It’s been asked so much at this point that the question feels almost trite: How exactly have the Seattle Storm stayed so competitive this season?
We all know the major obstacles that have been presented to Seattle this season. Its league MVP suffered a torn Achilles while playing in Europe before the WNBA season began and its legendary point guard had knee surgery that now has her on the shelf a season after leading her team to glory.
We’re talking about the defending champions here, however, so the general sentiment coming into the season was that the Storm would be decent but not great and would likely do well to fight for the last playoff spot.
That was before Jordin Canada stepped into the starting point guard role and absolutely crushed it. Before Natasha Howard upgraded herself from last year's most improved player to a legit Defensive Player of the Year and MVP candidate while also being an underrated star on offense. Before Jewell Loyd showed us, yet again, that she has another level she can reach when she's healthy and the Storm need her most.
But for the time being, let’s focus on the first two players leading what’s truly been behind Seattle’s success this season: defense.
It’s not always switched on, as evidenced in the Storm’s last three losses where they let the other team—all teams with Finals aspirations in the Aces, Mystics and Sparks—average 87 points. Hell, even during Sunday’s game against the Liberty, Seattle sacrificed a first-quarter lead and gave up 28 points in the second quarter.
But when the defense is kicking, it’s one of the best in the WNBA—No. 2 in defensive rating, to be specific.
Returning to Sunday’s game, the Storm came out a different team after halftime. Tina Charles, who had been scorching them for the past 20 minutes, was suddenly held in check. New York started getting frustrated and went cold, with only Charles and Bria Hartley finishing in double-digits. The Libs would only score 24 points after halftime and leave their first game in Barclays Center with a 15-point loss in a game they supposedly had in check.
That’s what’s scary about the Storm: when the clouds come in and the players are locked in, most teams might as well pack it up and start the busses.
This is as much an advantage built out of skill as it is one built out of necessity. Coach Dan Hughes said as much a day before Sunday’s game.
“I remember coming out of that meeting (a coaches' meeting after Breanna Stewart’s injury), we all had a consensus that ‘O.K., we're going to have to lean on our defense,’” Hughes said. “I had seen the defense get better in the course of the last year and I did think, O.K. with—and even as we went through events with the team and what we were adding with the team and those types of things—we could continue to lean on it a little bit.”
And lean on it they have, which brings us back to the two players this year who have stepped up the most: Howard and Canada. The twosome is a nightmare matchup, all quick hands, sharp reflexes and loads of basketball intelligence. The two lead the league in steals per game, with Canada snatching 2.4 per game and Howard swiping 2.2.
According to assistant coach Gary Kloppenburg, with Howard, it’s all about her ability to visualize the next pass and reading one play ahead. And when you watch Howard jump a passing lane, snatch the ball and take it back up the floor, that ability is clear.
Howard is also a beast down low, blocking shots with authority and disturbing the other team’s best big to the point where it often seems unfair. Her versatility to play on the perimeter and in the post is the perfect compliment to Canada’s swiftness guarding the opposing team’s point guard.
Canada and Howard’s play—and indeed the overall defensive mindset of the team and implementation of Kloppenburg’s system—has put Seattle into the thick of the playoff hunt and looking upward to see just how high it can climb.
But the future could be cloudy for the Storm, with a tough three games coming up against the Mystics, Sun and Lynx, and plenty of difficult matchups before the season’s end. So what can the team do to keep up this run and try to overtake the teams ahead of it? Hughes thinks the key to his team’s success is to remain resilient and hope the team's roller coaster play concludes on a positive note.
“We make no bones in talking about how this is going to be an up-and-down type of experience,” Hughes said. “So when we lose, we need to learn something about what we've got to improve on in that moment. And when we win, we need to realize that it's going to be tough tomorrow. This is not one of those years where we're going to get to a certain level and teams aren't going to be within five points of that level. It's not going to be like that.”
So maybe we should stop asking how Seattle’s keeps doing this and start wondering who can beat this team when the defense is locked in and the Storm bring the thunder on the offensive end. Good luck to the opposition.
I haven’t bought NBA 2K since Kevin Garnett was on the cover—thank you to all the friends and roommates who have allowed me to mooch off your games and systems—but with the video game introducing WNBA players this year, it might be time to cop.
Also this video of Stewie finding out she’s a 95 is just the best. And all the trolls who jumped on to make their typical jokes, y’all really gotta get more clever.
Here’s your weekly dose of adorableness. Also that Quigley jersey is flames and I might need one right now.
I know Saturday’s fight during Wings-Mercury is a serious matter and could see Phoenix even more short-handed but I’ll be damned if you find a funnier video than the one Imani McGee-Stafford posted.
Finally, one extra lay-up this week. Please read this Player’s Tribune piece by Liz Cambage. It’s one of the most honest pieces I’ve read in quite some time and deserves as much attention as possible.