EVERETT — An offseason roster makeover left the Seattle Storm with questions beginning their title defense.
They still have Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd to rely on as answers to any of those concerns.
“We still have Stewie and Jewell,” Seattle’s Sue Bird said. “I know we lost a lot in free agency and I love every single one of those players. But it was as though people forgot we had Stewie and Jewell. Today was an example of that. We’ve got the hard part. We’ve got the franchise players.”
Stewart had 28 points and 13 rebounds, Jewell Loyd added 22 points and the Storm opened defense of their WNBA title with a 97-83 victory over the Las Vegas Aces on Saturday at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett.
The rematch of last year’s WNBA Finals in the Florida bubble was a celebration for the Storm complete with a ring ceremony and championship banner unveiling as Seattle began its attempt to become the first team to repeat as WNBA champs since Los Angeles in 2001 and 2002.
Even with an overhauled roster, Seattle looked the part of a championship contender in the opener. Seattle trailed by as many as nine in the opening quarter, but outscored Las Vegas 45-31 in the middle two quarters to take control.
“For our first game when we didn’t really know what to expect, super proud of the way everybody came out and really we just competed,” Stewart said.
A’ja Wilson, last year’s league MVP, led Las Vegas with 24 points and Liz Cambage added 16 in her return to the WNBA after sitting out last season.
The Aces reached last year’s finals on the strength Wilson’s season. But the return of Cambage is a big reason why Las Vegas was the preseason favorite in poll of league general manager and held the No. 1 spot in the first AP WNBA power poll.
Las Vegas coach Bill Laimbeer cautioned it may be a bumpy start to the season for the Aces.
“We knew going into this thing that the first eight, 10 games, especially those first six games here, is going to be very difficult for us, and we can’t get frustrated,” Laimbeer said.
Seattle received a scare when Bird limped off the court favoring her left leg with 6½ minutes left after a collision with Cambage. Bird immediately jogged into the tunnel underneath the stands and could be seen testing out the leg.
Bird returned to the Seattle bench several minutes later and re-entered with 4:19 left. She added her third 3-poitner with 1:24 left to give Seattle a 15-point lead. Bird said she was hit on her left knee that was surgically repaired in 2019 and caused her to miss the entire season.
“When they came up to me and say Sue’s OK, ready to go in, you know the blood pressure goes down about three steps,” Seattle coach Dan Hughes said.
Bird finished with 11 points and eight assists beginning her 18th WNBA season. Newcomer Candice Dupree added 12 points for Seattle.
Seattle’s championship celebration was muted, limited to a max of 2,000 fans at its temporary home 30 miles north of the Storm’s permanent home as construction continues on Climate Pledge Arena in downtown Seattle.
As reinforcement to how much Seattle’s roster has changed from last year’s championship team, only five players on Saturday’s active roster for Seattle — Bird, Stewart, Lloyd, Jordin Canada and Ezi Magbegor — received their championship rings during the pregame ceremony.
Bird moved past Lisa Leslie and into seventh place on the WNBA career scoring list. … It was just the fourth time in league history the two finalists from the previous season opened the following season against each other. All four times the championship winner has won the season-opening rematch.
Seattle will host Las Vegas again Tuesday night. The teams will meet only once more in late June in Las Vegas.