Late-Season Improvement Propels Seattle Storm to Playoff Berth

Ten games ago, the Storm was near the bottom of the standings with an 8-14 record, staring down a potential third straight year with no postseason. Looking at the schedule, you still saw a pair of matchups with both L.A. and Minnesota, plus an East Coast road trip of four games in eight days.

“The hard part is that a lot of the games are on the road, and almost every team you play is also jockeying for those spots,” Sue Bird said at the time. “But I think it’s fun. This is why you play.”

As the old sports adage goes, you want to be peaking at the very end of the season. That is certainly the case with this Storm team, which is now 6-2 since the Olympic break after a convincing win over the second-place Sparks on Sunday at KeyArena. The victory clinched Seattle’s spot in the playoffs and extended its winning streak to four, the longest unbeaten run for Bird and company since 2012.

The Storm picked up three victories on its four-game road trip, the most vital of them being an 81-76 win over the Mystics on Friday. The two teams could still finish with the same record, but Washington can’t surpass Seattle due to the head-to-head tiebreaker. Friday’s contest came down to the wire, and Jewell Loyd scored the game-winning points for the third time this season.

“I think it’s starting to sink in for them, what it takes to win on the road in this league,” said Jenny Boucek, who is taking the Storm to the playoffs in her second year as head coach. “You need to have a certain mentality to give yourselves a chance. They’re starting to understand that.”

Every game since the Olympic break has essentially been a playoff game, and Boucek’s team has been thriving under pressure. Only the defending champion Lynx have a better record than Seattle in their last eight games. Beginning with an impressive win over the then-first place Sparks on August 26, the Storm has been a completely different team post-Olympics.

In that span, the Storm ranks second in the league in points (84.6 per game), first in assists (20.4) and third in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.55). Seattle is shooting 50.8 percent from the field during its current winning streak, easily the league’s best percentage.

Defense and rebounding have been Boucek’s points of emphasis all season, and her team ranks near the top in both of those categories post-Olympics. The Storm is giving up 77.3 points per game (third fewest) and owns a league-best defensive rebounding percentage of 78.7. In the last four games, Seattle has held its opponents to a league-low 40.4 percent shooting.

“We really just understand where our strengths are and how we can maximize them,” Bird said after Sunday’s win. “We’re trying to play at that level every night. And we seem to have this resiliency right now, where even if teams go on runs, it doesn’t faze us. We just stay the course, and it’s been working out. We just have this awareness of who we are right now.”

The Storm is back in the playoffs after a couple of years in the lottery. Breanna Stewart has obviously made a huge difference, but she’s not the only reason for the team’s noticeable improvement.

Loyd established herself as one of the best guards in the league. Alysha Clark is having the most productive season of her career. Crystal Langhorne, the ultimate unsung hero, accepted a reduced role and is now putting together one of the most efficient shooting campaigns in league history. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Ramu Tokashiki emerged as trustworthy reserves. Veterans Noelle Quinn and Krystal Thomas were brought in to help the Storm’s young core.

And of course there’s Bird, who happens to be shooting a career-high 44.4 percent from three-point range in her 15th WNBA season. Bird re-signed with the Storm in February after putting in tons of work during the offseason – Boucek cited Bird’s No. 1 priority as improving her shooting percentages – and here she is having maybe the best season of her career. The veteran point guard also leads the WNBA with 5.9 assists per game.

Four Storm players will be making their playoff debuts next week. Bird, meanwhile, hasn’t played in the postseason since the devastating Conference Semifinal loss to Minnesota in 2012.

“I’m excited for Sue. With her making the commitment to us, to retire here, I was really hoping that before she retired we would end up in some big games,” Boucek said.

“Very satisfying. It feels good,” Bird said of reaching the playoffs. “You can feel in the locker room already that there is a bit of a buzz. It’s not easy to make the playoffs in this league. And for a while, I think myself and our franchise took it for granted because that was the expectation. To not get in the last couple of years and to finally get back feels really good.”

The Storm won its two championships six years apart, and it’s been six years since the last one. Until last week, Seattle hadn’t won at Atlanta or New York since the 2010 title-winning campaign.

Sure, the Storm might not be the favorite to win it all this time around. But considering the way Bird and her teammates have been performing lately, the last thing opposing teams will want to do is face the Storm in the new single-elimination format.