EVERETT, Washington. – The names and venue were different when Las Vegas and Seattle opened their 2021 WNBA campaigns, 5½ months after the storm beat the aces in the 2020 WNBA Final at the league’s campus in Bradenton, Florida.
The result was the same. After slowly starting at their temporary home at Angel of the Winds Arena nearly 30 miles north of Seattle, the storm exploded for a while 97-83 victory on Saturday, which showed that this year’s group has the potential to be as good as those who have won two of the last three WNBA championships.
“I think we’ve seen our team take a step towards identity building,” said Sue Bird, who is starting her 18th season in Seattle. “That was really just the question mark in my head. We had such a core group for so long that we always came into the season to know what our identity was. Now we have to recreate that and figure it out.
“I think what surprised me pleasantly is that we started to shape it in the first game. We talked about that after the game: it can only get better from here. We will have ups and downs, but things can only get better from here, and what a great start. “
The dramatic changes for the Seattle roster became apparent when championship rings were handed out in a pregame ceremony and it was just five Storm players from the 2020 title team. Two more – Guard Epiphanny Prince and Center Mercedes Russell, who recently finished their overseas game in Turkey – are on their way. But Seattle lost starters Alysha Clark and Natasha Howard as well as key reserve Sami Whitcomb in the free hand, leaving questions unanswered as to whether the storm should be preferred to defend the title.
For the first more than five minutes on Saturday, the Seattle game seemed to reinforce the idea of coach Dan Hughes and the team’s stars that the storm may need time to incorporate new players, including a pair of starters who are in this offseason Little striker Katie Lou added Samuelson and Post Veteran Candice Dupree.
Early on, Seattle’s undersized forecourt looked exaggerated against 2020 Aces duo MVP A’ja Wilson and three-time all-star Liz Cambage, who was medically excused to play for Las Vegas last season. Cambage (four) and Wilson (seven) scored 11 points together in the first 5:14 as the Aces built a 17-8 advantage.
A player who had only seen 14 minutes of action in the WNBA final last year helped change the game in favor of the storm. As a rookie, 21-year-old Ezi Magbegor was the fourth postal player in Seattle. But Howard’s departure and Russell’s late arrival put Magbegor in a key role on Saturday. Magbegor immediately threw down a 3-pointer equal to her grand total from her entire rookie season and she hit the post. With Magbegor playing a key role, the Storm took an 11-3 lead before the first quarter ended.
Seattle barely looked back, building a double-digit lead late in the second period that rose to 19 shortly after halftime before Las Vegas put competitiveness on the track. The final 14-point lead was similar to the Storm’s wins in Games 1 and 2 of last year’s finals before a 33-point blowout was performed 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 that never make up a large part of the Las Vegas game board. Newcomers were a factor as Reserve Stephanie Talbot knocked down two Treys on her Seattle debut, filling the role Whitcomb played off the bench in 2020, and Samuelson made one of her two attempts past the arch as a starter after just two training sessions on The Team.
Ezi Magbegor, shown here in an exhibition game on May 8, scored 3 out of 4 field goals in the first quarter on Saturday, including an important 3-pointer to help Seattle open the season against Las Vegas. Barry Gossage / NBAE via Getty Images
With their dominant forecourt, the aces test the weaknesses that Hughes highlighted as his main concerns from the training camp: too frequent fouling and control of the defensive lens. Neither turned out to be a problem on Saturday as the storm shot more free throws (15) than Las Vegas (12) and cut 86% of available defensive rebounds, a mark far better than any WNBA team’s last Season.
“It’s an excellent sign early on,” said Hughes. “The rebound will propel us up or limit our heights. We did a great job today to understand the team rebound, but we can’t give up. I think that’s what drives this team to success, because we didn’t. ” Really turn Vegas around. To beat good teams, we need to be able to hold our own or gain an advantage in terms of rebound. That’s a good example for us. “
Magbegor was a major reason Seattle was able to neutralize the strength of the aces. In a single game, plus-minus can give a misleading impression of a player, but it tells the story of Magbegor’s importance. The Storm prevailed in Magbegor’s 14-minute action with 24 points ahead of Las Vegas. That included starting the second half alongside Breanna Stewart instead of Dupree to compete with Cambage.
“I thought she was great against Liz,” said Bird, who passed Lisa Leslie and moved up to seventh on the all-time WNBA list (6,273 points). “She played against Liz so she obviously knows her whether she trains with the national team or against her in the Australian (NBL). Having experience against a player like Liz is special and very helpful to us. Ezi really gave us some great minutes. “
Of course, the focus on Seattle’s losses may have overshadowed what brought the team back: the reigning MVP final at Stewart, which Wilson defeated again in a matchup of MVPs; the greatest point guard in WNBA history, Bird; and All-Star Jewell Loyd, who with her goal helped keep the Storm early in the game and took on a more important defensive role with Clark’s absence.
“I know we lost a lot in the free hand and I love every single one of those players, but people have forgotten we have Stewie and Jewell,” said Bird. “I think today was an example of that. We have the hard part. We have the franchisees. Now all we have to do is figure out how the rest of us can add that and move on from there.”
There were definitely moments when the chemistry of the storm was obviously in the works. A handful of passes on the team’s Read and React offensive went wrong and Bird had an unusual four turnovers that took her five games in early 2020.
But for a debut it was an impressive feat from a team hoping to add a fifth championship to the increasingly crowded banner that was unveiled in the rafters ahead of Saturday’s game.
“So that we get into the game today, one, many new people first, and include us when we need too much – getting rebounds, playing big games, that’s all you can ask for,” said Stewart. “I know Sue talked about taking this and getting better, but for a first game where we didn’t know what to expect? Super proud of the way they all came out.”