LOS ANGELES — The Storm’s efficient offensive machine that eliminated the Minnesota Lynx from the WNBA playoffs Wednesday night sputtered, stalled and died at the Staples Center on Sunday.
As a result, the defending-champion Storm was routed, 92-69, by the Los Angeles Sparks in front of an announced crowd of 9,081, ending Seattle’s season and denying it a chance at a fourth WNBA title.
“Derek Fisher has done a great job with them,” Storm coach Dan Hughes said of his Sparks counterpart. “They’re playing extremely good basketball right now, especially here. I think they’re playing some of their best basketball.”
Natasha Howard led the Storm offense. She made seven of 16 shots, including three of six from three-point range, to finish with 20 points. Her teammates, however, missed 30 of 48 field-goal attempts, including 13 of 18 beyond the arc.
Against the Lynx, the Storm shot 47% from the field, with Jordin Canada scoring a career-high 26 points and Jewell Loyd adding 22. But in Los Angeles, the visitors made only 13 of 34 shots in the second half to finish 39.1% from the field.
“In the second half, the Sparks played more aggressive and we got back on our heels,” Howard said. “We fought back but the Sparks came out with more energy and fight.”
Canada, who matched Mercedes Russell with 10 points, provided specifics.
“They load the paint,” Canada said. “When we’re able to get into the paint, great things happen. But they forced us to take a lot of outside shots. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to make those shots in the second half. They wanted it more in the second half.”
Things started fine for the Storm as Howard eight successive points during a 10-0 run to give Seattle an 18-11 lead with 2:41 left in the first quarter.
Howard, the WNBA’s defensive player of the year held Los Angeles’ leading scorer, Nneka Ogwumike, without a field goal until 3:20 remained in the first half. Before that basket, Ogwumike had just two points on free throws. Howard also grabbed two defensive rebounds, blocked a shot and made a steal during the run.
But the Storm’s offense began misfiring before stalling outright in the second quarter.
After Howard’s three-point basket with 2:41 left in the first period, the visitors failed to score for the next 2:05. The Sparks responded with a 9-0 surge to move ahead, 20-18, with 49 seconds left in the quarter. But the Storm used Crystal Langhorne’s three-pointer with three seconds remaining to end the first quarter with a 23-22 lead.
The Storm began the second period by missing its first four shots, and failed to score for the first 3:36 of the quarter. That allowed Los Angeles to go on another 9-0 spurt to build a 31-23 advantage.
The visitors narrowed the deficit to 40-36 but Chelsea Gray’s three-pointer expanded the margin to nine points with 36.6 seconds left in the first half. The Storm then started the second half by making five of six shots to draw within 50-49 with 6:33 left in third quarter.
After that, the Sparks’ defense proved suffocating.
“I thought we ran out of gas a little bit,” Hughes said. “It’s a testimony to their depth, to be honest with you. They’re a long team and a deep team. They put a lot of pressure on you and they keep coming with the post players.”
“I thought we had played three pretty good quarters. We really battled. A lot of the things we were hoping to achieve, we were achieving. But they put constant pressure on you, and we lost a little bit of the attacking nature that really served us well for three quarters.”
The collapse became complete in the fourth quarter, when the Storm made just four baskets and committed seven turnovers that the Sparks converted into 10 points. Howard’s free throw with 8:48 to play narrowed the deficit to 69-61 but the host’s ensuing 13-0 blitz ensured the win.
Loyd finished with 11 points, Canada contributed seven assists and Howard and Russell grabbed 11 rebounds apiece. Gray compiled game highs of 21 points and eight assists, Ogwumike had 17 points and Candace Parker had 11 points, 10 rebounds and six assists.
Despite the loss, Hughes expressed confidence in the Storm’s future — especially after his squad made it this far without the injured Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart.
“I’m really proud of my group,” Hughes said. “In a difficult year where we had to reach down, it’s pretty inspiring what they did. They were able to be resilient. They were able to grow into different roles and get locked into what this team needed this year. When you lose key leaders like Sue Bird and Breana Stewart, I saw leadership develop within this team, too. Sometimes, that’s the one that’s really hard to replace.
“You want to end every year with a win but you also want years that put your franchise forward. In one where we could have taken a step back, I think we actually went forward.”