Short-handed Seattle Storm lean on stars to lift them past top-seeded Las Vegas Aces in WNBA semifinals opener

LAS VEGAS — The Seattle Storm were on the road and down a starter to injury as they began the WNBA semifinals Sunday at No. 1 seed Las Vegas. But the Storm’s other four usual starters — all past No. 1 draft picks — did what they have made great careers of doing best. And Seattle struck first with a 76-73 victory in Game 1 at a sold-out Michelob Ultra Arena.

Guard Jewell Loyd and forward Breanna Stewart, back-to-back top picks by the Storm in 2015 and 2016, had 26 and 24 points, respectively. Both are among the most unstoppable clutch scorers in the league, and they came through again and again Sunday for Seattle.

Guard Sue Bird, the team’s top selection in 2002, had 12 assists and no turnovers. It was the exact number she needed to break the WNBA career playoff record for assists; Bird now has 342. He is also the career leader in regular-season assists, finishing with 3,234. Bird, who turns 42 in October, will retire at the end of the season.

And center Tina Charles, who was the top pick by the Connecticut Sun back in 2010 and joined the Storm in late June, set a Seattle franchise record with 18 rebounds. Without forward Gabby Williams, a strong defensive presence who is sidelined by concussion symptoms, the Storm still held the Aces well below their season scoring average.

“Coming into this game, the thing I knew I could control was just being on the boards,” said Charles, who also scored 13 points. “Start early outlets, get second-chance opportunities. I know those are always key come playoff time.”

It’s also key for a road team to get off to a great start in a best-of-five series, and No. 4 seed Seattle did that.

Stewart, who also had six rebounds and three blocked shots, became just the fourth player in WNBA history to score at least 20 points in seven consecutive playoff games. That goes back to her last four games of the 2020 postseason, when the Storm won the franchise’s fourth championship. He was injured and unable to play in the 2021 playoffs. Stewart was the WNBA Finals MVP in 2018 and 2020.

Loyd, also a key part of the 2018 and 2020 titles, either scored or assisted on the final 10 points of the game for Seattle.

“Jewell is playing with a lot of confidence, and we need that,” coach Noelle Quinn said. “We’re not going to be successful if Jewell is not at her best — point blank, period. I think she understands that and she’s locked in to that.”

Loyd had 38 points against Las Vegas when these teams met in the regular-season finale on Aug. 14. The Storm still lost that game, but the outcome was different Sunday.

“I’ve worked a lot in the offseason for these moments,” Loyd said of her performance in the clutch. “We’ve been in these situations a lot in different schemes. Pick-and-roll is something I like to be in. … That’s kind of just back to playing in the park, being able to create your shots and just have fun.”

The game wasn’t much fun for the Aces, who came in having averaged 90.4 points in the regular season and 98.0 in their two first-round playoff wins. When the Aces last played here on Aug. 20, they closed out their opening series against a depleted Phoenix Mercury team, scoring 117 points and hitting a WNBA-record 23 3-pointers. Las Vegas coach Becky Hammon said her team looked too tight Sunday, especially in the first quarter when the Storm took a 26-15 lead.

“We played like the world was on our shoulders,” Hammon said.

In general, the Aces — who are also without a regular-season starter in Dearica Hamby — are very good in transition, but they were outscored on the fastbreak 16-0 by the Storm. MVP candidate Aja Wilson had just eight points, shooting 3-of-10 from the field. Chelsea Gray led the Aces with 21 points. The Aces have a couple of days to regroup before Wednesday’s Game 2 in Las Vegas (ESPN2, 10 p.m. ET).

“There were times when we were passive, or we were settling a little bit with outside jumpers,” Gray said. “We’ll see in this next game how we respond. I mean, holding this team to 76 points when they have a prolific offense, that’s not too shabby. We’ve just got to be more on point so the scores they do get are a little bit tougher. Not easy putbacks or easy transition points.”

Of course, that’s easier said than done, especially with Bird running the Storm’s offense. This was her 50th career game, counting playoffs and the regular season, in which she had at least five assists and no turnovers. Next on that list is retired Minnesota Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen with 36. Whalen is also now second on the career playoff assist list, as she had 341 in 13 playoff appearances. Whalen will be inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in two weeks.

Bird is a lock for that same honor in a few years. This is her 16th postseason appearance, and she has a combined 24 assists and one turnover in the Storm’s three playoff games so far this year. Some of them Sunday were fantastic passes, including two long, perfectly placed tosses to Loyd for layups.

“She’s the best point guard in our game for a reason,” Quinn said of Bird. “You talk about how she thinks the game, how smart she is, picking her spots and still able to be very effective on the floor.”

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