Admittedly, the Storm isn’t necessarily sprinting toward the WNBA playoffs considering its 5-6 record after the Olympic break precipitated a slide from first to fourth in the standings.
Certainly, not like last year when Seattle won seven of its final eight regular-season games before plowing through the postseason with six straights wins, including a 33-point romp in Game 5 of the WNBA Finals to claim a fourth championship for the franchise.
In 2018, the Storm won eight of its final nine regular-season games and in 2010 Seattle was 6-2 in its final eight regular-season games before claiming championships.
You have to go all the way back to 2004 to find an example of a Storm team that stumbled into the playoffs and still finished the season with hardware. That year, Seattle posted a 3-6 record in its final nine regular-season games
“Trying to draw parallels and comparisons between those championship teams is difficult because obviously, the players are different and not only that there are so many things that make those seasons and challenges particularly unique,” said guard Sue Bird who was an integral component to the Storm’s four championship teams. “What I will say is I thought we were on our way to becoming a little more consistent in our play and then we lose Stewie (Breanna Stewart) and now we’re scrambling a bit again.”
Stewart missed the last two games with a left foot injury and has not played since Sept. 7. The 6-foot-4 forward watched Wednesday’s practice at Seattle Pacific University from the sideline and worked individually on shooting drills.
Coach Noelle Quinn, who declined to give specifics on the injury, said the Storm plans to re-evaluate Stewart on Friday with the hopes she’ll have two days of practice before the team’s playoff opener at noon Sunday.
The Storm is 1-4 this season without Stewart, the 2020 and 2018 WNBA Finals MVP.
“The Stewie injury is a tough one,” Bird said. “As a player, you’re groomed in a lot of ways to roll with what you got and you can’t think about what you don’t. And at the same time, I have moments when I’m like not having the MVP of the league is really hard. I think we’re in as good of a spot as we can be without the MVP. As an athlete you’re told no excuses and … the fact of the matter is, we have to fill a huge hole and everybody is going to have to step up.”
Not coincidentally, All-Star guard Jewell Loyd had her three highest-scoring games of the season when Stewart was out of the lineup.
Loyd tallied a career-high 37 points in the regular-season finale last Friday to beat the Phoenix Mercury 94-85. Last month, she put up 35 points against the New York Liberty and 26 vs. Chicago in a pair of close defeats.
“What we’ve seen out of Jewell this year is, I don’t want to say a breakout year, but someone who is coming into their own and should be recognized as one of the truly great stars in our league,” Bird said. “And it’s not just her scoring. Before there were times in her career when her shot wasn’t falling she wasn’t able to impact the game, but now she’s having an impact on both ends of the floor.
“I’ll say it because it doesn’t get said enough, but in the second half of the season she’s become an elite defender. There’s not many players, especially perimeter players, on this league who can impact the game like she does with her offense and defense.”
Still, it remains to be seen if Loyd is able to carry the Storm to a second straight WNBA title without Stewart.
Here’s a look at the WNBA playoff matchups and predictions.
First Round: Single Elimination
No. 5 Phoenix Mercury (19-13) vs. No. 8 Liberty (12-20)
Phoenix star Diana Taurasi missed 16 games this season, including the past three due to an ankle injury. It’s no coincidence that the Mercury have lost three in a row after winning its previous seven games. Taurasi is listed as questionable, but if she’s unavailable Phoenix should still have enough firepower in All-Stars Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith to subdue a slumping New York team.
The pick: Phoenix
No. 6 Chicago Sky (16-16) vs. No. 7 Dallas Wings (14-18)
Chicago has lost in the first round in each of the past two years, which is why the Sky went out and landed former Los Angeles Sparks star Candace Parker. Chicago is vastly more experienced than a young Wings team with a combined 10 playoffs games and returning to the postseason for the first time since 2018. Lower-seeded teams are 2-8 in the first round since the current playoff format was installed in 2016 and have Dallas has been overly dependent on All-Star guard Arike Ogunbowale.
The pick: Chicago
Second Round: Single Elimination
No. 3 Minnesota Lynx (22-10) vs. Lowest-Seeded Winner in First Round
I’m staying on the Sky hype train and believe Chicago is much better than its .500 record during the regular season.
The pick: Chicago
No. 4 Storm (21-11) vs. Highest-Seeded Winner in First Round
Lower-seeded teams are 5-5 in the second round since 2016 and this looks like a good spot for another playoff “upset” considering the uncertainty surrounding Stewart’s availability. These teams faced each other last Friday and Seattle needed a monster game from Loyd to get past a short-handed Phoenix team that trailed by four points in the final minute.
The pick: Phoenix
No. 1 Connecticut Sun (26-6) vs. Lowest-Seeded Winner in Second Round
Chicago won the regular-season series 2-1 against Connecticut, which was missing MVP candidate Jonquel Jones in all three games. Since a June 19 loss to the Sky, the Sun is 18-1 in regular-season games. At full strength, Connecticut is the best defensive team in the league while allowing 69.9 points per game.
The pick: Connecticut
No. 2 Las Vegas Aces (24-8) vs. Highest-Seeded Winner in Second Round
If this was single-elimination, then Phoenix would have a great chance of advancing. However, the Aces are too deep and should eventually wear down the Mercury in an extended series.
The pick: Las Vegas
Since the playoff reformat in 2016, the top two playoffs seeds have met in the WNBA Finals in four out of five times and this year should be no different. Both teams are looking for a redemption and their first franchise title. Las Vegas is returning for a second straight year after getting swept 3-0 by the Storm while Connecticut lost 3-2 in 2019 to the Washington Mystics. The Sun had little difficulty with the Aces during the regular season while posting a 3-0 record and should be able to win just as convincingly for three more victories.
The pick: Connecticut