The Storm builds and rebuilds. Sue Bird just keeps going to WNBA Finals

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1 of 2 Sue Bird gathers her team together after the Storm defeated the Mercury 91-87 in overtime to go up 2-0 in the best of five WNBA Semifinals. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)
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2 of 2 Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart celebrate the Storm’s 94-84 win over Phoenix in Game 5 of the WNBA semifinals. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

Sue Bird returns to the WNBA Finals for the third time – eight years after leading the Storm to a title in 2010 and 14 years since winning it all in 2004.

Inside a training room beneath Seattle Pacific University’s Royal Brougham Pavilion, the headliners of the WNBA Finals congratulated each other on reaching the championship round and commiserated their respective injuries.

“You OK?” Storm guard Sue Bird asked.

“Could be better, but I’m managing,” said Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne, who had bags of ice wrapped around her injured left knee. “And you?”

“About the same,” said Bird who received medical treatment on her broken nose that requires her to wear a protective facemask.

“It was a funny scene. Here we are bruised and battered and now we’re getting ready to do it all over again,” said Delle Donne laughing and talking about her chance encounter with Bird, who she refers to as an idol, a friend, a USA Basketball teammate and now a rival in the WNBA Finals that begins 6 p.m. Friday at KeyArena.

The two stars overcame gruesome injuries in the league semifinals to propel their respective teams to the championship round.

Delle Donne tumbled to the floor in Game 2 and few believed she’d play again this season. The 6-foot-5 forward suffered a bone bruise that forced her to miss the next game in the best-of-five series.

Down 2-1 and facing elimination, the five-time All-Star returned for the next two games and led the Mystics to a pair of wins, including a 86-81 road win at Atlanta in Game 5 on Tuesday.

“Look, that’s what leaders do and Elena is the leader of that team,” Bird said. “At first glance, you see that injury and you think, ‘Man I don’t know how anyone plays after that.’

“But then, you see what she’s doing out there. She’s playing 36-37 minutes. She’s grabbing every rebound. She’s scoring. … I’ve said it before, it’s the playoffs and the playoffs bring out the best in people.”

Delle Donne combined for 29 points and 21 rebounds for a pair of wins that sent Washington to the finals for the first time.

Meanwhile, Bird broke her nose in Game 4 and sat out the second half of a defeat at Phoenix.

Two days later, she performed masked heroics during Tuesday’s thrilling 94-84 comeback victory. Bird poured in a season-high 22 points, including 14 in the fourth quarter, while draining five three-pointers.

“I’ve always been a big Sue Bird fan,” Delle Donne said. “To watch her do what she did (in Game 5 versus Phoenix) and will her team to get to the finals was big. Did you see that fourth quarter? Sue was Sue. She’s big-time.”

Of course, Delle Donne and Bird received considerable help to reach the finals.

With Delle Donne tapering off offensively, rookie guard Ariel Atkins picked up the scoring slack and finished with a team-high 20 points in Tuesday’s Game 5 victory.

And the Storm received a game-high 28 points from Breanna Stewart in the clincher against Phoenix. The league MVP is averaging 24.0 points and 7.4 rebounds in the playoffs.

At the start of the season, Stewart used Bird as motivating factor and inspiration.

“You see how she’s been in her career and how consistent she’s been and you want to send her off the right way,” Stewart said. “Not that she’s going anywhere or anything like that, but the previous years weren’t acceptable.

“As a team we listened to Sue and she’s been a great leader. She’s been there before and won championships. And it’s good to see her back on that stage because this is where she belongs.”

Bird returns to the WNBA Finals for the third time – eight years after leading the Storm to a title in 2010 and 14 years since winning it all in 2004.

Same smile. Same ponytail. Same no-look passes. Same jump shot. And a similar facemask she wore during her first run to a championship.

“She’s always been that good,” former Storm star Lauren Jackson said. “She’s obviously matured. That was clear (Tuesday) night, but that happens with time.

“She’s had to basically mentally and emotionally lead this really young group of girls after having a group of people around her all her age for so long.She’s taken the leadership/coach/mentor role. She’s capable of winning games, but the way she dominated (Tuesday) night, it was awesome.”

Admittedly, the 17-year-veteran who turns 38 next month wasn’t sure if she’d make it back here.

Not after a knee injury forced her to miss the 2013 season and three-time league MVP Jackson retired later that year.

And not after the Storm underwent a major rebuild that preceded two missed trips to the playoffs and a pair of first-round exits.

A few years ago, there were rumors Bird would leave Seattle and finish her Hall-of-Fame bound career close to her hometown Syossett, N.Y., or the University of Connecticut where she won two NCAA championships in 2000 and 2002.

“That wasn’t my thinking,” said Bird, the only holdover from the Storm’s 2010 championship team. “I wanted to see this rebuild until the end. I wanted to get on the other side of it. And now that we’re here, it feels so gratifying.”

Win or lose, Bird said she’s not nearing retirement and hinted at playing several more years.

“I take pride in the fact that I’m at my age and I’m playing at a high level,” said Bird, who averaged a career-high 7.1 assists and was voted to her league-record 11th WNBA All-Star Game this year. “I truly believe nowadays with all the research and the new things that are coming out with diet and workout regimen and ways to maximize your sleep … I think 37 will be pretty normal in our league very soon.

“Forty will soon become the new 30.”

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or pallen@seattletimes.com. . Seattle Times staff reporter Percy Allen covers the Washington Huskies and Seattle Storm.