Each Thursday this season, Sports Illustrated’s Ben Pickman is diving deep into the WNBA story lines you need to know. He’s off this week, so teammate Wilton Jackson is filling in.
Nearly two weeks ago, the Storm’s Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd stood next to their teammates on Team USA women’s basketball with big smiles on their faces, holding a sunflower in one hand and clutching their gold medals in the other.
Team USA had just defeated Japan to claim its seventh-straight gold medal and its ninth in 11 Olympic trips. Bird, a four-time WNBA champion and 12-time All-Star, cherished the moment—realizing it was her final Olympic games—with her teammate Mercury guard Diana Taurasi, as the outstanding backcourt duo made history in becoming the first five-time Olympic basketball gold medalists.
As Bird closed the chapter on a dynamic Olympic career, Stewie—who had her first experience with the Olympics at the Rio Games in 2016 and was the third-leading scorer (15.0 ppg) for Team USA in Tokyo—along with Loyd—a first-time Olympian—took major steps to begin their ascension as part of the next wave of faces to lead the United States in Olympic competition.
“This is the highest thing you can get as an athlete,” Loyd said after winning the gold-medal game. And knowing that, you know, you put your body and mind through everything it can to be at a pinnacle like this, it definitely gives you confidence. It gives you appreciation for the grind.”
The Storm had six players earn selections in the Tokyo Games, tying with the 2016 Mercury team that had six players. In addition to Loyd, Bird and Stewart, Ezi Magbegor and Stephanie Talbot both played for Australia, while Katie Lou Samuelson earned a spot on the three-on-three basketball team for the United States, but COVID-19 protocols prevented her from playing.
These players did not have the most ideal schedule during the break. The two Aussies began Olympic training camp on July 8, while the three Americans started training camp in Las Vegas on July 12. After four weeks away in Tokyo, it would be only a matter of time before Bird, Loyd and Stewart would be tired and needed rest before the Storm’s appearance in the WNBA’s inaugural Commissioner’s Cup championship game four days later against a Sun team that finished 9–1 in the tournament standings and entered the Olympic break with the league’s third-best record. They also notched a league-best second-chance points per game (13.6) and were second in offensive rebounding per game (9.9).
After all, Stewart finished sixth in scoring among all Olympians, led Team USA in rebounds per game (10.0) and was fourth among all Olympians. She also ranked fifth in blocked shots per game (1.5) and was second on the team behind the Aces’ A’ja Wilson. She finished first among all Olympians in defensive rebounds (9.0). Bird led the U.S. in assists per game (5.8) and finished second among Olympians and first for Team USA in assists-to-turnover ratio.
Tired? Rusty? Out-of-sync? Difference in time zones between Japan and Arizona? None of that mattered as Seattle cruised to a 79–57 win against a Sun team coming off a month of rest and practice time with a full roster that included Jonquel Jones—the league's second-leading scorer—who did not play in the team’s previous matchup in June due to her duties in the EuroBasketball Tournament.
Seattle never trailed in the Commissioner’s Cup game. It led by as many as 28 points and earned 36 of its points in the paint against a Sun team that had allowed only a league-minimum of 29.3.
“Despite being jet-lagged and stuff, once we got through warmup, it was a regular scheduled program,” Stewart said. “We were just aggressive, and we knew what this game meant and what we wanted to kind of hit them first.”
Stewart also did not shy away from the fact that the win earned each Storm player $30,000 from the $500,000 prize pool.
“I think our teammates was the motivating factor behind this game,” Stewart says. “We wanted to win for them. Obviously 30K is 30K for all of us, but for some of them, it’s, I don’t even know what the ratio is for Kiana [Williams], but it’s a lot. To really help them get that is amazing.”
The Storm sent a message to the league that the reigning champs are primed to make another run for a WNBA title in part due to the Olympic experience on the roster and defeating the best team in the Eastern Conference with ease. While the championship game does not count in the regular-season standings, Seattle set the tone for the second half of the season.
In an 87–85 last-second, overtime loss to the Sky on Sunday—a game that neither Bird nor Stewart played in as they earned some much-needed rest from the Tokyo Olympics—Loyd dropped a season-high 26 points—roughly 15 minutes away from her hometown of Lincolnwood, Illinois, while Magbegor posted a career-high 21 points, nine rebounds and three blocks.
Storm head coach Noelle Quinn says Magbegor is undergoing an “evolution” in her game.
“Her energy, her effort on the defensive end to come over and block shots, her ability to run the floor and her tenacity to go rebound,” Quinn said. “I told her before the game that she is a quiet spirit, but in a game like this, her voice was big.
“She was locked into schemes. We’re seeing an evolution, and there is so much in store for her as a young player.”
The 22-year-old has seen an increase in the number of minutes she averages (13.7), free throw percentage (81.5%) and rebounds per game (3.9) compared with her rookie season in 2020. During the Olympics, Magbegor averaged 12.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.
Magbegor says playing without Bird and Stewart and being in Year 2 has made her more confident in her abilities.
“Just knowing we can step up and help Sue, Stewie and Jewell out when we need to gives me confidence,” Magbegor said. “Having them constantly telling me to do my thing and play my game and play free definitely gives me confidence.”
Along with Magbegor, veterans Epiphanny Prince and Jordin Canada combined for 22 points in Sunday’s game against Chicago, where both players started and played nearly 38 minutes in Bird’s and Stewie’s absence. In addition, Mercedes Russell—the Storm’s starting center—recorded her second double double of the season.
Also insert Talbot, who is only one of three players in the league shooting over 50% from the field and from beyond the arc. In 20 games this season, she is averaging a career-high 5.9 points in nearly 17 minutes of action per game.
One of the biggest questions coming into the 2021 season was what Seattle would do beyond its trio after losing both Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb to the Liberty in free agency.
Even with the Storm’s drop to third in the standings after losing to the Liberty and recording back-to-back losses in five days, Seattle remains solid moving forward. In the two losses—without Bird or Stewart due to rest—Loyd has posted career numbers (62 points in two games) as she scored the most points (21 in the third quarter) in a single quarter by any WNBA player this season and third-most all-time in the loss to the Liberty.
Only the Mercury's Diana Taurasi (22 points) in 2006 and former Dream and current Sparks' Brittney Sykes in 2019 have accomplished that feat. Samuelson, who went 6-of-10 from the floor including 3-of-7 from beyond the arc, recorded a career-high 15 points.
“Lou is a player that you have to continue to instill confidence and empower," Quinn said. "You can’t lose any hope or faith in what she can do when she’s on the floor and able to knock down threes, get rebounds and bring some defense. I think she's very good for us.
“We have to continue to help her grow in a way that she feels good about her contributions and what she can do, because we know that she can help us in a lot of ways.”
Talbot, who finished with six points, five rebounds and three steals, played a part in the Storm's defense that garnered a team-high 14 steals, forced the Liberty into 21 turnovers and converted 33 points from New York's miscues.
The problem? Other players are being asked to step up that normally are not required to when Bird and Stewart are present. Thus, Seattle's offense and scoring have stalled at moments without them, leading to the Storm falling short in two close-game situations.
“We just need to lock in a little bit more," Samuelson told the media after Wednesday’s game. When someone steps a big like that we all need to contribute. We can’t just rely on Jewell to do everything to help us win that game. So it's a team effort. We were right there, clearly, these past few games. We could have closed it out if we just fixed a couple things.
“ ... You got to learn from it in one way or another. You can't get caught up on it. We have a game on Friday that we need to be ready for, so we'll look at it and we'll go from there.”
It goes without saying that productivity of Magbegor, Talbot, Russell, Prince, Samuelson and Canada will not always be big from a numbers standpoint. But, more broadly, their ability to contribute alongside the Storm’s trio when their numbers are called will be critical through the second half of the season and essential if Seattle plans to make another title run.
“These are players who are going to step up in a way, and we need them to feel comfortable and confident in what they can do within our systems,” Quinn said Sunday.
Through 23 games this season, Seattle (16–7) sits a half game behind the Sun for second place in the league. Seattle, which will play seven times in the first 15 days of the second half of the season, kicked off a five-game road trip through the East Coast on Sunday in Chicago, followed by games against New York on Wednesday and Friday.
Then the Storm will face Washington, followed by a trip to Minnesota to play a Lynx team that—despite losing to Connecticut on Tuesday—finished the first half of the season on an eight-game winning streak.
Seattle will not return home for a game until Aug. 27 to face the Sky in the first of a two-game series. While it’s a rough start to the second half—facing three teams in the top eight in league standings—the Storm will conclude their season playing four games over the final 21 days, the fewest in the WNBA.
Quinn said she believes the long trip helps build a mental fortitude.
“It’s about staying the course, making sure you do a little bit more as far as taking care of your body, getting more treatment and more film sessions,” Quinn said. “We understand the goal is to leave the road trip with more wins … so we want to leave this trip 3–2.”
Things will get back to normal for the Storm when both Stewart and Bird are back on the court. When you have a player like Stewart who is in the top five for points, rebounds, blocks, minutes and 20-point games, an 18-year veteran point guard and four players among the top 15 in the WNBA in plus-minus rating, Seattle is primed for another deep playoff run.
Notes from around the WNBA
With the second half of the season in motion, it is sure to be one that goes down to the wire ahead of the playoffs. Entering Wednesday’s game, the Aces (17–6) took sole control of the top spot in the league with back-to-back wins in three days over the Mystics.
Las Vegas gets a break before starting a three-game road Aug. 24 against the Sun, Dream and Fever before returning home Sept. 2 to face the Sky. Beyond winning their first two games to begin the second half of the season, center Liz Cambage returned after she withdrew from the Tokyo Games, citing the need to focus on her mental health. (She was also reportedly involved in an altercation that may have jeopardized her spot on Australia’s team.)
In two games back, Cambage has a combined for 32 points and 11 rebounds to go along with the league's reigning MVP in Wilson and Kelsey Plum, who is averaging a career-high 13.8 points per game and shooting 39.4% from three-point range one year after tearing her Achilles.
Plum, who many—including Wilson—believe is a front-runner for Sixth Woman of the Year, told the Las Vegas Review Journal that she is trying to embrace her role.
“I don’t think you play for Sixth (Woman of the Year) but I think for me being a competitor, I’m definitely trying to show that I’m good at basketball. … If everything goes the way it goes and I just do my thing, it’ll at work out in the end.”
After losing in the 2020 WNBA Finals to the Storm in the Wubble, the Aces certainly are another favorite—as they have been all season—to make another deep run at a championship. As with the Storm, it helps that Las Vegas had five players earning Olympic experience in Tokyo and four winning gold medals that includes Wilson, Chelsea Gray, Plum (three-on-three) and Jackie Young, who replaced the Storm’s Samuelson.
The Lynx entered Tuesday’s game against the Sun looking to build on their eight-game winning streak from the first half of the season. However, the Sun’s defense and rebounding were two much for Minnesota.
Despite the loss, Minnesota (13–8) finds itself in the mix for a top-three or -four spot in the race for the WNBA playoffs. The Lynx are 2.5 games behind the Sun for third in the league and feature star power and talent in Sylvia Fowles (16.0 ppg) and Napheesa Collier (16.7)—two Tokyo Olympians—plus Kayla McBride (14.2) and Layshia Clarendon (9.7).
Forward Natalie Achonwa returned to the court Sunday against the Liberty after missing the team’s last 10 games with a sprained medical collateral ligament in her right knee sustained June 12 against the Sparks. Crystal Dangerfield also returned to the hardwood after missing the team’s last game, against the Sparks, before the Olympic break with a sprained AC joint in her right shoulder.
With Rennia Davis and Aerial Powers sidelined indefinitely due to injuries, it will be interesting to see how Minnesota fairs down the stretch. In the 2020 playoffs, the Lynx earned the No. 4 seed and made it to the semifinals round before losing to the Storm in three games.
Connecticut (16–6) has all of the parts of a championship team—the league’s highest defensive rating of 93.8, the third-best mark in rebounds per game (36.8) and top-tier scorers in Jones (20.6 ppg), DeWanna Bonner (15.8 ppg) and Brionna Jones (14.4).
As my colleague Ben Pickman reported in June, no trio in the WNBA had played more together than both Joneses and Bonner. Curt Miller’s squad also includes talented players in Briann January and Jasmine Thomas, who finished with 19 points, two shy of her season high, in Connecticut’s victory over the Lynx on Tuesday.
After Tuesday’s win, the Sun’s starting five of Bonner, both Joneses, January and Thomas are now 6–2 this season. With all the attention centered on Jonquel, Bonner has continued to elevate her game and play a big role in the Sun's success with the absence of Alyssa Thomas (Achilles injury). Natisha Hiedeman has also been a key piece for Connecticut as she is averaging career highs in minutes (22.4) and points per game (7.9).
The Sun went further than most people expected they would last season. Connecticut made it to the semifinals before the Aces eliminated them in a best-of-five series without Jonquel Jones, who sat out with concerns of COVID-19.
Even without Thomas, as long as Jonquel is in the mix, the Sun have a chance to compete for a WNBA title. Other teams looking to make a push in the second half of the season are the Sky, Wings and Mystics.
Chicago (11–11) dropped a game against the Sparks on Tuesday, and star Candace Parker sustained an injury to her left ankle, which she had previously injured. However, after the game, Sky coach and general manager James Wade said the injury was not as bad as it was before.
"There is not as much swelling as before, so we’re optimistic," Wade said.
Keep an eye on Chicago as the Sky look to move up the standings. Wade has all the right pieces—Allie Quigley, Courtney Vandersloot, Kahleah Copper, Diamond DeShields and Stefanie Dolson—to make a push for higher playoff spot.
The Wings (10–13) are currently eighth in the standings, but only a half game behind the the Liberty for the seventh spot, averaging the third-most points per game (83.8). Dallas, a young team with first-year coach Vickie Johnson, is taking strides in an attempt to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2018.
How Dallas finishes the second-half falls on the shoulders of Arike Ogunbowale (18.8 ppg) as well as Marina Mabrey (13.2), Satou Sabally (12.4)—who missed her second game Tuesday due to injury—and Allisha Gray (12.0).
The Wings will face a four-win Fever team Friday before back-to-back road games against the Mystics and then a return home to play to play the Dream for two games in the first week in September. If Dallas can pick up wins during those five games before closing the season with three home games against the Sun, the Liberty, the Sparks and a road matchup against the Aces, things could become promising for Dallas.
For now, only time will tell. It is wild yet exciting to think that the second half of the 25th WNBA season is in full gear. Get ready for a tight finish ahead of the playoffs.
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