EVERETT – Sue Bird wasn’t sure what to expect when she stepped on the floor Saturday afternoon for the first time this season.
The 40-year-old Storm star doesn’t get nervous for basketball games anymore, but admittedly she felt a strange surge of emotion while watching a heartfelt video message from her two nieces that was included in a pregame ceremony in which the 2020 WNBA champions received diamond-encrusted rings and unveiled the franchise’s fourth championship banner.
Minutes later, the Storm debuted it’s remodeled team filled with six newcomers while sporting its new “Rebel” black jerseys, which were two clear examples of just how much has changed from last year.
However, one thing remains the same: Seattle still owns Las Vegas.
Led by Breanna Stewart’s 28 points and 22 from Jewell Loyd, the Storm knocked off the Aces for a comfortable 97-83 victory in the regular-season opener at the Angel of the Winds Arena.
It was a rematch of last year’s WNBA Finals, which ended with Seattle drubbing Las Vegas 92-59 in the league’s most lopsided championship series victory for an emphatic 3-0 sweep.
This time the margin was a little closer, but the outcome was nearly as important considering the Aces are the preseason favorite to win the title while the Storm came into the game with several questions about their retooled roster.
“Last year was last year and you can’t really compare that year to this year because we’re starting new,” Stewart said. “But we want to continue to do what we do. That’s the biggest thing between our two teams. We play differently. They want to pound it in the paint and we want to push the ball and run as much as we can. And it really set the tempo for the game.”
And quite possibly the season.
It’s difficult to label any matchup in May – five months away from the WNBA Finals – a statement game. But the Storm might have sent an early message to the league and themselves about their chances to repeat as champions.
“Our team and our organization is a team of winning and success,” Loyd said. “Our mindset every practice is how do we get there? How do we push and how do we make it better? When we got on the court tonight, it was just that. Alright, things aren’t going to be perfect and things aren’t going to be great, but we’re going to work through that. That’s a tribute to our coaches and a tribute to the players that we have here and the unselfishness to be open to learn.”
Considering the new faces and the absence of reserves Epiphanny Prince and Mercedes Russell, several questions loomed over the short-handed Storm heading into the season.
— How would veteran Candice Dupree, a seven-time WNBA All-Star who is playing for her fourth WNBA team, fit with Seattle?
— What contributions would the Storm receive from newcomers Katie Lou Samuelson, Stephanie Talbot, Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, Kennedy Burke and Kiana Williams?
— Could Seattle hold up inside against Las Vegas’ big front line, which features reigning league MVP A’ja Wilson and two-time WNBA All-Star Liz Cambage?
Stewart and Loyd rendered those questions irrelevant with mesmerizing performances for the Storm, which drained 12 of 27 three-pointers. Las Vegas was 3 of 12 behind the arc.
“The reality is that Stewie and Jewell, they were pieces that we could play to time and time again,” coach Dan Hughes said.
Stewart, who had 13 rebounds, connected on 9 of 19 shots, including three three-pointers.
Meanwhile, Loyd was equally impressive while hitting 9 of 16 field-goal attempts and finishing with six assists and four rebounds.
Seattle’s dynamic duo overwhelmed Las Vegas, which received the bulk of its scoring from Wilson (24 points), Cambage (16), Jackie Young (12) and former Washington Huskies star Kelsey Plum (11).
Las Vegas led early in the first quarter and Seattle took control in the second while outscoring the Aces 22-14 in the period to take a 49-40 lead into halftime.
The Storm began the third quarter with a 10-0 run to go up 59-40 and the Aces never seriously threatened the rest of the way.
Hughes started center Ezi Magbegor in place of Dupree in the second half, which negated Las Vegas’ size advantage inside. The Storm outrebounded the Aces 44-33.
“I thought Ezi coming in, it seemed like the best matchup on Cambage,” Hughes said. “That put Stewie on Wilson, which gave us some real length to try to combat that. When our team plays out of its defense, there’s a lot of potential for runs.
“I saw stops that let us play in transition. The three-ball was very much a part of that in a way that’s Storm basketball. That’s the way we want to play. It was good to see with so many new pieces and new roles, it still reminded us of what we’re trying to do.”
Las Vegas cut its 19-point deficit to nine (82-73) with 4:59 left in the game during a period when Bird left the game and limped off the court after injuring her knee during an incidental collision.
Seattle maintained separation thanks to Loyd’s three-pointer and Dupree, who had 12 points in her Seattle debut, hitting a midrange jumper to give the Storm a 12-point lead.
Bird returned and delivered a dagger three-pointer – her third in the game – to put the Storm up 94-79 with 1:27 left.
“Coming into the game I don’t think a lot of us knew what to expect in terms of the chemistry and how we were going to play together,” said Bird, who finished with 11 points, eight assists and five rebounds. “And what we saw was our team taking a step in the direction of forming our identity. And that was really the question marks in my mind.
“We just had such a core group for so long. We always came into the season the last four to five years knowing what our identity was. Now we’re having to re-establish that and figure it out. What I was pleasantly surprised by was, we already are starting to form that just in Game 1. … We’re going to have ups and downs, but it can only get better from here and what a great start.”
— Saturday’s game was also the first of 10 Commissioner’s Cup games for the Storm. The WNBA’s new in-season competition culminates Aug. 12 with a championship game that features $500,000 in prize money.
— Bird passed Lisa Leslie for seventh on the WNBA’s all-time scoring list.