Seattle, WA — For the Seattle Storm, seven is the luckiest number.
In what may have been the most competitive game of the 2018 WNBA Playoffs, the Seattle Storm and Washington Mystics went blow for blow for 40 minutes. In the end, the Storm, led by MVP Breanna Stewart’s 25 points, withstood the Mystics’ efforts and walked out of KeyArena with a 75-73 victory, their seventh straight Finals victory dating back to 2004.
The final moments of the game weren’t without drama, as Washington’s Kristi Toliver lost the ball at the baseline, leading to a jump ball. While Natasha Howard and Tianna Hawkins fought for the jump ball, Jewell Loyd ended up getting the ball for Seattle, who took enough time off the clock to force a foul for Seattle. A free throw from Alysha Clark put Seattle up by two, and Ariel Atkins’ desperation shot at the buzzer was short off the backboard.
In the post-game conference, Toliver was visibly upset about the jump ball call.
Yeah. I mean, I got fouled going baseline,” Toliver said. “I think it was pretty blatant, it was pretty obvious. Sue (Bird) is smart, she knows they have one foul to give. They wanted to foul before I could be in a shooting motion.”
Toliver continued venting her frustrations, putting the blame on the officials.
“I wish the officials had a little more basketball IQ like Sue does because that would have been the play instead of a jump ball, and then we get in a scramble situation, try to foul again, somebody is in the way, I can’t go foul the ball handler, and the clock goes down. That’s pretty much what happened.”
Seattle guard Sue Bird had a different story when it came to that final possession, as she claims she wasn’t intentionally going for the foul.
“No, I wasn’t. If you want to go talk to somebody about that play, you should go talk to Chris Daley,” Bird said. “I’ve been doing that swipe-around-the-back thing since I was like 18 years old. That was a play where — no, you go into that, you don’t want them to get a good look, right, so when she caught it in the corner, there was a moment where — and you’re guarding Kristi Toliver, there was a moment where — and we’re only up two, we’re thinking, I’m thinking, she might shoot this three.”
Bird continued to describe the play in vivid detail.
“So I lunged out a little bit, which kind of gave her that pathway to get down the baseline, and once she went by me, I did the good ol’ Sue Bird move and was lucky to get a piece of the ball. I knew we had a foul to give, but that was not my intention at all.”
Stewart started the game for Seattle by banking a turnaround jumper off the backboard, giving the Storm some early momentum. She ended up scoring 11 points in the first quarter, as the Storm walked off the court with a 25-16 lead and some breathing room.
Stewart talked a little bit about how she knew she was going to have to be more dominant than she was in Game One.
“You know, right from the jump, I just wanted to be really aggressive,” Stewart said. “You knew that this was Game 2, and they were going to come out like a better DC team than we saw in Game 1. I was able to get to the free-throw line, and I would have loved to have made those last two at the end, but the majority of the game, just being aggressive, assertive, and doing the plays to win the game.”
In the second quarter, Elena Delle Donne developed a pair of hot hands, scoring almost every time she got the ball. With 10 points in the quarter, her performance inspired the rest of the team. Going into halftime, the Mystics had a 40-36 lead.
Washington head coach Mike Thibault talked about how the adjustments they made after Game One made a difference on Sunday.
“I just thought we played better defense,” Thibault said. “We didn’t turn it over in the first half like we did last night. In the first half of Game 1, they had 15 points in transition, mostly off our turnovers. We had one turnover today at halftime, and I thought that was the biggest difference. We got good performances from some of our bench. Obviously, Myisha Hines-Allen and Pratt were big. Aerial Powers gave us a couple good minutes in the first half.”
Something must have clicked for the Storm at halftime because they came back onto the court ready to win. Guard Jewell Loyd went on a personal 6-2 run to start the third quarter and tie the game for Seattle. An Alysha Clark three-pointer gave the Storm a 45-42 lead, and from there the fun began. For the remainder of the third, both teams traded leads back and forth like hot cakes until Washington gained some separation. At the end of the third, the Mystics had a 61-58 lead.
That was when the tide began to turn. Loyd made a jumper to start the fourth quarter to bring the Storm within two, followed by a Breanna Stewart three to give Seattle the lead for good. When Seattle head coach Dan Hughes was asked about how they managed to maintain their lead, Hughes admitted it wasn’t an easy task.
“Well, I wish it was that easy,” Hughes said. “A couple things. You know, if we make our free throws down the stretch, we probably have that. In the back and forth affair — and the other thing, I think, is learning in those situations. But I thought we did a great job, and I think Sue was directing a lot of it. We got touches for Stewie, and I think that’s imperative. And then we also had the ability to, I think, in some cases play to the paint.”
At the 6:53 mark, Seattle put an exclamation mark on the game when Sue Bird made a ridiculous three-pointer to put the Storm up 68-63.
— Seattle Storm (@seattlestorm) September 9, 2018
When Thibault was asked about that fateful shot, he spared no expense in his words.
“Well, like — you hate it,” Thibault said. “There’s not much — it was one of those things that you hope that’s kind of a regular-season shot, not a playoff-deciding shot. Tough to overcome a play like that. We played great defense on the possession, get them to take a 40-something foot shot, and it banks in, and it ends up being the difference in the game. I don’t know what you say.”
Stewart scored the majority of the last six points for Seattle to put them within one win of the franchise’s third championship.
For Washington, while they were close, they did not help themselves offensively. Despite being one of the best three-point shooting teams in the league, they shot 0-for-16 from the floor on Sunday. Thibault admitted that the lack of three-point shooting was not helpful to them.
“We don’t make threes, it’s hard for us,” Thibault said. “We’re one of the best three-point shooting teams in the league. They didn’t make them that well, either, but I think it was the defense on both teams. It’s tough when we don’t make any. We rely on that, and we didn’t make them tonight.”
Breanna Stewart led all scorers with 25 points and was one of only two Seattle players to score in double-digits (Jewell Loyd, 13). Washington had three players score in double-digits, led by Delle Donne’s 17. Both Ariel Atkins and Kristi Toliver had 15.
Game Three of the 2018 WNBA Finals will be held at the EagleBank Arena at George Mason University on Wednesday and will air on ESPN2.
Before joining The Ball Out, Chris Bullock was part of SB Nation’s Swish Appeal for nearly three years, covering everything women’s basketball. Chris has had the honor of doing live coverage of the WNBA Finals, the NCAA Tournament, and also was given his own column, “The Triple Double”. A self-described “foodaholic”, Chris lives in the San Diego area with his wife and two daughters, and also hosts his own podcast, “Conscious Cravings”, where he speaks about his experience as a mental health advocate.