BY Jim Caple 06:00AM 10/02/2020

With healthy Bird, Stewart, Storm eye title No. 4

The Las Vegas Aces are 2-0 against the Storm, but Brianna Stewart and Sue Bird are healthy. They make for a full house against single-high Ace A’ja Wilson.

Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart will be together for the first time this season for games against the Las Vegas Aces. / Ned Dishman, Getty Images

Against the rest of the WNBA world sequestered in the bubble in Bradenton, FL, the Seattle Storm is 21-2, including a three-game playoff series sweep of the Minnesota Lynx. Against the opponent in the Finals, the Las Vegas Aces, the Storm is 0-2.

The Storm, it would seem, has a point to prove.

“These are the best players in the world. We have a chance to become the best team in the world this year,’’ coach Gary Kloppenburg said this week via videoconference. “I think they really want to come out and be ready and bring back a championship to Seattle.”

If they do win the title — its fourth, following 2004, 2010 and 2018 — it likely will be because, for the first time against the Aces in this truncated season, stars Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird will be together and healthy on the floor.

When the teams first met Aug. 22, Bird’s sore knee didn’t allow her to play, and the Storm lost by by eight. In a rematch Sept. 13, Bird and Stewart both rested, and the Storm lost by two.

They won’t miss the 4 p.m. tipoff (ESPN2) Friday in the best-of-five championship.

The Storm also has the advantage of a semifinal sweep while the Aces were extended to five games by Connecticut.

Las Vegas coach Bill Laimbeer, a two-time WNBA coach of the year and a four-time NBA All-Star from his days as a “Bad Boy” with the Detroit Pistons 30 years ago, is confident his team is up for a matchup with the healthy Storm.

“They’re going to be rested,’’ Laimbeer said of the Storm. “We know them. They know us. We played each other twice and eyeballed each other both times.

“The mental toughness of our club this year, compared to the last couple years, the mental toughness of this ball club is outstanding.”

The Aces were also 18-4 in the regular season, and granted the No. 1 seed by virtue of the sweep of the Storm. They also have the league’s Most Valuable Player, A’ja Wilson,  edging out Stewart, the 2018 MVP.

“A’ja knows her responsibility. She has matured tremendously as a person and a basketball player,” Laimbeer said of Wilson, who averaged 20.5 points in her third pro season out of South Carolina. “You can’t say enough about her growth. And her year three is phenomenal.’’

Stewart sounded excited for the match-up.

“Obviously, Vegas has a great team. A‘ja has had a dominant season,’’ said Stewart, who scored 31 points in the final game against the Lynx. “We’re going to continue to be prepared to play our best basketball.

“We’re back in the finals. I’m excited.’’

Both clubs enter the finals absent a key reserve.

Storm guard Sami Whitcomb, a former University of Washington star,  returned this week to her home in Australia, where her wife is having their first baby.

“We’re sad to have her go because she’s had an impact on this team,’’ Stewart said. “What we will miss from her is her energy. When she comes in a game, she comes in ready. She is a competitor. She is loud and active whether she is in the game or on the bench.’’

The Aces, who are in their first finals in their third year in Vegas, will miss forward Derica Hamby, a two-time WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year, who injured a knee in the semifinals.

Kloppenburg, in his first year as head coach after taking over for Dan Hughes, who took a medical leave, sees a lot of Laimbeer in the Aces.

“They’re a very aggressive team,’’ Kloppenburg said. “They are a power team that tries to pound you inside. They try to put it down on the deck.

“Our first line of defense is to be solid and stay vertical on all their actions inside, all their shots to the rim. Then we have to be aggressive at the other end. If we set that tone, we will go the rim.’’

Wilson says the Aces are also defense-first.

“Our defense is the best when we’re just moving,” she said. “We’re just in it, we’re in a groove. It’s tough at times when we get out of rhythm.

“It will be a key against a good Seattle team that knows how to execute all the time. It will be tough, and we will forget stuff, but we won’t let up. It’s key to making sure that we get rebounds. We pride ourselves on defense.’’

Kloppenburg knows Seattle is going in with the pressure of the favorite.

“Obviously for the fans our expectations are high,” he said. “Everyone expects us to win. But we know nothing is a given. We’re playing a really good team. We know we have to prepare, we now we have to come out extremely hard and execute super aggressively.’’

Guard Jewell Loyd has seen a season of contributions from throughout the roster.

“We know that every single night, someone else can step up and make a good play and that can be the difference in winning or losing,” she said. “That is something we have come to really embody.

“We know that we have that toughness, that perseverance, for this series.’’


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YourThoughts

  • jafabian

    Stewie is making fans forget Lauren Jackson. They never will but Stewie is playing at that level.

    • Chris Alexander

      When my first two children were still very young, we had season tickets for the Storm and got to know a lot of the players really well. Lauren was my daughter’s favorite; Sue was my son’s (even though he was too shy to talk to her; he was 3 when they won the title in 2004).

      Will definitely NEVER forget LJ.

      Love, love, LOVE that Sue is still playing (she’s my favorite athlete ever, and not just in the WNBA).

      Stewie makes me wish there were time machines so we could see who would win a game of one-on-one between her and Lauren. They both definitely have the same otherworldly talent, but – assuming both were healthy – I think that LJ would win by 1.

      • art thiel

        Jackson had a ferocious power game. Stewart has the most complete game for a big that I’ve seen.

    • art thiel

      Hard to believe she’s better AFTER Achilles surgery.

      • jafabian

        And Jewell is more than ready to fill Sue’s Nike’s. Barring injury the franchise looks to be in good hands for the next few years at least.

  • Chris Alexander

    You hit most of the high points but somehow missed this one:

    Heading into this year’s Championship Series, the Seattle Storm is 8-1 in the WNBA Finals, all-time.

    – – – 2004: Lost Game 1 of the best-of-3 series to the Connecticut Sun then rallied and won the next 2.

    – – – 2010: Swept Atlanta in the finals, 3-0 (and were 7-0 in the playoffs overall)

    – – – 2018: Swept the Mystics, 3-0

    ____________

    Since I’m commenting late Friday night (after Game 1 of the 2020 Finals ended), I’ll add that behind Stewie’s 37 points and Bird’s WNBA record 16 assists, the Storm pushed their record to 9-1 in the Finals.

    Go Storm!

    • art thiel

      Thanks for the info. Stewart played as if she wanted to make a point to Wilson.

      • Chris Alexander

        Yeah, it might have been better for Vegas if Stewart had gotten the MVP. Methinks they sorta “woke the beast” there.

        (not that Wilson isn’t worthy, of course)

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  • Archangelo Spumoni

    STOP EVERYTHING.
    Storm up 20 with 5:07 left 3rd q. I am grinding my teeth.