Following a blowout defeat in the WNBA Finals opener, Bill Laimbeer called the Storm “tremendous front-runners.”
“When things are going good for them, their shots go in,” the Las Vegas Aces coach said. “That’s what their team is about.”
In regards to Storm star Breanna Stewart, Laimbeer noted: “Once her shots start going in, she’s a good front-runner.”
Laimbeer’s assessment might have been complimentary, but Storm coach Gary Kloppenburg countered: “That’s a different definition of front-runner than what I have.”
During a teleconference call Monday, Kloppenburg smiled and chuckled when asked about Laimbeer knowing No. 2-seed Seattle leads No. 1 Las Vegas 2-0 in the best-of-five series and is on the brink of a WNBA championship going into Game 3, Tuesday, 4 p.m. PT.
“He’s good at that,” Kloppenburg said. “He’s been around a long time. He knows how to spin stuff to try to manipulate the media or wherever he’s going with it. We don’t really play into it that much.
“We’re really just concentrating on what we can do to keep getting better each game and not deal with any type of innuendo or under-handed drama.”
That’s the most you’re going to get if you’re looking for any drama in this championship series that’s been a one-sided mismatch so far.
Since the start of the postseason, the Storm, which swept No. 4 Minnesota in the semifinals, has been laser-focused on capturing its second title in three years and fourth in franchise history.
Not even Laimbeer, who is a reputed provocateur dating back to his days as a Detroit Pistons Bad Boy, can distract Seattle at this point.
Perhaps Sue Bird, put it best when she said: “We experienced how much things can change from one year to the next, so we don’t want to let it slip through our fingers.”
Bird was talking about the Storm’s injury-riddled 2019 season in which she sat out following arthroscopic knee surgery and Stewart was unavailable due to an Achilles injury.
“Because of the injuries of the previous season (and) because of the adversities that we had to go through from 2018 to 2020, we kind of have that vibe again where it’s like anything can happen in a year,” Bird said. “So here we are. We’re not just simply happy to be here, that’s a little different.
“When you’ve won a championship, that’s always going to change from one finals to the next. But we also know anything can happen so we don’t want to let it slip through our fingers.”
And therein lies the difference between Seattle, which returns eight players from its 2018 championship team, and a young and short-handed Las Vegas team that’s making its first trip to the WNBA Finals without star center Liz Cambage, former No. 1 draft choice and Washington star point guard Kelsey Plum and standout reserve forward Dearica Hamby.
Aside from veterans Angel McCoughtry and Jackie Young, no Aces player had participated in the finals before this season.
Meanwhile, the Storm can draw on its wealth of experience and recall being in this position two years ago when it had a 2-0 lead over Washington heading into Game 3.
“That year was a contrast because we were up two on Phoenix (in the semifinals) and they were able to get us to five,” Kloppenburg said. “We understand both sides of that situation. Not relaxing in this situation because we know they’re going to be coming out. No team wants to get swept.
“We know they’ll come out very intensely with a high sense of urgency. We really have to mentally be there for that and take that on. To start the game, you want to kind of approach it like we’re down and come in with that chip on your shoulder. That sense of urgency with our team as well.”
League history suggests the WNBA Finals is nearing a coronation.
Since moving to a five-game format in 2006, six teams have started 2-0 in the championship series and each has gone on to win in a three-game sweep.
The defunct Detroit Shock, which was coached by Laimbeer, was the first to do it in 2008 followed by Seattle (2010), Minnesota (2011 and ’13), Phoenix (2014) and the Storm again in 2018.
“We came out hungry,” said Stewart, who tallied 30 points in a 98-82 victory over Washington to clinch the 2018 WNBA title. “We knew were up 2-0 and we still came out hungry and wanted to be better.
“That’s a similar mindset to tomorrow night. We’ve had good performances in Game 1 and Game 2, but we want Game 3 to be our best. That’s what we’re going to do and leave it all out on the court.”
Stewart is poised to win a second WNBA Finals MVP – she won it in 2018 – considering she’s averaging 29.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.5 blocks while shooting 59.5% from the field and 62.5% on three-pointers.
“The best thing we can do is try to contest and be there and make sure she sees bodies within our team defense,” said 2020 WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson, who is averaging 21.1 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and 2.1 assists. “I don’t necessarily think it’s just me, but the team as a whole we can all collapse in on different situations with different people and go from there.
“But when you’re dealing with someone who plays the game of basketball so well like Stewie, it’s hard.”
And it’s not just Stewart, who became the first player in league history to record back-to-back games with at least five three-pointers in the WNBA Finals.
Seattle presents myriad problems on the offensive end. Four Storm players, including Jewell Loyd, Alysha Clark and Natasha Howard, have scored at least 21 points during the finals.
Meanwhile, Bird is dissecting the Las Vegas defense while averaging 13 assists and orchestrating an offense that’s shooting 51% from the field and 39% on three-pointers.
Defensively, the Storm has neutralized the Aces’ dominant inside attack and forced Las Vegas to experiment with a small-ball lineup, featuring backup forward Emma Cannon, that had varying success in Game 2.
And yet, despite losing both games to Las Vegas in the regular season, Seattle has dominated the finals while holding a lead for over 68 of the 80 minutes.
Front-runners? Maybe so.
“I’ll take it as a compliment,” Bird said. “Maybe when I see him on the breakfast line, which I usually do, I’ll ask him about it. But I’m not really sure how to interpret it. … Thanks Bill.”