No one would have blamed Jordin Canada and Mercedes Russell if the first-year starters had fallen flat in their attempts at substituting for a pair of injured All-Stars.
Canada had the unenviable task of filling in for Sue Bird, who is arguably the greatest point guard in league history and has missed the season after having arthroscopic surgery on her left knee in May.
Meanwhile, Russell replaced Stewart, the 2018 WNBA MVP, in a veteran lineup that returned three starters.
And yet, the defending WNBA champion Storm (18-16) overcame modest expectations to capture the No. 6 seed in the WNBA playoffs, which begin 7 p.m. Wednesday with a single-elimination first-round matchup against Minnesota (18-16) at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett.
“They’re a big part of what we’ve been able to do this year,” guard Jewell Loyd said. “They don’t get a lot of credit for what they’ve done, but we wouldn’t be here without them.”
If a championship team is only as good as its weakest parts, then the Storm is poised for an prolonged run in the postseason.
Surprisingly, Natasha Howard won the defensive MVP and emerged as an MVP candidate this season. Loyd notched her second straight All-Star appearance and defensive ace Alysha Clark led the WNBA and set a franchise record while shooting 48.1 percent on three-pointers.
In comparison with Seattle’s other starters, Loyd and Russell are the perceived weak links due to their lack of playoff experience.
But coach Dan Hughes has seen enough from the pair of 24-year-olds to put his faith in the Storm’s youngest players who are making their first playoff start.
“This journey has told me that I can trust them or they wouldn’t have began and finished where they are,” he said. “Both of them are legitimate considerations for the (WNBA Most Improved) award. Their journey created trust in me so I’m not going to turn away from that trust Wednesday because they showed me they’re ready for this.
“But they had to go through learning process and I’m sure the playoffs will be another test for them as well.”
This season, Canada has been candid while confronting her bouts with confidence.
The 5-foot-6 playmaker, who leads the WNBA with 2.3 steals per game, is averaging more points (9.8 from 5.7), assists (5.2 from 3.3) and rebounds (2.4 from 1.5) than last year.
However, Canada made marginal improvement with an shaky jump shot – she’s shooting 18.6% on three pointers – and she’s seventh in the league with 2.6 turnovers per game.
“Obviously, at the start of the season I was a little nervous and anxious because here I am starting in my second year and I was still trying to figure out how to fit and be comfortable,” said Canada who is averaging 11.8 points, 6.5 assists and 3.0 steals in the past four games. “Right before the All-Star break is when I finally started to understand and get it and feel comfortable in my role.”
Canada and Howard, who averages 2.2 steals, spearhead Seattle’s ball-hawking defense that leads the league in scoring defense (75.1 points per game) and steals (9.5).
“That’s one of the reasons we brought Jordin here is because of her defense,” Canada said. “The big thing with Jordin and (Mercedes) is they can’t play like Sue or play like Stewie. We need that defensive insanity all the time. Her speed and her long arms, that’s something we can use.
“She’s working her butt off to deny the point guard and bring that pressure. She’s just hounding them. When she gets going like that, it’s something that motivates everybody and you want to bring that same type of energy.”
Russell, a 6-6 center, gives the Storm size in the middle to combat the league’s top post players, including Minnesota All-Star Sylvia Fowles.
“She’s grown a lot just in her ability to run the floor and move on defense,” Canada said. “She’s become a great passer and being a defensive stopper down low. She’s been a great spark for us.
“Literally, Mercedes has been big for us. We’re able to throw it in down low and she’s able to show her post moves. When we’re playing against players like Sylvia Fowles, we don’t have to double all the time. She can play 1-on-1 defense. Even though she’s big, she’s very mobile. She can move her feet. She can guard guards if we switch out and use her length. We had it last year. Stewie is long too. But (Mercedes) is long and she’s got a big body.”
Russell’s contributions may appear modest – she’s averaging 7.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 25.6 minutes – but in many ways she’s made the most improvement on the team considering she averaged just 5.6 minutes and played in just one playoff game last season.
“From Year 1 to Year 2 was huge just going up against the best post players in the game has been fun and challenging and it’s made me better,” Russell said. “That’s why we play basketball to compete and to be challenged.
“I wouldn’t say this year has been intimidating at all. Whenever you’re presented opportunities you just have to embrace it and I think Jordin and I have done that.”
Still, success in the regular season doesn’t necessarily equate to playoff wins.
“It’s just another game,” Canada said. “Obviously this is a game that’s very important. We’re in a situation where it’s 1-and-done, but I’m not thinking of it like ‘Oh it’s my first playoff start.’
“I just want to go out there and play the same game I’ve been playing all season long, which is to continue to be aggressive and continue to lead.”
Russell added: “It’s the playoffs, so every pass, every screen and every rebound could be the reason you win or lose. Every play is important. It’s going to be thrilling.”