The second-seeded Storm beat the top-seeded Las Vegas Aces 93-80 on Friday, led by the powerhouse duo of forward Breanna Stewart (37 points) and guard Jewell Loyd (28). Running the show was point guard Sue Bird, who at age 39 -- the oldest active player in the WNBA -- still found another milestone to achieve with a career-high and WNBA playoff-record 16 assists.
The Storm won the 2018 WNBA title, closing out the Washington Mystics with a 98-82 victory two years ago, on a night when Stewart had 30 points and Bird had 10 assists. Both were out injured last season, and Bird also missed both previous games against the Aces this season, while Stewart missed one of the matchups.
Friday, Las Vegas saw full-force Seattle. Now 2020 MVP A'ja Wilson and the Aces have a lot to figure out for Sunday's Game 2 (3 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App).
Storm's Stewart looks unstoppable
Stewart hasn't finished as a runner-up many times in her basketball career, but she was second in voting in this season's MVP race, behind Las Vegas' Wilson. So far in the WNBA playoffs, Stewart has made a case as pretty much unstoppable.
Stewart had 37 points and 15 rebounds to become the first player in WNBA Finals history with a 35-point, 15-rebound combination in a game. Lisa Leslie is the only other player to notch 35 and 15 in the playoffs in any round, something the Los Angeles Sparks' star did in the 2001 Western Conference finals against Sacramento.
Stewart's point total was one shy of the Finals record of 38 set by Angel McCoughtry in 2011 when she was with the Atlanta Dream. Stewart was 15-of-24 from the field, 5-of-8 from 3-point range. She was 11-of-18 on contested field goals. Her 15 made field goals are the most in a Finals game and tied for the most in WNBA playoff history.
Stewart has shrugged off whether she has been motivated by not getting MVP. Teammate Bird, who had an epic night herself with a playoff-record 16 assists, acknowledged it might be a little bit of a motivating factor.
"I can't speak for Stewie, but I would assume so," Bird said. "It has nothing to do with A'ja ... she was very deserving of MVP. But I'm sure Stewie felt that she did enough to earn MVP, and got edged by A'ja. Which happens, we've seen that. I've seen Maya Moore get it over Diana [Taurasi], I've seen Lauren Jackson get it over people. It's a tough league to win MVP.
"So I think it does give you a little extra motivation, I would assume. Is that why she played the way she did? I don't know. I think more than anything, she wants to win a ring."
Stewart, 26, was MVP of the regular season and WNBA Finals in 2018, when the Storm won the championship. She also was MVP of the World Cup that year, which the U.S. women won. She suffered an Achilles injury in April 2019 that forced her to miss last season, but she has come back looking better than ever in 2020.
During the regular season, Stewart averaged 19.7 points and 8.3 rebounds. In the playoffs, those numbers are 26.5 and 9.8.
"I'm definitely excited for the big moment and the big stage," Stewart said. "Also the fact that I expect to be here. I've been here, whether it's been college, WNBA or USA [Basketball]. Continuing to embrace that moment and take advantage of it. This is why we play basketball."
Bird in transition is trouble for Aces
Bird breaks WNBA Finals single-game assists record in 3rd quarter
Sue Bird sets up a Breanna Stewart jumper for her 12th assist of the night, a WNBA Finals record.
There's not much scarier for any defense than when Bird is directing her team in transition. And it's even more frightening when Seattle's point guard has her teammates working as well as they were Friday.
The Storm outscored the Aces in transition 12-0 in the first half, with Bird and Stewart either scoring or assisting on nine of those points. Bird had 10 assists in the first half, after which the Storm led 57-40.
"We weren't making shots, so it affected our defense," said coach Bill Laimbeer, whose Aces shot 29.5% (13-of-44) in the first half. "That can't happen. I get why it happened today. I understand a little bit of our fatigue. We got a little frustrated, and we just stopped playing the way we need to play.
"They have good players, and Sue's going to find those players and make the right plays."
Bird chalked up her big assist total to teammates Stewart and Loyd, and Seattle's offensive schemes.
"Stewie and Jewell were pretty much on fire," Bird said. "I think the way that our team plays, and the way that our offense is constructed, which actually dates back to when Jenny Boucek was our coach, it was always about just finding the open player and moving in a way where we create opportunities. For me as a point guard, I'm just out there trying to find the open player."
Aces, Wilson got frustrated in WNBA Finals debut
Wilson had 19 points in Game 1, but she was 6-of-20 from the field.
"A'ja struggled tonight, there's no question about that one," Laimbeer said. "Her shots that normally go in didn't. That got her a bit frustrated, it affected her defense, it affected all of our defense."
McCoughtry had 20 points, making a career-high five 3-pointers. Three other Aces scored in double figures, too, with Kayla McBride getting 13 points, Jackie Young 12 and Danielle Robinson 10. But it wasn't enough against a Seattle team with an offense as good as it was Friday.
"Angel kept us in it as best she could by draining 3 balls, but we missed a lot of open shots that we normally can make," Laimbeer said. "And we didn't finish some of the follow-ups when we got the offensive rebound. That just gets frustrating, and that affected us."
It also hurt to not have sixth woman of the year Dearica Hamby, who was so big a part of the Aces' season. She was averaging 13.0 points and 7.1 rebounds when she suffered a season-ending knee injury in the semifinals.
"There's no question that we missed Dearica today for energy," Laimbeer said. "She really could have helped us guard and get some easy baskets and running the floor and attacking the glass. So we're going to have to find a solution there to get a little bit more energy off our bench."
When Loyd also gets hot, Seattle hits another gear
Loyd banks in and-1 layup
Jewell Loyd fights through contact for the hoop and the harm.
With Stewart's big game and Bird's assists record, Loyd's 28 points almost got overshadowed. But she is a huge part of the Storm steamroller.
Loyd, who was second to Stewart in scoring for the Storm during the regular season at 15.5 PPG, is at 20.0 in the playoffs. She was 11-of-17 from the field, 2-of-5 on 3-pointers, made all four of her free throws and also had four rebounds and four assists.
Loyd's speed and ability to get to basket really taxed the Aces' defense, which was having enough trouble with Stewart.
And when Las Vegas erased a 19-point deficit and pulled even with Seattle at 67-67 in the last minute of the third quarter, Loyd's two free throws put the Storm ahead for good.
"She's just been a scoring machine for us in the playoffs. ... She just really was a complete impact player tonight," Seattle coach Gary Kloppenburg said. "She and Stewie were just the two best players on the floor tonight. We needed her. We needed her scoring tonight, especially when we struggled during that third quarter."
Seattle's bench made enough of an impact
With guard Sami Whitcomb gone to Australia to be with her wife who is about to give birth, veteran guard Epiphanny Prince gave the Storm a lift off the bench Friday. She scored all 11 of her points in the first half, and also finished with three steals, going 3-of-4 from the field in 15-plus minutes.
In her 11th season in the WNBA, Prince is seeking her first WNBA title. She spent her first five seasons in Chicago, and then four in New York. Last season, she played only three games for Las Vegas.
This year, she briefly left the WNBA bubble in early August for personal reasons, but then came back. In 15 regular-season games, Prince averaged 4.3 points. But longtime women's basketball fans know what a dangerous scorer she has been in the past -- she averaged 18.1 PPG in 2012 for the Sky -- and that she can still do some damage.