SEATTLE -- Seattle Storm coach Dan Hughes wouldn't have minded if Breanna Stewart had made the two free throws with 16.9 seconds remaining in Game 2 of the WNBA Finals that could have given his team a more comfortable three-point lead. But he found it appropriate that the Storm's hopes of victory Sunday hinged on stopping the Washington Mystics on a vital possession.
"This is a team that's grown defensively," Hughes said postgame. "They have grown. All year, you watched the defensive numbers: better, better, better, better. I thought it was only poetic that some of these most important games are going to come down to a stop."
Spoiler alert: Seattle got that stop, taking a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series. Sue Bird stripped Kristi Toliver from behind -- controversially so -- and Natasha Howard won the ensuing jump ball, giving the Storm possession. After Alysha Clark split two free throws, the Mystics were left without a timeout and got only a desperation 60-foot attempt from Ariel Atkins at the buzzer, producing the final 75-73 margin.
This was the kind of game past Storm teams, dependent on outscoring the opposition with efficient offense, would have had a difficult time winning. After Seattle's offense clicked on all cylinders during a double-digit Game 1 victory on Friday, Washington was able to hold the Storm to 42 percent shooting Sunday, including 6-of-23 accuracy from 3-point range. The Seattle backcourt of Bird and Jewell Loyd shot a combined 8-of-27, missing six 3s apiece.
"We could score. That wasn't a problem," said Bird. "We had a problem getting the stops. And when we did get the stops, we had a problem getting the rebound. That's been the tale of this season. That's what's been a part of the turnaround. So in some ways, it's fitting that we won a game with our defense. Definitely says a lot about our team that we just kind of hung in there. It was a tough, gritty game."
For one quarter, it looked as though despite adjustments by the Mystics, Game 2 might follow a similar script to Game 1. Behind 11 points in the first seven minutes from MVP Breanna Stewart, the Storm led by nine and looked on their way to another potent offensive outing.
That changed in the second quarter, when Seattle had as many turnovers as field goals (four apiece, on 17 shot attempts), allowing Washington to take the lead. Elena Delle Donne scored 10 points in the second quarter alone, but the Storm's defense adjusted, holding the Mystics forward to just five the entire second half.
It helped the Storm stay close that the Mystics weren't any more accurate from the field. They missed all 16 of their 3-pointers, setting a WNBA playoff record for futility beyond the arc, according to Elias Sports Bureau. (Previously, the Atlanta Dream's 15 during the 2013 WNBA Finals against the Minnesota Lynx were the most 3-point attempts without a make in a playoff game.) In fact, it was the first time a WNBA team has been shut out from 3-point range in any game -- playoff or regular season -- in either 2017 or 2018.
Hughes admitted his team -- which has seen opponents shoot just 21 percent on 3s overall in the postseason -- benefited from some good fortune with all the misses, which caused Toliver to profanely exclaim when she was informed of the stat postgame.
"Statistically, they're a really good 3-point shooting team," Hughes said. "Are we working at it? Yes, but sometimes you have periods where the ball doesn't go in the basket. I think it's a little bit of both."
Seattle ensured those misses didn't result in second chances with strong work on the defensive glass. The Storm grabbed better than 80 percent of available defensive rebounds, while Howard's five offensive boards helped contribute to a 35 percent offensive rebound rate for Seattle.
"We had a big emphasis on rebounding," Stewart said, "and honestly throughout the game it didn't feel like we had a plus-10 rebounding margin. It felt like they kept getting some scrappy ones, big rebounds, and we just knew that they were going to crash offensively."
Despite all that strong shot defense, the Storm wouldn't regain the advantage for good until the start of the fourth quarter, when a pair of Seattle steals helped power a 7-0 run to start the period. After forcing just two turnovers during the first three quarters, the Storm came up with five of them -- four on steals -- during the final 10 minutes.
"We had a hard time really speeding them up," said Hughes. "But I did think down the stretch we were able to have a little more ball pressure, a little more rotation, a little more congestion into spaces, and it's a battle to do that because I thought they made a lot of plays along the way."
The most important of those turnovers came in the game's final seconds. After Stewart's missed free throws, Washington took possession with a chance to take the lead with a score following a timeout. Isolated against Bird on the left wing, Toliver drove by her along the baseline when Seattle's veteran point guard employed what legendary longtime UConn associate head coach Chris Dailey coined "the Sue Bird move."
"I've been doing that swipe-around-the-back thing since I was like 18 years old," said Bird. "[Coach Dailey] absolutely hates it. She calls it the Sue Bird move. In fact, when she does scouting reports, she will say, 'Watch out for so-and-so, they do the Sue Bird move.' I lunged out a little bit, which kind of gave [Toliver] that pathway to get down the baseline, and then once she went by me I did the good old Sue Bird move and was lucky to get a piece of the ball.
"The minute I walked in the locker room, I checked my phone. I knew I was going to have a text message about it [from Coach Dailey], and sure enough, 'Congratulations, you did the Sue Bird move.'"
Toliver and Mystics coach Mike Thibault argued after the game that Bird was trying to foul Toliver, since the Storm had one to give. But Bird said that was not her intention; while the foul to give made the move less risky, she was trying to strip the ball from Toliver.
After some contact from Bird's right arm around Toliver's neck, that's precisely what happened. Howard and Washington's Tianna Hawkins both grabbed the loose ball, leading to a jump won by Howard -- and a game won by Seattle in a fashion that would not likely have been possible last season.