EVERETT — The number of seats sans a gluteus maximus was conspicuously high Wednesday night. The view behind each basket was particularly glaring, as chairs outnumbered bodies by at least five to 1.
Much of this had to do with folks not knowing whether the Storm would host its first-round playoff game until three days earlier, and, of course, the ever-congested drive out to Angel of the Winds Arena. But it was also the fans’ way of saying this: We’re not convinced yet.
Yes, the defending WNBA-champion Storm overachieved this season by finishing 18-16 despite being without reigning league MVP Breanna Stewart and 11-time All-Star Sue Bird. It saw forward Natasha Howard post career numbers, and teammates Jordin Canada and Alysha Clark join her on the 10-member WNBA All-Defensive Team. Even so, the Storm drew a season-low crowd of 5,011 to its single-elimination postseason game Wednesday. Then it sent a message to the absent fans: You guys missed out.
Seattle beat the Lynx, 84-74, Wednesday, and led for the final 38:19 of the game. It got a career-high 26 points from Canada, 22 from Jewell Loyd, and never let a cut grow into a full-fledged wound. Double-digit leads would shrink into tiny advantages, and impeccable defensive possessions would end in second-chance buckets for the Lynx.And yet the Storm never wilted. It played like … what’s the word? Champs.
“It’s the playoffs. You gotta have that aggressive mindset,” said Loyd, who finished 6 of 14 from the field. “No matter what happens, we wanted to leave everything on the floor.”
For the Storm to do what it has without Stewart and Bird is impressive. For it to get a playoff win with just two points from Howard was borderline incredible. The 2019 Defensive Player of the Year led the Storm with 18.1 points per game this season but was held to just one field goal on four attempts by the Lynx. Howard also missed a good chunk of the third quarter after drawing her fourth foul.
Still, the Storm repeatedly staved off runs from the Lynx. The 11-point lead Minnesota whittled down to three at the end of the third quarter? That shot back up to 10 just two and a half minutes into the fourth. The 10-point lead Minnesota whittled down to four less than two minutes later? That shot back up to 10 with just under three minutes left in the game.
By the time the contest was over, the Storm had eliminated two things: 1) the Lynx, and 2) the notion that its success this year was a fluke. The primary difference Wednesday was the guard play. The Storm’s backcourt — and this is not a typo — outscored the Lynx’s, 48-1.
Asked if he’d ever seen anything like that, Storm coach Dan Hughes gave an emphatic no. “And I’ve coached a lot of basketball games,” Hughes said.
Canada entered the game averaging 9.8 points and was 10 days removed from her previous high of 21. The second-year point guard, assumed to be Bird’s long-term successor in Seattle, proved she can play as big as the moment. Loyd, meanwhile, had one of her best games in an otherwise inconsistent and injury-plagued season. After dealing with an ankle injury for much of the year, the former No. 1 overall draft pick finished one point shy of her season-high.
Another key contribution came from Mercedes Russell, who scored 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting. And there was Shavonte Zellous, who scored four points in less than seven minutes of work. The Storm also held Minnesota to 5 of 19 from three-point distance while shooting 7 of 17 itself.
Next up for Seattle is the WNBA quarterfinals, where it will meet the Sparks in a single-elimination game in Los Angeles. At 22-12, L.A. posted the best record in the Western Conference and features All-Stars Nneka Ogwumike and Chelsea Gray — along with two-time league MVP Candace Parker.
Is the Storm supposed to win? In a word: no. But that’s a word it has rejected all season long.
NOTE: This story has been updated to with the correct final score from Wednesday’s game. It was incorrect in an earlier version.