Seattle Storm coach Noelle Quinn admitted she’s still trying to learn her way around Climate Pledge Arena. It turns out that none of the tunnels and walkways she remembers from the old facility are still intact.
“There are no remnants of KeyArena — except watching Sue Bird hit pullup threes and Stewie and Jewell do their thing,’’ she said.
That’s more than enough continuity. The Storm opened a promising and highly anticipated season in about as aesthetically pleasing a fashion as they could have ever hoped. It was nearly a drubbing that they hit triple digits and one that only raised the already lofty hopes surrounding this team.
With a raucous, appreciative crowd on hand to herald the first regular-season WNBA game played at Climate Pledge, the Storm blew out the Minnesota Lynx in the second half for a 97-74 win.
It was a night that delivered all the requisite bells and whistles, on and off the court. The glittering arena, while no longer having that new stadium smell after a full NHL season, was a perfect fit for the Storm after three years of itinerant hooping. The crowd of 12,904 had a blast, particularly when the Storm broke open a tie game in the second half.
“Even though it was a new building, what didn’t feel unfamiliar was the fans and that electricity,’’ Quinn said. “KeyArena was a little bit more intimate. Obviously, the way in which it was built, the fans are like right on the floor. But it didn’t feel like the fans were far away. It still felt very intimate in a way, though it is a different place.”
Regardless of the venue, the Storm showed precisely why they are still the team to be wary of for those foes eyeing a WNBA title. Each member of the Big Three — Bird, Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd — had appropriate moments of brilliance. The supporting cast showed that this is far from a three-woman show, with a strong performance from the other starters and the bench, including newcomers Gabby Williams and Briann January.
“Last year, I was trying to keep one of the big three on the floor at all times,’’ Quinn said. “But I feel so confident in this group that we can hopefully balance it to where we’re not overtaxing our players, to where we’re feeling good toward the middle and end of the season.”
There was the requisite pomp, given the circumstances. Notable attendees such as Gov. Jay Inslee, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert, Megan Rapinoe, Doug Baldwin, Cliff Avril and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie dotted the stands. There was a first-quarter marriage proposal (the answer was yes), and halftime wonderment from veteran arena performer Red Panda, who worked miracles with porcelain bowls while riding an elevated unicycle — as one does.
The Storm busted the game wide open with a 34-point third quarter, moving and grooving up and down the court while the Lynx (who scored 14 in the period) looked fatigued and a step slow. It was a run fueled by defense; Quinn kept reminding the players that their offense was just fine; the game would be determined by their defensive effort. Quinn and the players said they fed off the energy of the crowd, which in turn fed off some spectacular surges by the Storm.
“We’re finally back in a place we deserve,’’ Loyd said. “Just the hype around the building is amazing. It made me hungry to go out there and play well.”
Asked what fueled the Storm’s 18-2 run to start the second half, Stewart replied without hesitation, “The fans. To be honest, that’s what we’ve been missing in Seattle. We haven’t been here since 2018. When we hit a three-three-three (in the third quarter) and the place is rocking, the other team has to call a timeout or they’re not going to be able to get what they want.”
The word Quinn used to describe the atmosphere was “electric. There was lots of noise, and great noise, because it was our fans. I think the energy is also the fact that we haven’t been here in a couple of years. And so it’s like missing that old thing and getting it back.”
Aerial Powers had led the Lynx to a 41-41 tie at intermission with 14 first-half points. And then Stewart, who had been 2 of 10 from the floor before intermission, displayed her own aerial powers. She scored 13 of her 17 points to help lead the Storm second-half onslaught to go with eight rebounds. Loyd also had 17 points, while Bird had her usual statistical smorgasbord — 11 points, nine assists and two steals in 22 minutes.
At the end of a fairly quiet first half, Bird gave the fans a thrill with a pullup three-pointer that tied the game at 39-all with under a minute to play. Bird had another magic moment in the Storm’s third-quarter blitz when she fired a bullet pass from beyond half court that Loyd caught in midair and redirected into the basket. Fouled on the play, Loyd completed the three-point play to complement a four-point play she pulled off earlier in the night.
The alley-oop gave Loyd a strong feeling of déjà vu that conjured up memories of the old KeyArena histrionics by the Storm.
“That’s us,’’ Loyd said. “We’re back.”
In more ways than one.