Inside how Storm captured signature win to eliminate Lynx

Seattle’s 84-74 victory over Minnesota was built on the team’s signature first-quarter blitz.

SEATTLE — With a 10-point margin, the Seattle Storm’s 84-74 win over the Minnesota Lynx doesn’t immediately look like a wire-to-wire victory. But the Storm have increasingly made it a signature of theirs to build big leads quickly with high-pace, high-energy first quarters. Even though Seattle had a slightly negative point differential across the entire regular season, Seattle’s first-quarter margin was comfortably the third-best in the league, trailing only Washington and Connecticut. This gives the Storm the upper hand of playing with the lead for the remaining three quarters, as Seattle leans more and more on their defensive grit.

The entire narrative arc is almost exactly how Minnesota’s previous visit to Seattle played out three weeks ago — a game that ended with almost the exact same final score, at 82-74. After ten minutes on Wednesday night’s single-elimination game, the Storm had staked out an eight-point lead, a lead they would never give back.

After backing up Sue Bird throughout Seattle’s run to the championship last season, this contest was Jordin Canada’s first career playoff start. She responded by setting a new career high, dropping 26 points, including 11 during the up-tempo first quarter. In Seattle’s previous home game, against the Atlanta Dream, Canada had also set a career high, at 24 points. Across the entire season, Canada has played dramatically better on Seattle’s home floor throughout 2019: on the road, she scored 7.1 points per game on 30.9% shooting, while racking up 12.6 points on 45.8% accuracy at home.

Following the game, Canada relayed the advice that Bird had given her beforehand, saying: “Just continuing to attack and cut as much as possible. I know teams and players have tended to sag off of me. And so just create opportunities for my teammates, whether it be screening, diving to the basket, getting some cuts.”

In the game, Canada executed the game plan with precision, turning her potential weakness — shooting from range — into a huge positive — creating high-percentage looks at the rim. When Minnesota’s Danielle Robinson leaves Canada on this play to provide a double-team on the ball, Canada prevents Minnesota from playing 5-on-4 with the clever cut:

Although Seattle’s scoring was co-headlined by Jewell Loyd, who dropped in 22 (including 11 in the first quarter), most members of the Storm roster provided positive contributions without scoring the ball. After being awarded the Defensive Player of the Year trophy before the game, Natasha Howard scored a season-low two points — but also added a season-high six assists. Alysha Clark also only scored four points, but matched that number with four steals. Second-year center Mercedes Russell matched Canada with a team-high 32 minutes, holding the future Hall of Famer Sylvia Fowles to a relatively quiet 7-for-13 night, all while Russell efficiently went 6-for-7 herself. Coach Dan Hughes was allowed to rest his starters for nearly the first five minutes of the crucial fourth quarter while Shavonte Zellous and Sami Whitcomb made key baskets to crack the shrinking lead back open.

For Minnesota, this game confirmed that, at least in a world without Maya Moore on the roster, rookie Napheesa Collier is absolutely Minnesota’s premiere player. In a game where no other member of the Lynx hit 30 minutes played, Collier was out on the floor for over 38 minutes, collecting a double-double along the way. Although Collier’s box score line was slightly marred by four turnovers, she continually made positive plays for the Lynx, and was clearly the foundation of the team’s offensive attack.

After the game, the occasionally blunt Cheryl Reeve was effusive about Collier: “We needed her to do so many things for us today. You know, she’s small forward, she’s power forward, she blocked shots. Overall, she’s difficult to play against. She played with a sense of urgency that sometimes rookies have a hard time reaching that level in playoffs, like they don’t understand. Napheesa, that’s not difficult for her. That’s who she is every single day, that level of playing on the edge, playing with a sense of urgency. I just can’t say enough about her. We’re thankful that she’s ours. And if Geno Auriemma is correct, this will be her worst year. That’s what he said. So, I’m really excited about our future.”

The issue for Reeve was finding out which other members of the team would be the best compliments to Collier on the floor. Aside from stretch-four Damiris Dantas, who continually knocked down outside shots, almost every other member of the Lynx had an off night, forcing Reeve to cycle through the bench for positive options even as late as the fourth quarter. Ironically, it was Dantas who got the short hook in the last game between these two games, only receiving 13 minutes while the team leaned on other players to stay in the game.

After the game, Reeve was at a loss for concrete reasons why so many members of her rotation drifted in and out of productivity: “If I could answer why players do what they do, why they show up when they show up, I think a lot of other coaches would want to know the answer to those things. Really unfortunate timing, you know, because you need your top players in the season to show up. And it didn’t happen for us tonight.”

Perhaps it’s Seattle’s ability to match Fowles’ size with Russell, or Seattle’s ability to reliably defend the stretch-4 Dantas with the agile Howard — or maybe it’s because Seattle can do both -— but the Storm were effectively a nightmare match-up all season for Minnesota. Despite the Lynx’s relatively low seventh seed, only three teams in the WNBA had a positive scoring margin against Minnesota all year: Washington, Los Angeles, and, yes, Seattle. Minnesota was a combined 1-9 against these three teams, and 9-3 against the other four playoff teams.

In this game, Seattle was so effective in the passing lanes that they almost took away the option to pass as a way for Minnesota to build their offensive sets: the Lynx registered 16 assists against 18 turnovers, including 10 steals from the Storm. Seattle’s ball-hawk defense allowed them to confidently send double-teams to the ball that limited Minnesota in other possessions. The Lynx get off a reasonable shot here only because a loose ball happens to bounce back into Fowles’ hands — Minnesota does not at all punish Seattle’s decision to send a double-team, with Collier wide-open in the corner:

Achieving the playoff win felt cathartic for a Seattle team who faced an incredible number of obstacles in May, including seeing their threatening home court forced into limbo. Due to renovations at KeyArena, virtually in the shadow of the city’s iconic Space Needle, the Storm were forced to split their home games between the University of Washington’s home arena, in a more suburban section of Seattle, and the Angel of the Winds Arena, in the outlying city of Everett.

UW’s purple-lined home floor may have felt startling on television — and certainly didn’t fit well with the Storm’s signature green-and-yellow jerseys — but, with about two-thirds of regular season games scheduled there, the arena quickly came to feel like home. After all, the arena has had loud basketball games played in it from the era of Kelsey Plum, to the era of Detlef Schrempf, to eras far, far older than that. The team’s journeys out to Everett, including for this game against Minnesota, were a different story.

It’s a potentially harmless 26 miles between the two makeshift home courts, but the truth is that Seattle’s surprisingly gruesome traffic makes this a 60-90 minute journey from most places in the city. Furthermore, the arena is the permanent home of the Everett Silvertips minor league hockey team: with seating already established for the much-larger hockey rink, baseline seating for the Storm games is virtually nonexistent. The first rows of baseline fan seats are separated from the court by huge slabs of concrete that look exactly the same at game time as they do when the court is under construction.

The sudden change of venue is not really anybody’s fault, and this odd season of shuffling back and forth will be worth it once the Storm return to a fully modernized KeyArena. Still, the end result is that just over 5,000 fans were in attendance against the Lynx — compared to 2018’s average night of over 8,000.

You’d never know that the Storm were inconvenienced by the shifts back and forth. When players on the team do mention the fanbase in postgame press conferences, they uniformly discuss gratitude that fan support has stayed consistent, and consistently loud, through the team’s positive and negative runs this season. Even the home arena has been an obstacle for the 2019 Storm to overcome. But the 2019 Storm have faced even bigger obstacles, and they’ve gotten past those too.

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