Does first-year Storm head coach Gary Kloppenburg think his team is on the verge of a fourth WNBA title in the franchise’s 20 years?
“Of course, I do. Absolutely,’’ Kloppenburg said via video conference. “We feel really confident. We especially are getting back to full strength as we have this week.
“The thing about this team, when we get into the playoff situation, it just seems like their whole focus and intensity and attention to detail just raises a notch. That’s what I’ve seen with this team. I expect to see that happen again.”
Fulfillment of that expectation begins Sunday, when the rested No. 2-seeded Storm (18-4) meet the fourth-seeded Minnesota Lynx (15-8), a four-time WNBA champion. The best-of-five semifinal series is in the bubble at Bradenton, FL., where the league will have spent its entire season when the championship series ends no later than Oct. 11.
Since the Storm easily handled the Lynx in two regular-season games, winning by 24 and 15 points, the Storm will be favored to advance to the title round. The other semifinal matches the top-seeded Las Vegas Aces (18-4) against No. 7 Connecticut (12-12), which upset Los Angeles 73-59 Thursday after Sparks star Nneka Ogwumike missed the game with a migraine.
Vegas won the tiebreaker with the Storm by virtue of a season sweep of the head-to-head games (82-74 Aug. 22 and 86-84 Sept. 12), but the Storm played the second game without stars Brianna Stewart and Sue Bird, both resting minor injuries.
Stewart, named WNBA comeback player of the year, said her sore left foot will not keep her out Sunday.
“I just stepped the wrong way and I felt something,” she said. “I’m happy that it was scar tissue and nothing else. When I feel a pop or anything like that, that’s going to freak me out a little bit. But it was just scar tissue and everything else is good.’’
Bird has had a sore knee most of the season, and aggravated it in a collision. She sat out the final two games, but the the playoff double-bye earned by the top two seeds provided a week’s rest.
“I know that no matter what, Sue is always involved, always engaged,’’ Storm guard Jordin Canada said of Bird. “She’s always helping me on the sidelines or play calls.’’
The Storm has proven it is much more than a two-person team.
Jewell Loyd, has been spectacular lately, scoring 30 or more points twice, including the recent one against Las Vegas. Trailing 89-87 to the Sparks two weeks ago, with .8 seconds left, she grabbed an in-bounds pass from Bird in the left corner and hit a spectacular three-pointer for a 90-89 win.
“That was a big win for us,’’ Loyd said. “To win like that, and seeing our team being excited about that shot, that was probably the best.’’
The Storm and all WNBA teams made the most of their time together under one roof, engaging in anti-racist activism that drew nationwide attention.
Almost all players worked with Black Lives Matter. They wore uniforms bearing the name of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman homicide victim in a botched raid by police in Louisville.
“To have this season was extremely important, no matter what,’’ Stewart said. ” . . . 2020 is going to be historic, to see the impact we have made beyond basketball. We are really pushing for social justice, and people are listening and seeing that. People follow us, and do pay attention to us. We’re just doing the best to amplify the message and create change.’’
As for hoops, Kloppenburg said practice time was valuable.
“We can really get back and correct some things that we need to do defensively and offensively,” he said. “Review our end of game situations, timeout situations.”
Canada said practice was about small things.
“Obviously, when you get into the playoffs, everyone knows your plays,” Canada said. “Know who you’re looking for, just tighten those little things up. Because those details matter.”
In 2018, the Storm beat the Washington Mystics for the WNBA championship, but did not make it to the championship in 2019 because Bird and Stewart missed the season due to injuries. The Storm made the playoffs, but were knocked out by the Sparks in the first round.
“I think both teams were really strong in numbers,’’ center Mercedes Russell said of the Storm last year and now. “Both teams really had a deep bench, this year especially. Our bench comes in and brings energy. The intensity on both ends of the floor, defensively and offensively, goes up in the playoffs.”
The Aces, with 2020 WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson leading the team in scoring, look good. They are missing a Seattle favorite, former University of Washington great Kelsey Plum, who missed the season after surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon.