A close battle goes to the well-rested Storm in Seattle.
The Seattle Storm used a big third quarter to build a lead that withstood a late Phoenix Mercury run to win Game 1 of the WNBA Semifinals 91-87 on Sunday afternoon in Seattle.
On the day she was named the WNBA MVP, Breanna Stewart led the way with 28 points — including going 6-for-9 from 3-point range — and seven rebounds to lead the Storm, who also got 23 points from Jewell Lloyd and 20 points from Natasha Howard.
“We just didn’t stop,” Stewart told reporters after the game. “We didn’t freeze when things got tight. Playing Phoenix, you know that they are always in the game, no matter if it’s a two-point game or a ten point game, they have the opportunity to come back and win. We made some hustle plays that gave us multiple possessions, especially the one where Jewell [Loyd] hit that big shot. That was huge.”
The Storm used a late second quarter burst to take a four-point lead into the half, then exploded out of the break with a 16-4 run to take a commanding lead over the Mercury.
But Phoenix slowly chipped away, knocking the lead down to 12 by the end of the third before locking down defensively in the fourth quarter. The Mercury held Seattle to 12 points on x-of-x shooting in the fourth and cut the deficit all the way down to two points with 1:40 left.
But after a timeout, Stewart got an offensive rebound off of a missed 3-pointer to extend the possession, with Lloyd hitting a mid-range jumper with a minute left to give the Storm a four-point lead that would stand.
Seattle now leads the best-of-five series 1-0, with Game 2 tipping off at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT Tuesday before the series moves to Phoenix for Game 3 on Friday (also 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT).
Stewart’s play backs up MVP Day
Word came out before sunrise in Seattle that Stewart was named the league’s Most Valuable Player, which allowed for a presentation ceremony before the game.
Stewart proceeded to light up the scoreboard in the first half, dropping 19 points to lead Seattle to their halftime lead. She added another seven points in the first five minutes of the second half to give her 26 points through 25 minutes.
Stewart only had two points down the stretch, finishing the day 9-of-18 from the field, but her 6-of-9 shooting from deep helped open up the Phoenix defense for her other teammates. And perhaps her most impactful single moment wasn’t a basket, but was the offensive rebound that led to the final basket of the game, her seventh rebound of the game.
“Down the stretch there were a few lapses that we had,” Stewart said. “But, we know what we are supposed to do, So, it’s just about tightening that up. Tomorrow we will have another day to shoot and prepare and we will watch this film and take whatever we can from it.”
Sharing the ball sparks Seattle
Seattle’s pass-happy offense was near its best form this afternoon, with the Storm getting 24 assists on their 33 baskets, continuing a trend from their regular season success.
The Storm finished the regular season tied for the top spot in team assists, averaging 21.2 per game (alongside the Chicago Sky). Considering that they averaged 32.1 field goals per game, that’s roughly two-thirds of baskets being assisted in the regular season.
As always, the leader of the passing was Sue Bird, who dropped a double-double with 10 assists and 10 points on Sunday, After averaging 7.1 assists per game in the regular season, Bird picked up her 10th assist on Lloyd’s final basket to seal the game.
But it wasn’t just her on Sunday, as Lloyd provided five assists and both Stewart and Alysha Clark added three apiece. As has been the case all season, Seattle’s at their best when giving each other some assists.
Bonner continues to shine in playoffs
In continuing what has been both an amazing season and a particularly special month of August, DeWanna Bonner was spectacular for the Mercury on Sunday.
Bonner finished the night with 27 points and 13 rebounds, both team highs on the afternoon. Her shot continues to be strong, going 11-for-18 from the field and 2-for-5 from deep (as well as making all three of her free throws).
After sitting out all of 2017 to give birth to twin girls, Bonner has really turned it on in the month of August, averaging 22.7 points and 11.6 rebounds per game in the 10 games between the regular season and playoffs. She’s dropped a double-double in seven of those games and scored at least 20 points in nine of those games.
She’s been even better so far in the playoffs, averaging 26.3 points and 14 rebounds so far in three playoff games. After Phoenix struggled mightily in July, Bonner has been a key reason why the Mercury took a seven-game winning streak into the WNBA semifinals, and despite the loss, Bonner kept up her stellar play in Game 1.
“You always think that you are going to pull out the win,” Bonner told reporters following the game. “I think that we started finding our rhythm, we were one rebound away. We have to be better than that. They are great at offensive rebounds as a team. I think that we were just one step behind. It makes me feel good going into the next game that we were only one rebound, only four points away. We will just go, watch a little film and come back.”
Fatigue, foul trouble plagues Phoenix
All season long, the Mercury has relied on its bench less than any other WNBA team, including the fewest bench points per game.
Playing in the third playoff game in six days after two cross-country flights, the Mercury stuck to their plan, with the team only playing three bench players and those three combining for just nine points in 35 minutes and 42 seconds.
But other than Bonner, the stars for the Mercury had off nights, compared to their standards. Diana Taurasi scored 25 points on 8-of-17 shooting, but also committed six turnovers and three fouls, including a technical foul at the end of the first half. She finished with a game-low plus-minus of -13.
Brittney Griner also wasn’t at her best, with just 13 points on 6-of-12 shooting and just four rebounds. She also picked up her fifth foul with 6:30 left in the fourth and sat for two minutes, a stretch where the Mercury’s offense went stagnant.
“It wasn’t one of Brittney’s (Griner) better games,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. “She’ll be better in the next game and when we have a little bit more of an inside presence then that’ll help us.”
An optimistic viewpoint for the Mercury, one Brondello cited after Sunday is that, on a night where both Taurasi and Griner didn’t play near their best, Phoenix still nearly won the game. But in their third straight season of winning two one-game playoffs to reach the semifinals, The Mercury is hoping to avoid getting swept in the semifinals for the third straight year. Mustering this type of comeback, but falling just short, has to sting for Phoenix.