The Seattle Storm claimed sole possession of first place in the WNBA following their 97-91 win over the Washington Mystics at KeyArena on Sunday.
Sue Bird finished with 21 points and five assists, but that took a back seat to a far greater achievement. Bird passed Lauren Jackson to become the Storm’s all-time leading scorer.
Breanna Stewart had a team-high 25 points with 10 rebounds to post her fourth double-double of the season.
Elena Delle Donne lived up to her billing with a game-high 29 points and was one of five Mystics starters to score in double figures. Washington got just seven points from its bench, though, compared to 22 for Seattle.
Here are some of the bigger takeaways from the victory for the Storm.
In addition to setting a Storm scoring record, Bird became the eighth player in WNBA history to hit 6,000 career points. If she plays another season, then she’ll likely surpass Lisa Leslie as the league’s No. 6 all-time scorer.
There aren’t enough superlative to describe Bird’s effort this season.
She eclipsed 20 points Sunday for the first time since September 2016, and she did so while shooting 6-of-9 from the field and 4-of-5 on three-pointers.
As much as her playmaking is important for Seattle, her ability to score efficiently nearly eclipses that.
When Stewart and Jewell Loyd are on the floor, it’s only natural for opponents to sag off Bird a little bit. They might also use the lesser of two backcourt defenders to match up against Bird rather than Loyd—an approach the Storm have imitated to hide Bird on defense at times.
The Storm don’t need Bird scoring 15 to 20 points every game. As long as she can consistently capitalize on her open opportunities, that’s another headache for opposing coaches.
Langhorne Utilized to Devastating Effect
Long ago, I argued the Storm should’ve started Carolyn Swords at center, with Crystal Langhorne coming off the bench. Needless to say, that take hasn’t aged well, but the principle remains pretty sensible.
Sunday night was a demonstration of how much of an asset Langhorne can be in a reserve role.
The Storm were plus-24 with her on the floor for 16:50, and she scored 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting while collecting six rebounds.
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Langhorne has endured a tough start to the 2018 season. She lost her starting place to Natasha Howard and then missed a stretch of games as the result of a rib injury.
The 11-year veteran didn’t look comfortable coming off the bench, either—something she hasn’t done since her rookie year in 2008. Entering Sunday, she was shooting 41.7 percent from the field, down from 64.7 percent in 2017.
In theory, having Langhorne play with the second unit can work for two reasons: She’s a proven hyper-efficient inside scorer who can feast on weaker defenses, and her defensive flaws are less likely to be exposed.
That’s exactly what happened against the Mystics. Langhorne looked rejuvenated spotting up from mid-range and using her array of post moves to score inside.
Calling Langhorne a secret weapon would be a stretch, since she’s a two-time All-Star with more than a decade of experience. But what’s already the league’s best offense can get even better if Sunday’s game was a sign of things to come.
Bench Locks Down on Defense
The Storm’s bench scoring is a bit misleading because the 22 points were split between two players. Langhorne had 12 and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis scored the other 10.
The bench’s biggest impact came on defense. Here are the defensive ratings for Langhorne, Mosqueda-Lewis and Jordin Canada: 68.0, 68.6 and 58.3.
Watching the Mystics was like flashing back to the Storm team from last year or two seasons ago.
Washington was fine when the starters were on the floor, but Delle Donne, Kristi Toliver and Ariel Atkins can’t play all 40 minutes. When the Mystics had to go to the bench, everything fell apart.
That’s partly an indictment of Washington’s top-heavy roster—one without Emma Meesseman as well—and a testament to Seattle’s defensive improvement from top to bottom.
Amid a generally disappointing rookie year, Canada has delivered on defense. Langhorne is boasting the best defensive rating of her career (90.7). Mosqueda-Lewis’ defensive rating, meanwhile, has fallen from 100.2 in 2017 to 97.8.
Jewell Loyd: Shrugging Emoji
Getting any sort of read on Loyd is basically impossible this season. You have no idea what kind of player she’s going to be on a given night.
Loyd had five straight 20-point scoring games to close out May and then hit 20-plus points just twice over her next 14 games. After rediscovering her efficiency in the Storm’s last three wins, she shoots 4-of-13 against the Mystics, including 1-of-5 from beyond the arc.
Loyd should still be an All-Star. Her 2.7 win shares have her tied with Delle Donne for eighth in the WNBA, according to Basketball Reference. And as argued before, focusing only on her shooting ignores the fact she’s on pace to set career bests in rebounds (4.6), assists (3.5) and turnovers (1.9).
Still, a team’s weaknesses are almost always exposed in the playoffs. When opponents inevitably focus so much of their attention on slowing down Stewart, the Storm need to be able to count upon Loyd.
Now into her fourth year, Loyd remains a frustratingly inconsistent scorer.