Breanna Stewart and the Storm are returning to the WNBA’s biggest stage.
With a 92-71 victory Sunday in Game 3 of the semifinals in Bradenton, Florida, No. 2-seed Seattle eliminated No. 4 Minnesota to advance to the WNBA Finals for the second time in three years.
In her first season since returning from an Achilles injury that wiped away her 2019 season, Stewart finished off the Lynx with a playoff-career-high 31 points, which tied a franchise playoff record, on 14-of-22 shooting, including two three-pointers.
Stewart also had seven assists, six rebounds, three steals and two blocks in 30 minutes.
“When we have that Stewie on the floor, it allows all of us to relax,” said Seattle guard Sue Bird, who noted she and Stewart’s 10-game layoffs due to nagging injuries before the start of the postseason were partly to blame for their relatively muted performances in Game 1 and 2.
“It wasn’t that Stewie was playing bad, she just had to get through the mud to get to the other side,” Bird added during a video conference call. “I think all of us have done that. That’s what today’s game felt like. It felt like we got to the other side against a really tough opponent.”
After needing a buzzer-beater to win the series opener and outscoring Minnesota by 10 in Game 2, Seattle improved each game during the series to capture the sweep and extend its winning streak against Minnesota to nine in a row.
And perhaps it was fitting that Stewart and Bird led the way on a day when Jewell Loyd, who averaged 22.5 points in the playoffs, dealt with some back tightness and was held to seven points.
“For me, especially, you have to be aggressive,” said Bird, who finished with nine assists and 16 points on 5-for-13 shooting, including three three-pointers. “I was just taking what they were giving and from there playing off of it. When you’re in that mindset, especially as a point guard, it can really have a positive impact on your play, and on your team’s play as well.
“I don’t think I had an amazing game to be honest, but what I do know I was able to control it a little better than I did in the first two games and that felt good to me.”
Unlike their first two playoff games, this time Stewart and Bird came out ultra aggressive and set the tone early, which harkened back to their magical playoff performances two years ago that resulted in a 2018 WNBA championship.
“Anytime Sue plays she’s vintage Sue Bird,” Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeves said. “What Sue knew about today was that both her and Stewie, as they shot 33% in the first two games, needed to impose their will on the game. And Stewie did it in a grand fashion.
“Sue did it, even though her shooting percentage aren’t great, her aggression and her pace sets the tone for her team. In that way, very much vintage Sue Bird because she was in command of the game. She does simple things really well. It’s not complicated. She’s incredible smart. She set a tone as well for Stewie and carried them on a night that we were determined Jewell Loyd was not getting off on us. But I sure worried who would. Sue was great.”
The Storm fell into a 6-0 hole at the start before burying Minnesota with a 24-2 run, which included 17 straight points, and taking a 24-12 lead after the first quarter.
During the spurt, the Lynx committed six turnovers, missed 13 consecutive shots and finished the period shooting 23.5% from the field.
“We weren’t as good as we need to be in a desperation, elimination game,” Reeves lamented.
It was a near-perfect start for the Storm, which smothered Minnesota defensively while forcing a slew of scoring opportunities from 19 turnovers and a bunch of missed shots.
However, a sequence midway in the second quarter told the story of the game.
Despite a two-inch height disadvantage, Seattle’s Alysha Clark fronted Napheesa Collier in the post and tipped a pass away. Then Loyd dove out of bounds to retrieve ball and begin a fast break.
And in the blink of an eye, Bird whipped a pass nearly the length of the court to a streaking Natasha Howard for a layup.
The sequence ended with Reeves collecting a technical foul and Loyd draining a free throw for 37-19 lead. The 18-point edge was the largest lead in the first half for Seattle, which led 46-31 at the break.
The Storm ran into a little trouble at the start of the third quarter when Loyd remained in the locker room for several minutes due to a minor back injury.
To complicate matters, Howard and backup center Mercedes Russell went to the bench with four fouls while Minnesota closed to seven points (48-41).
That’s when Stewart took over and scored 10 points during a decisive 12-0 Seattle run. She capped the spurt with a three-pointer that put the Storm up 60-41 and Minnesota never got closer than 12 points the rest of the way.
“There was never a moment where we were frazzled or frantic or anything like that,” Stewart said. “We just continued to play and I continued to be aggressive.
“A lot of the shots were similar shots that I had in Game 1 and Game 2 and I just couldn’t knock them down. And today I was able to see the ball go through the basket.”
This game also had coach Gary Kloppenburg’s fingerprints all over it.
Minnesota shot 45.8% and drained 27 three-pointers before Game 3, but the Storm changed defensive tactics and held the Lynx to just 7 of 22 shots behind the arc Sunday.
Led by 10 points from Russell, Seattle outscored Minnesota 32-7 in bench production. The Storm enjoyed a 48-34 advantage in points in the paint.
Collier finished with 22 points, 15 rebounds and three blocks. Damiris Dantas and Crystal Dangerfield, the WNBA rookie of the year, each had 16 points while Odyssey Sims 10 for the Lynx.
The Lynx, which was swept for the first time in franchise history in a five-game series, played without All-Star center Sylvia Fowles (calf), who sat out her third straight game.
The Storm begins the WNBA Finals on Friday with a chance for the franchise’s fourth title, which would tie Minnesota and the Houston Comets for the most all time. Seattle will face either No. 1 Las Vegas or No. 7 Connecticut. Those two teams play Game 5 of their semifinals series Tuesday.
“I’m grateful to be here and grateful to be able to be back playing at high level,” said Stewart, who won the 2018 WNBA MVP and Finals MVP awards. “Just happy to be with my team. That was the biggest thing that I missed when I was out rehabbing, being around this team.
“To have the opportunity to be back playing alongside all of these players, I’m excited for what we’ve done and for what we still have to do in the future.”