August 9, 2020 

Storm show resilience vs. Mercury

Storm prove why they have the WNBA's best record

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Jewell Loyd #24 of the Seattle Storm handles the ball during the game against the Phoenix Mercury on August 8, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE viaGetty Images)

After Thursday’s narrow escape against Atlanta, how the Seattle Storm would come out against the Phoenix Mercury, the team one game behind them in the standings, was something to pay attention to. The Mercury came ready to play and catch their rival in the standings, but the Storm came away with a 74-68 victory.

Seattle missed their first seven shots because of Phoenix’s defensive intensity. The Mercury forced the Storm to take shots they didn’t want. When the Storm did get to the spots they wanted behind the line or at the rim, they were heavily contested. Alysha Clark’s 3-pointer with 4:11 into the game were the Storm’s first points.

It seemed the Mercury wanted a grinding rock fight of a game with the Storm. This is one of two ways a team can play the Storm, with the other being a shootout. However, this is risky as some of Seattle’s best offensive performances have come from their defense feeding their offense.

Choosing to assert themselves physically on the Storm with the hopes of wearing them out having played three games in five nights wasn’t a bad idea. The Mercury’s physicality could have made a lesser team decide it wasn’t worthwhile.

Seattle would finish the quarter on a 19-9 run and outscore Phoenix 23-7 in the second quarter. The Storm seemed to thrive against the Mercury bench, holding them to 2-of-9 shooting in the quarter. Seattle finished the first half with a 19-point lead and outshooting Phoenix 42.1 percent to 28.8 percent.

The Storm would lead by double digits for much of the second half until the Mercury made a run with under a minute left. Phoenix forced three turnovers in the final minute to trim their deficit to just four points.

“I think a team, you take some of the personality and philosophy of how you like to play. We have good defenders, they take pride in it. We have a good system and we have a lot of different ways we can guard some things and trying to be disruptive,” said coach Gary Kloppenburg. “Especially in the first half, we were really good, I thought we had them on everything that they wanted to do with our pressure and traps and rotate.

“We probably relaxed a little bit in that fourth quarter, but overall, it’s a good offensive team. I thought we did a pretty good job on [Diana Taurasi] and [Brittney] Griner for the most part, I think we did a pretty good job on her, trying to keep the ball out of her hands on the low post. But I’m happy, you just find a way to win, anyway you can, sometimes they aren’t pretty but you just have to find a way. So I’m really happy we were able to come out with that W against this team.”

Holding the Mercury to 31.4 percent shooting through three quarters was impressive. Diana Taurasi was 5-for-10 from the field and 3-of-7 from deep before leaving the game with back pain, but Seattle held Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith to just 9-for-24 through the first three quarters.

Inevitably, Griner got going in the fourth quarter. Griner had 10 points on four shots and had a large role in their final push. Griner added two rebounds, an assist and a block in the final frame. It’s no coincidence Phoenix had their most efficient quarter once she got going.

It’s too difficult to hold a great player down for an entire game. The same is true with Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird, and Jewell Loyd. Eventually, they’re going to develop a rhythm and elevate their team. Because the Storm did their work early with Griner and Diggins-Smith, they were able to get far enough ahead to withstand a run.

Sticking to their game plan when things weren’t going well early enabled the Storm to move two games up on a rival and move to 7-1. The Storm will face the Chicago Sky on Monday.

Loyd steps up as Mercury lockdown Stewart

Anecdotally, Saturday was the most defensive pressure Breanna had seen so far this season. The Mercury brought help defenders nearly every time Stewart touched the ball, even with Brittney Griner as the primary defender. Phoenix wanted Stewart to work for everything and it worked. Stewart finished with just 15 points on 4-for-12 shooting and just four attempts at the line.

Limiting Stewart meant more pressure on her teammates to step up.

“I thought we got some really good contributions coming from off the bench and from Sami [Whitcomb] and Mercedes [Russell]. They were double-teaming [Breanna Stewart] and some of our other players really stepped up, and were able to score in different ways,” said Kloppenburg. “That’s what you want to do cause she’s going to draw a lot of attention, it’s going to open some things up for the rest of the players. It was really good, I thought our first half, the ball movement and that extra pass is what we wanted to do against these guys and we did a really good job.

“We just stalled out a bit in that fourth quarter, something we wanted to address is being able to finish games. At times we struggle down here doing that, that’s something we definitely need to work on going forward cause I know we’re definitely going to be in some close games where we really have to execute down the stretch.”

Among those ready to step up, Jewell Loyd led the way for Seattle. Loyd finished with 20 points on 5-of-7 3-point shooting and four rebounds. Her two steals underscore her hard-nosed defense, too. Taurasi got her shots, but Loyd contested them well and held her own when switched into unfavorable mismatches.

“Maybe it’s matchups. Some of that is probably playing against [Diana Taurasi],” said Loyd of another big performance versus Phoenix. “You know the best way to respect a G.O.A.T. like that is to give your full and best effort all the time, so that’s what I try to do, and really just try to do whatever my team needs me to do to secure the win. As the media calls it, I’m just trying to get a ‘dub.”

“We felt this was a team that if we moved them around, a lot of screening, that we were going to be able to get loose. I thought Jewell [Loyd], she did a really good job of that and just got into the open areas for her shot. And then [Stewart], it was the first time we’ve really seen hard double teams on her, something going forward I think teams are going to start paying a lot of attention to her,” said Kloppenburg of Loyd. “We have to do a better job of reading that and finding ways to keep her out of there or find ways to make them pay for that double team. So any time a player is drawing a double team it means some people are open, so moving forward, this will help us to be ready for that and those situations.”

Along with Loyd, Jordin Canada dished out 10 assists— two shy of her career-high. Alysha Clark added 11 points on 4-for-9 shooting, five rebounds, and four assists. As Kloppenburg said, Stewart is likely going to continue seeing double and triple teams, so getting quality performances up and down the roster will be pivotal.

Just as the Storm weren’t going to contain Griner for 40 minutes, the same was true for Stewart.

“Even though she wasn’t scoring offensively, she was still being effective on the defensive side, and then in the second half things opened up for her. She’s a former MVP, you’re not going to keep her down for long. We knew that whether she had four points in the first half or not that she was going to get going at some point. Credit to the depth of our team,” said Clark. “For us it goes back to last year and just getting everybody in positions that we normally haven’t been in, taking on larger scoring roles, looking to more aggressive, and you see how that’s starting to play into our favor this year, especially with the tight turnaround that we’re having with all these games and no training camp. Last year was important for the success that we’re having now.”

It will be this next-woman-up mentality that will help the Storm as they aim for another deep playoff run. When someone is having an off night or the focal point of the defense, they’re going to need to adjust like they did on Saturday.

Written by Derek James

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