were forced to become nomads. They played five games at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett and the rest at the University of Washington – only to be displaced back to Everett for Wednesday night’s single-elimination playoff game against the Minnesota Lynx.
Yes, playoff game. The Storm players and coaches had a powerful rebuttal for all those predicting their demise before the season even started. They were perceived as the longest of shots even in a league where a generous 67 percent of the teams qualify for the postseason.
But here they are, the WNBA’s sixth-seeded team with an 18-16 record. That they survived all the turmoil – and persevered through some lopsided losses and depressing stretches along the way – is a testament to the Storm’s depth of talent, and the essential growth of formerly ancillary players who suddenly had to become key components.
Reserve some kudos as well to their unwavering belief in the face of repeated gut-punches, which in itself is a tribute to the culture that has developed in Seattle. Through it all, credit Hughes and his top assistant, Gary Kloppenburg, for navigating the team through life without Stewie and Sue to bail them out.
Asked if he thought, in his heart of hearts, that the Storm would be a playoff team back in May when the impact of those losses was still fresh, Hughes replied, “Yeah, I think I did. But I also knew a lot of things had to go right. Our margin for error was not great in this situation.”
SIn training camp, Hughes began to sense that the team was embracing its new normal. And he was even more heartened to see that some of the most brutal losses turned into growth experiences. The Storm head into the Lynx showdown with wins in three of its past four games.
torm defied “I think the resiliency was the key vehicle for us to get the confidence,’’ Hughes said. “Yeah, we would lose a couple, and we talked about that, but they always had a little backstop at some point where they were going to stand tall and get us back on the winning side.”
Howard led the Storm in scoring (18.1 points per game), rebounding (8.2) and blocks (1.7) while pacing the league with 74 steals – just ahead of Canada’s runner-up total of 68. Canada has been an able fill-in for Bird at point guard with 5.2 assists per game, including a contest July 12 in which she had a career-high 12 assists without a turnover. Only six players in WNBA history, including Bird, have accomplished that feat.
Add Alysha Clark to the list of players who elevated their game. Already known as a defensive specialist, Clark emerged as a sharpshooter extraordinaire with a league-best 48.1 percent success rate from three-point range. That surpassed the previous club record by Storm royalty Lauren Jackson.
Count Clark among those who had faith that the Storm could survive, and thrive, despite the challenges.
“I knew we could,” Clark said. “Because last year, the players we had that were complementary to those players (Stewart and Bird) were the same players we had this year.
“We understand the strengths each of us have. So going into this year, we knew we were going to increase our role a little bit. But we were confident in who we were. We knew we were going to have to find a new identity as a team. I pictured us being here.”
That new identity?
“Just a defensive, gritty team,” Clark said. “We’re going to outwork people. We’re going to make it tough for them to score. We’re going to run it and play at a high pace.”
Indeed, the Storm is holding opponents to a league-low 75.1 points per game. And the players seem to be enjoying the underdog role that rarely is attached to a defending champion.
“At the end of the day, no one’s ever given us anything,” Loyd said. “Nobody really feels too bad for us in a sense. But at the same time, we’ve fought for everything here. Even with all the injuries, all the adversity, we’ve fought to get back, fought to get healthy, and we’re starting to see it pay off a little bit.”
“We try to focus on who’s here and not who’s not here, and that was the emphasis of the whole season,” Canada said. “I think it showed throughout the season that we have so much resilience and so much fight in this team and depth that, you know, it doesn’t matter if Sue and Stewie aren’t here; we’ll still be able to play with the pieces that we have.”
“A lot of people wrote us off,” Howard added. “But I always said, ‘Don’t doubt us.’ ”
At least, do so at your own risk.