SEATTLE — A lot of Breanna Stewart in the closing minutes and one big defensive stop in the final seconds and the Seattle Storm are on the cusp of their third WNBA championship.
Stewart scored nine of her 25 points in the fourth quarter, Sue Bird came up with a key defensive play in the final 10 seconds, and the Storm held off the Washington Mystics 75-73 Sunday to take a 2-0 lead in the WNBA Finals.
Seattle heads to Washington for Game 3 on Wednesday night needing only a split on the East Coast to claim the third title in franchise history. Since the WNBA went to a best-of-five format for the Finals in 2005, no team has lost the first two games and fought back to force a Game 5.
“It came down to a stop, and I thought we did a really good job,” Seattle coach Dan Hughes said. “This is a team that has grown defensively. All year, we have watched the defensive numbers get better and better and better and better and better.”
Stewart went nearly 18 minutes of game time without scoring, but was responsible for six of Seattle’s final seven points as the Storm held off Washington’s late rally. The league MVP got her touches in the closing minutes, while Washington failed to make sure star Elena Delle Donne got her opportunities. Delle Donne finished with 17 points but was scoreless in the fourth quarter and took just one shot.
Delle Donne scored on a three-point play late in the third quarter. They were her final points of the game.
“I think we fell in love too much with me getting the ball on the block. I’m more than just a back-to-the-basket type of player. Playing in space opens up my teammates, also opens myself up,” Delle Donne said. “We’ve got to find a way to not become one-dimensional and just try to force it in.”
While Game 1 was a romp for Seattle, Game 2 was in the balance inside the final minute despite all that didn’t go right for Washington — the Mystics didn’t hit a 3-pointer for the first time all season, they were outrebounded by 10, and they had just 10 assists on 29 made baskets.
Yet the opportunity was there to go home with the series tied 1-1.
Kristi Toliver’s two key jumpers pulled Washington within 74-73 and when Stewart missed a pair of free throws with 16 seconds remaining, Washington had a chance to take the lead.
That’s when Bird, the oldest player in the league, relied on her experience.
Toliver appeared open for a 3-point attempt and Bird lunged toward her. That opened a lane baseline, but as Toliver drove past, Bird was able to reach from behind and poke the ball free. The mad scramble ended up in a jump ball, which Seattle won.
Toliver said Bird fouled her.
“I got fouled going baseline. I think it was pretty blatant, pretty obvious,” Toliver said.
Seattle had a foul to give at the time.
“Sue Bird took the foul. Officials didn’t understand that Seattle was actually trying to take the foul,” Washington coach Mike Thibault said.
Bird insisted Thibault’s interpretation was wrong. She was going for the steal.
“Once she went by me, I did the good ol’ Sue Bird move and was lucky to get a piece of the ball,” Bird said. “I knew we had a foul to give, but that was not my intention at all.”
Seattle was able to run seven seconds off the clock before Alysha Clark was fouled and her free throw gave Seattle a two-point lead. ArielAtkins’ desperation half-court shot at the buzzer was well off.
Bird finished with eight points but had one of the biggest shots of the game when she banked in a 35-footer as the shot clock expired midway through the fourth quarter. The basket gave Seattle a 68-63 lead. … Seattle has won seven straight Finals games dating to 2004. The Storm have never lost a Finals game at home. … Bird moved into second place on the all-time playoff assists list.