After an unscheduled layoff, the Storm returned to the basketball court on Saturday ready to pick up on its pursuit of a WNBA championship. 

The Storm’s 88-74 victory over the Chicago Sky in Bradenton, Florida, represented a return to normal for the league’s top team that clinched a playoff berth and has posted double-digit blowouts in 10 of its 13 wins.

Still, the emotional events of the previous 72 hours, which included the WNBA’s two-day work stoppage to protest Jacob Blake’s shooting and racial inequality in America, weighed heavy on the Storm. 

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“The past few days to be honest has been kind of mentally draining as far as everything we’re going through as a group and seeing what’s going on in our country as well,” Storm forward Natasha Howard said. “It’s tiring. Enough is enough. We’re doing everything possible with what we can do with our platform in speaking out and hopefully people hear us out.” 

Jewell Loyd added: “It’s definitely been emotional. It’s been emotional before we even got to the bubble or being in the bubble, knowing that the Black community is still suffering daily.

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“We needed a day to be with each other, try to find things to laugh about and be a joy to each other’s lives, but also understand that it’s real outside the bubble.” 

The WNBA has designed and operated a seemingly flawless set of health protocols that has kept players, coaches and staff safe from the coronavirus at the IMG Academy. 

However, league leaders couldn’t have predicted that another pandemic — the nation’s reckoning with race — would put the season in jeopardy. 

“We came here for a reason,” forward Breanna Stewart said. “We came here for more than basketball. We came her for our season to be dedicated to Say Her Name and Black Lives Matter. 

“The message that we want to portray to everyone is that we’re still here and we’re still in this together.” 

Stewart was talking about the collective efforts of the WNBA’s 144 players toward the league’s social-justice initiatives, but her comments also described a return to dominance for the Storm. 

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The Storm had looked surprisingly vulnerable while getting beat up inside and posting a 1-2 record in the past three games. 

In Saturday’s rematch against a short-handed Chicago team, the Storm won the rebounding battle 37-31, which is a good sign for it considering it’s 9-1 when it has more rebounds and 4-2 when trailing on the glass. 

The Storm also held the Sky, the league’s second-highest scoring team 13 points below its average. Chicago, which entered the game third in the WNBA in three-point shooting percentage, converted just 4 of 21 behind the arc. 

“We don’t have to wait for the aggressive team to punch us to be aggressive,” said Stewart, who finished with a game-high 21 points and eight rebounds. “We can be aggressive no matter who we’re playing. It starts with our defense and our rebounding.” 

With Stewart and Howard (season highs of 17 points and eight rebounds) combining for 38 points and 23 rebounds, the Storm were able to survive a third straight off three-point shooting performance (4 of 13) because it sank 24 of 28 free throws.

The Storm, which never trailed and led 20-16 after the first period, took control of the game in the second while outscoring Chicago 29-18. 

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Stewart capped the first-half scoring with a fadeaway 19-footer over two defenders that put the Storm up 49-34 at the break. 

The Storm began the third period with a 9-2 run for its largest lead (60-36). 

Chicago trimmed its deficit to 14 points (80-66) with 6:04 remaining but never got any closer after the Storm answered with a 6-0 run to go ahead 86-66. 

Seattle had six players score in double digits, including Alysha Clark (11 points), Loyd (12), Ezi Magbegor (11) and Epiphanny Prince (10). Jordin Canada, who made her ninth start for injured Sue Bird, finished with nine of the Storm’s 20 assists. 

The Sky (10-6) was limited to just eight players after Azura Stevens (knee injury) and Diamond DeShields (personal reasons) left IMG Academy this week. 

Kaleah Cooper scored 19 points, Allie Quigley 11, Ruthy Hebard 11 and Gabby Williams 10 for Chicago. 

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With six games remaining, Seattle (13-3) has a half-game lead over Las Vegas (12-3), which is followed by Los Angeles (11-3) and Minnesota (10-4). 

The top two playoff seeds receive a double-bye to the best-of-five WNBA semifinals series and avoid single-elimination postseason games in rounds 1 and 2. 

“We want to continue to win and continue to find our groove,” Stewart said. “Obviously, finishing the season to the point where we’re almost peaking and getting ready for what’s next.” 

NOTE:

  • Coach Gary Kloppenburg said Sue Bird, who has missed the past four games and nine total due to a bone bruise in her left knee, has made progress with her injury and should be able to practice next week. He hinted the 11-time WNBA All-Star point guard could return to play shortly.