Ultimately, the nine-day layoff and a two-day delay to the start of the WNBA semifinals didn’t matter much.
Not for the No. 2 seed Storm, which brushed off a shaky start and needed an improbable buzzer-beating shot to pull out an 88-86 victory over No. 4 Minnesota on Tuesday to take a 1-0 lead in the WNBA semifinals.
The best-of-five series finally got going after inconclusive COVID-19 tests from three Seattle players prompted the league to postpone Game 1, which had been scheduled for Sunday.
After two days of extensive retesting and quarantine for the players in question, the Storm received a clean bill of health and had its entire roster available.
“We’re just in a brave new world that’s not going to be like it used to be for a long time, if ever,” coach Gary Kloppenburg said. “Playing a season in this situation, you just have to expect the unexpected and be able to adapt to whatever comes your way.
“This group of players is a mature group with some great leaders. They understand that what we’re going through is a historic situation. You have to be able to be flexible, to adapt and stay in the moment and move on from whatever is thrown at you.”
Jewell Loyd scored a game-high tying 25 points and Breanna Stewart added 21 points and 10 rebounds, but Alysha Clark hit the biggest shot of night – a winning putback at the buzzer.
“The last 48 hours honestly have been pretty stressful and exhausting just not knowing what to expect,” Clark said during a Zoom call. “Just being confused about everything and trying to figure out how is this happening. You played the waiting game. Sitting around waiting for test results. Sitting around waiting to be moved.
“It was just a lot of waiting. It was really tough. Honestly, there was no other way for this game to end after the last 48 hours.”
When asked if she was one of three players impacted by an inconclusive COVID-19 test result, Clark sidestepped the question and said smiling: “I can’t say who was there and who wasn’t, but it was a lot of waiting.”
Clark wasted no time putting her imprint on the game on the defensive end where she held Minnesota point guard Crystal Dangerfield, the 2020 rookie of the year, to just four points on 2-for-8 shooting.
But Clark saved her best for the final moments.
Tied 86-86 with 14.1 seconds left, the Storm drew up a play for Stewart, who passed to Sami Whitcomb in the corner.
With the clock dwindling, the backup sharpshooter drove into the lane and hoisted a layup in traffic that bounced over the rim to the other side of the paint where Clark snagged it.
Before anyone reacted, Clark put up a quick layup over two defenders that rolled in as time expired.
“The playoffs is all about making winning plays,” said Clark, who finished with 12 points on 5-for-10 shooting. “Something I pride myself on is being a winner. I’m going to do whatever it takes to make sure or at least put us in a position to win.
“Tonight we needed both defense and that shot. To be able to be in a position where I was able to do both of those, that makes me happy.”
For Stewart and Sue Bird (11 points and 8 assists), it was their first game in 13 days due to left foot tendinitis and a left knee bruise, respectively, that forced them to miss the final two regular-season games.
For the rest of the Storm, it was their first game since the regular-season finale nine days earlier.
Considering the time off, the Storm looked rusty – especially on the defensive end – and admittedly didn’t play its best game against a Lynx team it dominated in two regular-season wins.
Seattle tied a team playoff record with 13 three-pointers and finished with 24 assists on 31 baskets, but also surrendered 14 three-pointers to Minnesota. The Storm also had difficulty slowing down Napheesa Collier (25 points) in the post and Odyssey Sims (19 points) and Bridget Carleton (14 points and four three-pointers) on the perimeter.
“I felt like we were a step slow with our rotation and trying to get out to their three-point shooters,” Kloppenburg said. “We’ve got to be a little more locked in the next game.”
Seattle fell behind 7-0 at the start and trailed by nine in the first quarter before taking control in the second and leading 50-45 at halftime thanks in large part to Loyd.
The two-time WNBA All-Star guard bounced around the court while spotting up and canning 4 of 5 rainbow three-pointers in the first half.
“She’s a great scorer,” Kloppenburg said. “She’s really improved at her ability to come off screens and catch and shoot or catch and be able to put it on the floor and be able to finish in traffic.”
Stewart took over in the third with 12 points for the Storm, which stretched its lead to 70-60 late in the period.
However, Minnesota answered with an 18-8 run capped by Collier’s three-pointer for a 78-77 lead with 4:10 remaining.
Neither team led by more than three points the rest of the way while the lead changed three times and the score was tied three times.
“We struggled in the fourth quarter,” Kloppenburg said, noting Seattle committed six turnovers, shot 35.3% (6 of 17) from the field and was outscored 23-16 in the fourth. “We were hanging in there. We had a couple of loose balls that we didn’t come up with and turned it over a few times. Somehow down the stretch found a way to make a couple of plays.”
Collier was poised to be star considering her monster fourth-quarter heroics, which included five blocks (four against Stewart) and 11 points, including a soft layup over Stewart that tied the score with 14.8 seconds left.
However, the Storm had one last chance and Clark delivered the biggest shot of her career.
“We find ways to win,” Loyd said. “That’s something that’s always been in our DNA since I’ve been a part of the Storm. There was no doubt in our mind that we were going to win this game.
“That’s what you’re going to need in the playoffs if you’re trying to win a championship.”