When defensive aces Alysha Clark, Natasha Howard and Jordin Canada deliver significant offensive contributions as they did Sunday, the Storm is practically invincible and impervious to any defense thrown at it.
No. 2 seed Seattle presented No. 1 Las Vegas with a pick-your-poison proposition during its 104-91 victory in Game 2 of the best-of-five WNBA Finals in Bradenton, Florida.
The Aces loaded up to stop Breanna Stewart after the WNBA All-Star forward torched them for 37 points two days earlier in the series opener.
Las Vegas managed to hold Stewart to a game-high 22 points, but failed to account for Clark and Howard, who each scored 21 points, while Canada added 10 off the bench.
And now the Storm has a chance to win its second title in three seasons and a fourth championship in franchise history Tuesday night.
“Game 3 is not going to be easy,” Storm guard Sue Bird said during a postgame televised interview. “You just have to stay in the moment, possession by possession. They’re good. It’s tough. These are battles. The score doesn’t indicate it and I’m sure it will be the same in Game 3.”
Bird, who turns 40 in two weeks, scored 16 points and delivered 10 assists during an offensive showcase in which the Storm displayed its vast arsenal.
“Our performance today was probably better than it was in Game 1 just as far as having a balanced approach,” said Stewart, who converted 7 of 13 shots, including 5 of 8 on three-pointers.
After scoring 93 points and shooting 50% from the field in Game 1, Seattle put on another offensive clinic Sunday.
The Storm did whatever it wanted on the offensive end while converting 40 of 70 field-goal attempts (57.1%), including 12 of 26 on three-pointers (46.2%).
With Bird getting double-digit assists for the second straight game — she set a WNBA playoffs record with 16 assists in Game 1 — Seattle finished with a WNBA all-time postseason best 33 assists and surpassed the record it set in Game 3 of the semifinals.
“All year long, we have been a high-assist team,” coach Gary Kloppenburg said. “It’s just the way we play and move the ball. We really wanted to move the ball from side to side and I thought we did a good job of that tonight, especially against a team like this where they try to pack the paint on you.
“We knocked down our open shots. … Clark looked comfortable tonight out there shooting the ball.”
Clark, who led the WNBA with a 52.2 three-point shooting percentage during the regular season, rebounded from a horrendous 2-for-13 shooting display in the previous game and sank 8 of 12 shots, including 3 of 6 behind the arc.
She also had six assists and five rebounds while outplaying counterpart Angel McCoughtry, who finished with 17 points and eight rebounds.
“After the last game, I didn’t overthink it,” Clark said. “I didn’t change my routine any. When your team has your back like mine does, they kept telling me ‘Next game’ and ‘Shake it off.’ … When you have that kind of support behind you, it helps keep you focused.”
Howard was equally impressive and was probably the most important player on the court for the Storm considering Seattle paired her against Las Vegas star A’ja Wilson and came away with a draw in the most critical matchup in the series.
“I had to bounce back from the last game,” said Howard, who had six points in Game 1. “I was just playing my game and letting the game come to me and just being free out there.”
Howard was incredibly efficient while connecting on 9 of 10 shots and adding eight rebounds and two blocks.
Meanwhile, Wilson, the 2020 WNBA MVP, finished with a team-high 20 points on 8-for-17 shooting, seven rebounds, two steals and two blocks. She also attempted just four free throws, which is five fewer than her league-leading regular-season average.
Afterward, Aces coach Bill Laimbeer complained about the disparity in foul calls. Seattle was 12 of 15 at the line while Las Vegas made 5 of 5.
“We had no favor from the referees today,” said Laimbeer, noting Las Vegas led the league in free-throw attempts. “We only shoot five free throws and we’re going to shoot more than any (team) in the history of the league. That doesn’t make sense to anybody.
“So that was a very determining factor in this ballgame, where we got fouled and didn’t get any calls and they got fouled and they got the call. They go to the free-throw line more than us and they’re jump shooters? Please. Makes no sense.”
Just like Game 1, the Storm built a sizable lead early. Seattle was up 43-30 midway in the second quarter and led 48-42 at halftime.
Las Vegas seized momentum in the third quarter and took a 55-52 lead before the Storm regained control and finished the quarter with a 13-6 run to go ahead 75-68 heading to the fourth.
After the Aces pulled to 79-73, Canada converted a layup, Howard sank a putback and Jewell Loyd made a long jumper to put the Storm up 85-73.
Las Vegas, which received 17 points from Emma Cannon and 14 from Kayla McBride, never got closer than nine points the rest of the way and couldn’t keep pace with a Seattle offense that made 10 of 16 shots in the quarter.
“Everybody on the outside is going to say it’s over,” Laimbeer said. “No, it ain’t over. But you have to win one game and that’s our focus. … We’ve been in win-or-go-home (games) twice. This will be our one. We are 2-0. We expect to be 3-0.”
Las Vegas won two elimination games in the semifinals against No. 7 Connecticut. However, no team has ever recovered from a 2-0deficit in WNBA postseason history.
“This is our moment to really finish the series and take home the championship,” Stewart said. “So we are going to continue to be sharp, be better than we were in Game 1 and Game 2 and leave it all on the court.”