On September 12, 2018, the Seattle Storm wins its third Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) championship by beating the Washington Mystics 98-82 to sweep the finals in three games. Forward Breanna Stewart (b. 1994) adds a finals Most Valuable Player award to her regular-season MVP honors, and veteran point guard Sue Bird (b. 1980) -- the only player remaining from the Storm's 2010 and 2004 championship teams -- directs the three-game sweep while wearing a mask to protect her broken nose. With the victory, the Storm becomes the city's first professional team to win three league championships. No other Seattle pro team has done it more than once.
It was a long road back to the top. The Storm's first two championship seasons were built around Bird and 6-foot-5 Lauren Jackson (b. 1981), a seven-time WNBA All-Star and three-time league MVP from Australia. Injuries severely limited Jackson's playing time after the second championship and ended her WNBA career in 2012. The Storm went down with her, struggling to a 17-17 record in 2013 and then having four consecutive losing seasons. The slide included coaching shakeups. Brian Agler (b. 1958), who guided the team to its 2010 championship, left after the 2014 season and was succeeded by Jenny Boucek (b. 1973). She was fired during the 2017 season, with assistant Gary Kloppenburg (b. 1953) replacing her as interim coach.
Losing had its rewards, however, giving the Storm the first pick in consecutive college-player drafts. The team used those picks to select Notre Dame guard Jewell Loyd (b. 1993) in 2015 and University of Connecticut forward Stewart in 2016. They both launched their professional careers with Rookie of the Year honors. Stewart immediately established herself as one of the WNBA's top players -- not surprisingly, given her credentials. She was a three-time national college Player of the Year at powerhouse Connecticut, where Bird had also played, leading the UConn Huskies to four consecutive NCAA championships and being named the Final Four's outstanding player all four times.
Stewart and Loyd, teamed with Bird, gave Seattle a power trio. Joining them in the 2018 starting lineup were Alysha Clark (b. 1987), a 5-10 forward signed as a free agent in 2012, and Natasha Howard (b. 1991), a 6-2 forward added in a 2018 trade with the Minnesota Lynx. The starters' skills meshed extraordinarily well. Bird, who was still playing at the top of her game at age 37, ran the offense. Loyd had developed into a standout scorer. Clark was a defensive specialist. Stewart could score, rebound, pass, defend, and block shots, all at an elite level. Howard in particular was a key ingredient, often described as the team's missing piece. Underused by Minnesota, she emerged as a tough, all-around player in Seattle.
Dan Hughes (b. 1955) had been watching the Storm grow. He was a WNBA head coach for 16 seasons, twice being named Coach of the Year, before retiring after the 2016 season. Storm president and general manager Alisha Valavanis offered him the vacant Storm job. Although the team had managed only a 15-19 record and lost in the first round of the playoffs in 2017, Hughes saw its potential. He came out of retirement in October 2017 to take the job and a shot at something he had never done -- win a league championship.
Losing was practically a new experience for Stewart. UConn lost only four times during her four years there, and three of those defeats happened when she was a freshman. With the Storm, she lost 37 times in her first two seasons. Entering the 2018 campaign, "Stewie," as she was commonly called, had had enough. She, Bird, and Loyd huddled in April while training for a Team USA exhibition game, and locked in on the notion that it was time for the Storm to win another championship.
The season started with a home-court loss to the Phoenix Mercury, prompting Bird to call a players-only meeting "to iron some things out. From that point on, we kind of turned a corner" (Allen, "Storm's Title Run ..."). The Storm won its next five games, and gradually the players realized that they were a pretty good team. On July 8, in a 97-91 victory over the Washington Mystics, Bird scored 21 points and surpassed Jackson as the franchise's all-time leading scorer. The win gave Seattle a 15-5 win-loss record and first place in the league standings.
Bird was voted into the All-Star Game for the 11th time, a WNBA record. Selected with her were Loyd and Stewart, the team's three All-Stars an indication that the Storm had rejoined the league's elite.
More proof came on August 12 when the Storm beat the defending champion Minnesota Lynx 81-72 on the Lynx's home court. The regular season ended August 19 with an 84-68 Seattle victory over the Dallas Wings, an easy win that gave Hughes a chance to rest his starters for much of the second half. Stewart scored 15 points in less than 13 minutes to finish with 742 for the season, breaking Jackson's team record by three, as the sellout hometown crowd in KeyArena at Seattle Center chanted "M-V-P!, M-V-P!" each time she scored.
That honor officially became Stewart's on August 26 when she was named the season's Most Valuable Player and Howard was named Most Improved Player. The Storm had won seven of its final eight games to finish with a league-best 26-8 record, two wins shy of the franchise-best record set by the 2010 championship team.
Getting Past Phoenix
As the top-seeded team in the playoffs, Seattle had a first-round bye and an automatic spot in the semifinals. Its opponent was the Phoenix Mercury, a veteran contender with its own trio of All-Stars. That created some intriguing matchups, especially the Storm's Bird vs. the Mercury's Diana Taurasi. Bird was the WNBA's all-time assists leader, Taurasi the league's all-time scoring leader. Both guards, they had been teammates at UConn when the Huskies had a perfect 39-0 season and won the 2002 national championship. Looking back in 2017, UConn coach Geno Auriemma (b. 1954) said "that was the best backcourt in the history of women's college basketball, pro basketball, any kind of basketball" (Allen, "Sue Bird vs. Diana Taurasi"). The women also had played together on the U.S. national team, winning world championships and Olympic gold medals, and for a Russian pro team. They were close friends, but for this best-of-five series they would be fierce rivals.
The first two games were at KeyArena. Seattle was on its way to a rout in Game 1, leading by 16 points in the third quarter, before Taurasi led a Phoenix rally to make it close. The Storm won 91-87. Game 2 was even tighter, with Taurasi scoring half of her game-high 28 points in the fourth quarter, including a three-point basket with 3.6 seconds remaining to tie the score and force overtime. Bird saved the game with a three-pointer in the final minute, giving the Storm another 91-87 victory.
Things changed when the series moved to Phoenix for Games 3 and 4. Needing just one more win to sweep the series, the Storm concentrated on stopping Taurasi and got blind-sided by All-Star forward DeWanna Bonner. Phoenix won Game 3 by 20, 86-66, with Bonner scoring 27 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. In Game 4, the Storm had another big lead in the third quarter, but Phoenix once again came from behind and this time won 86-84 in the closing seconds on a hook shot by All-Star center Brittney Griner. The Mercury's big front line had dominated, with 6-foot-9 Griner scoring 29 points, 6-foot-4 Bonner adding 27, and the two of them collecting a total of 18 rebounds.
Phoenix clearly had the momentum as the series returned to KeyArena. Further, Bird had broken her nose when she collided with one of Stewart's elbows in the second quarter of Game 4, causing her to miss the rest of that contest and meaning she would have to wear a plastic facemask in the deciding game. Ominously for Seattle, Taurasi had been in 13 previous winner-take-all games during her career and had won all 13 of them. As a Seattle Times headline put it, the Storm was "on the ropes."
Game 5 lived up to the hype. Unfazed by the loud pro-Storm crowd of nearly 9,000, the Mercury scored 11 of the first 13 points and led most of the way. It answered a Storm rally with one of its own and was on top 73-69 with six minutes to play. At that point Bird, who had just been hit in the nose again, took over. Wiping blood from her face and putting her facemask back on, she started hitting three-pointers. The lead went back and forth until she made a shot from 28 feet -- about six feet beyond the three-point line -- to put Seattle ahead for good with four minutes to play. The Storm won 94-84 to advance to the finals. Stewart had a game-high 28 points. Bird had 22. In the fourth quarter alone, she scored 14 in five electrifying, game-clinching minutes. "I don't know if I've had a fourth quarter like this in that big a game in my life'' (Caple).
The Storm was favored to win the best-of-five championship series. Their opponent, Washington, had managed to beat the Los Angeles Sparks and Atlanta Dream to reach the championship series, but the Mystics were young and wounded. They were making their first appearance in the championship series, and their best player, 6-foot-5 forward and 2015 league MVP Elena Delle Donne (b. 1989), was slowed by a knee injury.
Bird would continue to wear the clear plastic mask that she wore in Game 5 against Phoenix as protection for her broken nose. She called the mask "super annoying," but said she "didn't really notice it that much" when playing (Caple). She did, after all, have considerable experience wearing it. Her current broken nose was the fifth of her career.
Given the Storm's top seeding, the first two games of the series were again played at KeyArena. Game 1, on September 7, was more one-sided than the final score suggested. Seattle won 89-76 but was never threatened after Howard scored 10 quick points for an 11-point lead in the first quarter. Loyd broke out of a shooting slump to score 23 points, Stewart added 22, Howard finished with 19, and Bird contributed seven assists while playing barely half the game. The Mystics' leading scorer was a rookie, guard Ariel Atkins, who had 23 points. With his team in control all the way, Hughes was able to play his reserves for most of the fourth quarter.
The Mystics put up a much tougher fight in Game 2 on September 9, but Seattle pulled out a 75-73 victory. Stewart stole the ball twice in the closing minutes to help thwart the visitors and finished with a game-high 25 points. Delle Donne, who had managed only 10 points while wearing a knee brace in the first game, switched to a sleeve to protect her knee and scored 17, but the Mystics' undoing was poor outside shooting. They tried 16 three-point shots and made none.
Needing one more win to capture the championship, the Storm players were determined to avoid what happened in the same situation against Phoenix -- going on the road leading two games to none, only to lose the next two. That made seven straight losses in playoff away games for Seattle, a streak going back to 2010.
Game 3 was played at James Madison University's EagleBank Arena in Fairfax, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., the Mystics' home city, because of scheduling conflicts and ongoing renovations at the team's previous home courts. The Storm came out firing three-pointers, led by 10 or more most of the way, and cruised to the title. Howard had the best game of her career, scoring 29 points and snaring 14 rebounds. Stewart scored a game-high 30, boosting her average in the finals to 25.7 and earning her the MVP award. Delle Donne had a team-high 23 points for the Mystics. With the 98-82 victory and the championship trophy in hand, the Storm players celebrated, jumping and hugging on the court and then spraying champagne at each other in their dressing room.
Mystics coach Mike Thibault (b. 1950) heaped praise on the winners. "One of the things that Seattle has better than everybody else in the league right now is they can always have a lineup on the floor with five scorers that put the fear of God in you" (Wallace). "They're young, they're really talented, they're smart, and they know how to play together" (Allen, "Storm Appears ..."). Hughes called his team "a very, very special group. All year you could just kind of see the escalation. ... I mean nothing that we did satisfied them until tonight" (Martin).
The celebration moved to Seattle with a September 16 parade featuring the players riding in old-fashioned trolleys, waving to the crowd and hoisting their trophy. Bird's facemask dangled from her belt. About 6,000 fans met them in KeyArena where confetti and tributes filled the air.
Already the league's oldest player, Bird said she planned to return for an 18th season. Asked if the Storm's combination of talent and youth could mean more championships, she said, "The way we're built, if you look at all the pieces, it's got championship written all over it. ... So much can happen in this league, so I'm hesitant to say it. But the pieces are there" (Allen, "Storm Appears ...)
Just a few days after the parade, Bird, Stewart, and Loyd headed to Tenerife in Spain's Canary Islands to play for Team USA in the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup. They added a world championship and more to their accomplishments on September 30 when the U.S. beat Australia in the title game. Bird became the first player, male or female, to win a fourth World Cup gold medal, and Stewart picked up another MVP trophy, her third in a month.