EVERETT – The Storm opened the exhibition season in a new city and new arena without its head coach and five standouts from last year’s WNBA championship team.
Otherwise, it was as if nothing had changed with Seattle.
Despite the absence of most of its firepower, the Storm traded baskets with the Phoenix Mercury on Wednesday night before falling victim to a last-second three-pointer in an 87-84 defeat in front of 3,076 at the Angel of the Winds Arena.
Natasha Howard, who had a breakout season last year, stepped into the role as the No. 1 offensive option and scored a team-high-tying 15 points on 6-for-12 shooting.
And second-year guard Jordin Canada looked comfortable while directing the offense finishing with 13 points and five assists.
“I was extremely vocal today,” said Canada, who sank 4 of 9 shots and had three steals. “I felt more confident in everything that I was doing. I wasn’t all over the place or acting nervous like I did last year.”
It was the first look this season at the revamped Storm, but it was difficult to extract any meaningful conclusions considering who was missing.
Sue Bird sat at the end of the bench in warmups and Jewell Loyd was in her hometown of Chicago attending a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a playground basketball court bearing her name.
Meanwhile, Alysha Clark and Sami Whitcomb are overseas playing in the French League playoffs and reigning MVP Breanna Stewart is out for the year because of an Achilles tendon tear.
The Storm was missing more than 66 percent of its offense from last season as well as guard Shavonte Zellous, its top free-agent acquisition, who sat out after suffering a hand injury in Tuesday’s practice.
“We got a chance to prove how much better we got in the offseason and have fun,” Canada said. “I thought it was great. The rookies did some things and got good minutes. They did some good things. I thought the returners did a really good job as well setting the tone.”
Without what’s expected to be half of its roster, interim coach Gary Kloppenburg, who is replacing Dan Hughes while he recovers from surgery to remove a tumor, relied on a makeshift lineup featuring Howard and Canada.
Seattle’s remaining starters included forwards Crystal Langhorne, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and rookie Anriel Howard.
“We wanted to really try and take a look at all of those young players … because we have some decisions coming up about the personnel,” Kloppenburg said referring to the May 23 deadline when WNBA teams have to finalize rosters. “Overall, we were pretty pleased. I thought we played very hard.
“You never know in an exhibition game, first time out with a lot of young players how it’s going to go. I thought we really competed. An exciting finish. Overall, I think we made some progress. We get a lot of information from a game like this.”
None of the Storm’s mainstays played in the fourth quarter, which allowed second-year center Mercedes Russell (15 points) and rookie guard Recee Caldwell (11) to lead the reserves to a frantic finish.
The Storm trailed 71-66 in the fourth quarter and used a 12-2 run to go up 78-73 after Russell’s layup.
“Defensively we really locked in and got a couple of stops in a row,” said Russell, who converted 6 of 8 field goals and collected seven rebounds. “In games that gives you confidence to push on the offensive end. That really helped us run.”
Still, Phoenix answered with a 10-2 spurt and regained an 83-81 lead following Stephanie Talbot’s three-pointer with 1:31 left.
Rookie guard Presley Hudson snapped a three-minute scoring drought for Seattle with a three-pointer that tied the score at 84 with 32.4 seconds left.
On the ensuing possession, Phoenix’s Sophie Cunningham drained a go-ahead three-pointer with 3.4 seconds left.
The Storm never had a chance to counter as Hudson lost the ball on a turnover as time expired.
Brittney Griner and DeWanna Bonner each scored 15 points and Brianna Turner had 11 for the short-handed Mercury, which was without Diana Taurasi (back), Camille Little (ankle) and Sancho Little (knee).
Despite the defeat, Kloppenburg was pleased with the performance of the young Storm players, particularly Canada and Russell.
“We know what our veterans can do,” he said. “Mercedes is another one who really improved and is just a lot more aggressive this season than she was last year.
“She’s a really good inside finisher. She’s a pretty good defender and she rebounds. She’s going to be able to help us I think coming in off the bench or whatever we decide to do.”
Seattle plays at Los Angeles on Friday in its exhibition finale.