By Seth Dahle
This weekend will surely be a test of mental toughness for the Seattle Storm, as the team opens the 2017 regular season with back-to-back games against defending WNBA champion Los Angeles and Indiana on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
Just 24 hours after wrapping up the season opener against the Sparks in Los Angeles, the Storm will tipoff at 4 p.m. PDT against the Fever at KeyArena on Sunday for Opening Night presented by Swedish.
Head coach Jenny Boucek sees the opener at Los Angeles as an early opportunity.
“We have nothing to lose,” said Boucek. “They’re the team the beat. We’re trying to get to where they are. We’re going to get in there, give it our best shot and battle.”
This will be the fourth time in franchise history that Seattle has had to open with back-to-back games. The Storm lost the first two contests in 2000 and 2014, but went 2-0 to open the season in 2009.
STORM SPLITS WITH MERCURY
Seattle split its preseason series with Phoenix, and the two games couldn’t have been any more disparate. The Storm set a franchise record for total points in a preseason game in an 86-64 victory at home on May 3 before suffering an ugly 72-55 setback to the Mercury on Saturday at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
“We have a long way to go,” said Boucek. “It showed us the areas that make sense to us and the areas we need to continue to work through. It’s nothing major, but it’s a lot of little things. We’re working out the kinks with the communication and chemistry, and those games are helpful.”
Highlights in the preseason included Jewell Loyd’s 13.5-point-per-game average, while sharpshooter Sami Whitcomb also averaged 13.5 points per contest while connecting on six triples in the two games combined. In the 22-point win at home, 6-foot-6 center Carolyn Swords came off the bench to net 15 points, including an 11-point explosion in the third quarter, while Crystal Langhorne was steady in the preseason with eight points and 4.5 rebounds per game.
Boucek said the win at home was a “good starting point,” but that the team did not “defend for 40 minutes” in game two, thus leading to a lopsided setback in which Phoenix led by as many as 25 and shot over 50 percent for most the contest, including a 69.2 percent (9-for-13) clip in the first quarter.
The Storm, however, has a lot to look forward to this season. Breanna Stewart, the reigning WNBA Rookie of the Year and 2016 All-WNBA Second Team selection, is back after leading the team in scoring (18.3 PPG) and rebounding (9.3 RPG) a year ago, while 2016 All-WNBA First Team honoree Sue Bird will look to build off a breakout season in which she tallied 12.8 points and 5.8 dimes per game.
“It’s been tricky, because we’ve had a lot of key players out,” said Boucek. “That is slowing down the gelling process. The group we have in is getting integrated and a lot of reps. As we continue to integrate some of our key players, we will be able to work on our chemistry.”
Loyd, who also earned a spot on the All-WNBA Second Team in 2016, said the team is “focused” entering the season.
“We are definitely motivated from where we ended last year,” said Loyd. “We are excited for everyone on the team and all the returners coming back.”
Seattle won five of its last six regular-season games to cap 2016 and earn the No. 7 seed in the WNBA Playoffs. The Storm enjoyed an 11-point lead in the second stanza at Atlanta before the Dream rallied in the second half to steal a 94-85 win. It was Seattle’s first playoff appearance since 2013.
LAST TIME OUT: LOS ANGELES SPARKS
Seattle opens the season at Los Angeles on Saturday, with the tipoff set for 2 p.m. PDT on ESPN.
The Sparks, who won their third WNBA title last season, mustered a 1-2 record in preseason play. After dropping the first two to New York (81-65) and Connecticut (79-62), Los Angeles collected a 73-59 triumph over San Antonio on May 6 in a game that was played at Pasadena College.
Mikaela Ruef came off the bench to log 18 points and seven rebounds against the Stars, while lefty Odyssey Sims added 12 points on 4-for-8 shooting, as well as four rebounds and three steals.
With a four-point (40-36) lead at halftime, Los Angeles opened the second half with a 21-6 run to pull away, and the Sparks held the Stars to only two field goals in the third frame.
Nneka Ogwumike, last year’s WNBA MVP, is set to return for the Sparks after she recorded 18 double-doubles and averaged 19.7 points and 9.1 rebounds in 2016.
LAST TIME OUT: INDIANA FEVER
Seattle’s home opener is set for Sunday at KeyArena, with the tipoff set for 4 p.m. PDT on Q13 FOX and JOEtv.
A playoff contender in 2016, Indiana dropped its two preseason games at home vs. Washington and on the road at Dallas. In the loss to the Wings, the Fever actually led by as many as 13 in the first half before Dallas rallied in the third and fourth quarters.
In the Fever’s 2017 preseason slate, Erica Wheeler averaged 9.5 points and 3.5 assists per game, and Candice Dupree added 8.5 points and four boards per contest. While she did not play against Washington, Tiffany Mitchell netted 15 points on 6-for-13 shooting at Dallas.
Although Seattle trails the all-time series vs. Indiana, 15-18, it owns an 11-5 mark at KeyArena. The Storm has never faced the Fever in a home opener.
Last season, Seattle went 1-2 vs. Indiana, with its lone win coming on the road in a 90-88 thriller, as Loyd netted the game-winning free throws with just 2.4 seconds left.
Indiana posted a 17-17 record in 2016, and while WNBA legend Tamika Catchings is gone to retirement, the Fever returns Shenise Johnson (9.8 PPG, 3.5 RPG in 2016) and adds five-time WNBA All-Star Candice Dupree, who averaged 7.5 points and 3.5 boards last year with Phoenix.
“Home openers are always a blast,” said Boucek. “I love seeing our fans. We miss seeing them, and it’s always great to see them out there and reconnect.”