In past seasons, Storm guard Sue Bird could see hints of the revelation that was to be Natasha Howard in 2018.
Playing against the mighty Minnesota Lynx last year, Bird would take notice when its second unit entered the game, and the forward always seemed to make an impact.
“Like, ‘There’s that Howard kid, she got an offensive rebound.’ You’d play a perfect defensive possession, and Natasha gets the O board,” Bird said. “So you knew about her.”
But what the Storm didn’t know was the explosion in Howard’s game that was coming when she was traded to Seattle in February, a deal that didn’t turn too many heads. All it did, however, was help turn around a team.
“She’s a difference maker,” Storm coach Dan Hughes said Friday.
“I think Tosh being part of the Storm is probably one of the biggest things that happened between 2017 and 2018,” Storm forward Breanna Stewart added.
Last year the Storm was a below-.500 team that limped into the playoffs as the No. 5 West seed and promptly was ousted in a single game.
This year the Storm soars into the WNBA semifinals Sunday against Phoenix as the No. 1 seed, harboring realistic hopes of bringing home the franchise’s third title.
What has changed? Certainly, the team has responded to Hughes and his focus on defense and rebounding. Stewart, in her third season, has lifted her game to an MVP level, and Bird, in her 16th, is as steady as ever. Jewell Loyd is a huge contributor as well.
But it has been the startling rise in Howard’s game, as much as anything, that propelled the Storm to a league-best 26-8 record, an improvement of 11 games over last year.
In her fifth WNBA season and playing for her third team, Howard has found the sweet spot of her career at age 26. She has averaged 13.2 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.0 blocks – well worth the second-round draft pick Seattle sent to Minnesota. On Tuesday Howard was named The Associated Press WNBA Most Improved Player.
Howard’s previous highs were 7.0 points, 3.6 rebounds and 0.8 blocks per game, so it’s like she’s a woman transformed, right? She doesn’t exactly see it that way. Howard sees it more like a woman finally given a chance. She started 33 of 34 games this year and averaged 25.6 minutes after starting just three games over the previous three years and playing just about half as many minutes.
“I had it in me the whole time,” the 6-foot-2 Howard said. “I was just waiting for the opportunity, and the opportunity came.”
Hughes raves about Howard’s shot-blocking acumen, her interior movement, her rebounding and her ability to run the floor.
“She’s brought an element of rim protection at her size, which is good for this team,” he said.
The upshot has been more room for Stewart to operate, and she has responded by averaging a career-high 21.8 points.
“Her presence and activity has meant for me, especially, that I’m not the only one having to battle with the big 5s, the centers of this league,” Stewart said. “We can kind of play in tandem, and she helps with our pace a lot.”
Bird notes that Howard’s influence is most apparent when she’s not on the court, accentuating just what she offers when she is.
“It’s an energy she brings, an athleticism that she brings, an ability to guard multiple people,” Bird said. “Offensively, the most unique thing about her is we never call plays for Natasha. Imagine.
“But she gets in where she can. She complements every single other one of us players. If a play is trying to go to Stewie but they double-team, it’s Natasha. If a play is trying to go over here and doesn’t work out, it’s Natasha. She always finds a way to pick her spots.”
Howard also provides the Storm something only Bird can match – playoff experience. As a rookie in 2014 the No. 5 overall draft pick out of Florida State made it to the conference finals with the Indiana Fever. The next year, the Fever lost in the WNBA Finals to Minnesota, and the Lynx traded for her in the offseason. The next two years resulted in two more trips to the WNBA Finals with Minnesota, a loss to the Los Angeles Sparks in 2016 and the elusive ring last year when the Lynx defeated the Sparks.
Do the math, and Howard has been to at least the semifinals for five seasons in a row and is hoping for her fourth consecutive visit to the finals. She understands better than most how the tenor of the game changes come Sunday.
“Everybody’s fighting to win a ring,” she said. “The intensity is going to be high. Everybody is going to have butterflies in their stomachs. It’s the next level. Everyone dreams to make it to the finals.”
The Storm made it to the finals, and won, in 2004 and 2010. They are eyeing a third title, with Howard as a quiet weapon hidden among the bigger names.
“Not everything is going to go your way, especially in the playoffs,” Bird said. “Every team is going to be scouted, and you need players who just know how to make plays, and that’s Natasha.”
Like Bird, Howard knows firsthand what it takes to win a championship. And she sees a Storm team that can go all the way.
“Absolutely,” she said. “Why not?”
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