EVERETT, Wash. -- With 1:10 left in Saturday's season opener for both teams, the Phoenix Mercury cut the Seattle Storm's lead to six on a Brittney Griner layup. As acting Storm coach Gary Kloppenburg drew up a play in the following timeout, his options were far different than they were when Seattle defeated Phoenix in a classic, five-game, semifinals matchup last fall on the way to winning the WNBA championship.
Back then, Storm coach Dan Hughes -- who's still several weeks away from a return to full-time coaching after undergoing surgery to remove a carcinoid tumor from his digestive track last week, leaving veteran assistant Kloppenburg to run the team -- could have called a play involving WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart or veteran All-Star Sue Bird. Both stars watched from the sideline Saturday, Stewart out for the year after suffering a ruptured Achilles playing overseas and Bird set to undergo arthroscopic surgery on her left knee.
So instead, it was Bird's backup, second-year guard Jordin Canada, who isolated against Mercury defender Yvonne Turner, retreating nearly to half court as the clock ticked down before beating Turner to the rim for a contested finish that pushed Seattle's lead to a three-possession margin. Phoenix would get no closer, as the Storm opened the season with a 77-68 victory at Everett's Angel of the Wind Arena, one of two temporary homes the team will employ this season while Seattle's KeyArena is under construction.
Despite Canada's late heroics, including a series of tough scores that gave her a career-high 16 points in her third career start, the Storm won this game at the defensive end -- the team's identity without Bird and Stewart in the lineup.
"That's what we focus on a lot," said forward Natasha Howard, who had five of the Storm's 10 steals. "When our defense is going, our offense starts rolling at the same time. When everybody is all in it together on defense, it pays off on the offensive end."
Early on, the Mercury scored seemingly at will, taking advantage of eight first-quarter, Seattle turnovers to build a 23-16 lead. But from there, the Storm put the clamps on the Phoenix offense, allowing just nine points in the second quarter and 25 in the second and third combined. Giving up size to Griner, Seattle swarmed her with multiple defenders, frustrating the Mercury's 6-foot-9 star. She turned over the ball six times and shot just 9-of-19 from the field, scoring 18 points.
The Storm were able to take advantage of Phoenix's own transition at point guard. Diana Taurasi, the WNBA's all-time leading scorer, ran the Mercury's offense last season. But Taurasi, too, is sidelined by injury to begin the year, having undergone back surgery a month ago that is expected to keep her out through midseason. Without Taurasi, Phoenix struggled to find the right balance between attacking early and executing the half-court offense.
"I learned we're not where we need to be," Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. "We just don't have any real leadership out there. Diana played so many minutes last year. She's our point guard. We're trying to put Vonnie [Yvonne Turner] and Bri [Briann January] out there and they're not quite there. We just need more repetitions.
"I think Canada led that team better than our point guards did."
The Mercury also played without power forwards Camille Little and Sancho Lyttle, starting a small lineup with DeWanna Bonner at power forward. Though such lineups were effective for Phoenix last season, Seattle was able to exploit them on the glass, outrebounding the Mercury 7-0 in terms of offensive rebounds in the first half to survive frigid, 34 percent shooting and take a tie to the locker room.
"We say we want to be a better defensive- and offensive-rebounding team, and we didn't show much of that tonight," Brondello said. "We had zero at halftime. That's just effort and pursuit. Look at Howard. We knew what she was going to do, and she still got there with her effort, so hat's off to her. Sancho will be back soon, and I don't know about Camille, but we just have to get better and learn from this."
Phoenix found more traction in the second half with Bonner at small forward. She scored 15 consecutive Mercury points in one stretch across the third and fourth quarters, finishing with a game-high 31 on 10-of-23 shooting. Bonner was a perfect 8-of-8 from the foul line.
By then, however, the Storm's offense had found its footing. Jewell Loyd, the Storm's remaining healthy All-Star, got cooking after scoring just three points in the first half. Loyd scored 14 after halftime. Howard found success attacking off the dribble, scoring nine of her 21 points in the third quarter. (She also pulled down a career-high 16 rebounds, making an enormous impact at both ends of the court.) And Canada, who struggled with turnovers in the first half (6), was stronger with the basketball.
"I thought the first half, I was overthinking it too much," Canada said. "I wasn't playing with a lot of poise and patience. But in the second half, my teammates and coaches talked to me and told me to just stay in the moment."
The kind of offensive balance Seattle found after halftime -- Crystal Langhorne, Stewart's replacement in the starting five, also scored 10 points, and fifth starter Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis had eight points in 19 minutes filling in for a resting Alysha Clark -- will be necessary for the Storm without Bird and Stewart. Seattle might not have its stars. But the remaining players from last year's championship team can be effective if they play their games.
"I don't think it's up to Jordin to go out there and be like me," Bird said. "She can only be herself. That's really what we've seen in training camp is just Jordin being herself. She just needs to bring that every day."
If she does, the Storm reminded everyone on Saturday in front of a national TV audience that they're still a factor in the WNBA.
"Don't doubt us," said Howard when asked what message the win sent. "Even though we don't have two players due to injuries, just don't doubt us. Anything can happen this season, so the statement is: Just don't doubt us."