Who needs Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird?
After dismantling Phoenix for an 83-60 victory in Bradenton, Florida, and turning in one of its best outings of the season Friday night without its two biggest stars, the Storm might have sent a statement that it’s the team beat as the WNBA playoffs begins next week.
“We’ve been sending a statement all year long with how deep our bench is and how we just follow the game plan and we execute,” said Jordin Canada on a postgame Zoom call. “Everyone on this team knows their role, and we play to our strengths, and I think that showed tonight.
“All year long we’ve done that, but tonight was a special night just because we know how important it is these last two games just coming out and making sure we do what we need to do to lock in on that No. 1 spot.”
The Storm (18-3) entered the game having already secured a double bye in the playoffs and a spot in the WNBA semifinals, but it’s eyeing the top playoff seed.
The Storm can wrap up the No. 1 seed with a win over Las Vegas (16-4) in Sunday’s regular-season finale or a loss by the Aces, which plays Saturday.
Even without Stewart (left ankle tendinitis) and Bird (left knee), the Storm looked like the best team in the WNBA against Phoenix (13-9), which had a seven-game winning streak and needed a win to lockup the No. 4 playoff seed and a first-round bye in the postseason.
And yet, the Storm played with more desperation and energy from start to finish.
“You don’t get very many like this,” Storm coach Gary Kloppenburg said on a Zoom call. “They looked a little bit tired, and I thought we came out really aggressive defensively.”
The Storm turned back the clock and returned to a lineup featuring Natasha Howard, Jewell Loyd, Alysha Clark, Mercedes Russell and Canada who each had breakout performances in 2019 when Stewart and Bird were out with season-ending injuries.
“We have our own chemistry that group that started this game from last year,” Canada said. “We talked about that at shootaround, (about) just being able to play and play our game that we did last year.
“Obviously everyone has gotten better and just flowing. It was really fun to get back out there with that group.”
In limited action, each of the starters made major contributions.
Canada finished with 13 points and four assists, Howard had 12 points and five rebounds, Loyd had 10 points and five assists, Russell added 10 points and six rebounds and Clark was 3 for 3 on three-pointers for nine points.
Ezi Magbegor and Crystal Langhorne each had 10 points off the bench for the Storm (18-3), which won its seventh straight game.
It was the third time this season six players scored in double digits for the Storm, which shot 47 percent from the field and had 22 assists on 31 baskets.
The Storm led 22-14 after the first period and essentially put the game away in the second while outscoring the Mercury 28-12 in the period.
Canada darted into the teeth of the Phoenix defense and converted a pair of acrobatic layups before crashing to the floor for a 41-19 lead with 4:03 left in the second.
Minutes later, Howard hit back-to-back buckets, including a rare three-pointer that put the Storm up 48-22 at the 1:50 mark. It led 50-26 at halftime.
Phoenix entered with the WNBA’s No. 1 scoring duo in Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith, who averaged a combined 38 points per game and tallied 61 points in the previous outing Wednesday.
The Storm held the high-scoring Mercury tandem to a season-low seven points on 1-for-9 shooting from the field and 0 for 6 on three-pointers.
Clark, who is a dark-horse candidate for the WNBA Defensive Player of the Year award, held Taurasi to five points, which was 14 points below her average.
Canada shut down Diggins-Smith, who finished with a season-low two points and on 0-for-6 shooting.
“Just being aggressive and following our defensive schemes and the game plan against her,” Canada said. “We know that her and DT the past couple of games have been basically getting whatever they wanted to get. Just having the mindset of coming out and knowing this was an important game and trying to make her uncomfortable as much as possible.”
Kloppenburg added: “We felt like we had to really come after them and get the ball out of their hands. Keep them in traffic keep them in traps. Make them pass to some other players and make them make decisions. I thought we did a really good job of that.”
It was a dramatic defensive turnaround for the Storm, which allowed 95 points during Wednesday’s 12-point win over Dallas.
Seattle held Phoenix to just 17.3 percent (8 for 45) shooting from the field and 15.8 percent (3 of 19) on three-pointers while building a 69-37 lead through three quarters.
“We got some easy baskets and stretched our lead out in the first half,” Kloppenburg said. “It’s hard to do that in this league to beat somebody bad like that. You kind of enjoy it when it happens (because) it doesn’t happen very often.”
It remains to be seen if Stewart and Bird return for the regular-season finale, but Friday’s 23-point blowout indicates the Storm is ready for the playoffs.
“Starting this week that’s what we decided,” Loyd said during a postgame televised interview. “These are playoff games. Start getting your mind and your body ready for playoff games. We think it’s very important to go into the playoffs playing your best.”