Seattle Storm have different faces but get same result against Las Vegas Aces

EVERETT, Wash. -- The names and venue were different as Las Vegas and Seattle opened their 2021 WNBA campaigns 5½ months after the Storm swept the Aces in the 2020 WNBA Finals in the league's campus site in Bradenton, Florida.

The outcome was the same. After starting slowly in their temporary home at Angel of the Winds Arena nearly 30 miles north of Seattle, the Storm exploded for a 97-83 victory on Saturday that showed this year's group has the potential to be just as good as the ones that won two of the past three WNBA championships.

"I think what we saw was our team taking a step in the direction of forming our identity," said Storm point guard Sue Bird, who is entering her 18th season in Seattle. "That was really just the question mark in my mind. We've had such a core group for so long, we've always come into the season knowing what our identity was. Now, we're having to reestablish that and figure it out.

"I think what I was pleasantly surprised by is we already were starting to form that just in game one. That's what we talked about after the game: It can only get better from here. We're going to have ups and downs, but it can only get better from here, and what a great start."

The dramatic changes for Seattle's roster were evident when championship rings were handed out in a pregame ceremony and just five Storm players from the 2020 title team were in line. Two more -- guard Epiphanny Prince and center Mercedes Russell, who recently wrapped up their overseas play in Turkey -- are on the way. But Seattle lost starters Alysha Clark and Natasha Howard and key reserve Sami Whitcomb in free agency, leaving questions about whether the Storm should be favored to defend the title.

Over the first 5-plus minutes on Saturday, Seattle's play seemed to reinforce the idea presented by coach Dan Hughes and the team's stars that the Storm might need time to integrate new players, including a pair of starters added this offseason in small forward Katie Lou Samuelson and veteran post Candice Dupree.

Early on, Seattle's undersized frontcourt looked overmatched against the Aces' duo of 2020 MVP A'ja Wilson and three-time All-Star Liz Cambage -- who was medically excused from playing for Las Vegas last season. Cambage (four) and Wilson (seven) combined for 11 points in the first 5:14, as the Aces opened up a 17-8 lead.

A player who saw just 14 minutes of action in last year's WNBA Finals helped change the game in the Storm's favor. As a rookie, 21-year-old Ezi Magbegor served as Seattle's fourth post player in the series. But the departure of Howard and Russell's late arrival thrust Magbegor into a key role on Saturday. Magbegor immediately knocked down a 3-pointer, matching her total from her entire rookie season, and she scored in the post. With Magbegor playing a key role, the Storm went on an 11-3 run to take the lead before the first quarter was over.

Seattle barely looked back, building a double-digit lead late in the second period that grew as large as 19 just after halftime, before Las Vegas kept things competitive down the stretch. The final 14-point margin was similar to the Storm's wins in Games 1 and 2 of last year's Finals, before a 33-point blowout in Game 3 to complete the sweep.

As in 2020, the Storm benefited from their perimeter advantage over the Aces, highlighted by a 12-3 edge in 3-pointers, which are never a big part of the Las Vegas game plan. Newcomers were a factor, as reserve Stephanie Talbot knocked down a pair of treys in her Seattle debut, filling the role Whitcomb played off the bench in 2020, and Samuelson made one of her two attempts beyond the arc as a starter after just two practices with the team.

With their dominant frontcourt, the Aces test the weaknesses Hughes highlighted as his biggest concerns coming out of training camp: fouling too often and controlling the defensive glass. Neither proved an issue on Saturday, as the Storm shot more free throws (15) than Las Vegas (12) while pulling down 86% of available defensive rebounds, a mark far better than any WNBA team managed last season.

"It's an excellent sign early," Hughes said. "Rebounding is going to drive us to heights or limit our heights. We did a great job of understanding team rebounding today, but we can't let up on that. I think that's what drives this team to success, because we didn't really turn Vegas over. To beat good teams, we've got to be able to hold our own or gain an advantage rebounding-wise. That's a good example for us."

Magbegor was a key reason Seattle was able to neutralize the Aces' strength. Over a single game, plus-minus can give a misleading impression of a player, but it told the story of Magbegor's importance. The Storm outscored Las Vegas by 24 in Magbegor's 14 minutes of action, which included starting the second half alongside Breanna Stewart in place of Dupree to match up with Cambage.

"I thought she was great against Liz," said Bird, who passed Lisa Leslie and moved into seventh place on the WNBA's all-time scoring list (6,273 points). "She's played against Liz, so she obviously knows her, whether it's practicing with the national team or against her in the Australian [NBL]. Having experience against a player like Liz is so special, and it's really helpful for us. I think Ezi really gave us some great minutes."

Of course, all the focus on Seattle's losses might have overshadowed what the team brought back: the reigning Finals MVP in Stewart, who again got the better of Wilson in a matchup of MVPs; the greatest point guard in WNBA history, Bird; and All-Star Jewell Loyd, who helped keep the Storm in the game early with her scoring and took on a more important defensive role with Clark's absence.

"I know we've lost a lot (of players) during free agency, and I love every single one of those players who came in, but people forget we have Stewie and Jewell," Bird said. "I think today was an example of that. We've got the hard part. We've got the franchise players. Now, we just need to figure out how the rest of us can complement that and go from there."

There were definitely moments when the Storm's chemistry was evidently a work in progress. A handful of passes in the team's read-and-react offense went awry, and Bird had an uncharacteristic four turnovers -- a total that took her five games to reach at the start of the 2020 campaign.

But for a debut, it was an impressive performance by a team hoping to add a fifth championship to the increasingly crowded banner that was unveiled in the rafters before Saturday's game.

"For us to come into the game today, first one, a lot of new people and lock in when we needed to most -- get rebounds, make big plays -- you couldn't ask for anything more," Stewart said. "I know Sue talked about we're going to continue to build off this and get better from this, but for a first game when we didn't know what to expect? Super proud of the way everybody came out."