By Matthew Roberson
The No. 8 seed Seattle Storm (15-19) descended upon Wells Fargo Arena on Wednesday night for a single-elimination playoff bout with the No. 5 seed Phoenix Mercury (18-16). Starting the game on a 22-16 run, Seattle would get outscored 63-47 the rest of the way, losing to its longtime Western Conference rival.
Playing in her second career playoff game, Breanna Stewart tallied 23 points on 6-for-17 shooting. Jewell Loyd compiled a 28.6 field goal percentage (4-for-14), but knocked in all seven of her free throws to finish with 17 points. Sue Bird poured in 10 points and served five assists, but it wasn’t enough to beat her close friend Diana Taurasi and the rest of the Mercury squad. The Storm had a rough night scoring the rock. Seattle was 22-for-63 (34.9 field goal percentage), and received just eight points combined from Crystal Langhorne and Alysha Clark.
Seattle held Phoenix scoreless for the first two minutes and change, as the Mercury spotted the Storm the game’s initial four points. The first Phoenix field goal came from the fingertips of Griner at 6:02. Halfway through the first, Phoenix had a 10-6 lead and Langhorne was in early foul trouble, getting whistled for two quick personals. At the 3:38 juncture, Stewart drew the second foul of the night for Taurasi, sending the league’s all-time leading scorer to the bench for the rest of the quarter. The visitors would put together a 12-6 run while Taurasi sat. Stewart calmly hit both foul shots to tie the game at 10. Seattle grabbed a 12-10 lead on two Loyd free throws, giving her four makes from the stripe in the first eight minutes. Stewart banged her first three of the night late in quarter one after being set up by a Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis offensive rebound and bullet pass. At the end of one, Seattle had a snug 17-16 advantage.
Offensively, the first quarter was not pretty. Neither team shot above 38 percent from the field, as the Storm drilled 5-for-16 shots (31.3 percent) and Phoenix countered with a 6-for-16 (37.5 percent). The first quarter featured four lead changes and two ties. While Seattle struggled to find the hole on field goals, it excelled from the free throw line. Loyd and Stewart combined to go 6-for-6 on freebies in the initial 10 minutes. Stewart was the only of Seattle’s four three-point shooters in the first quarter to connect, as the team went 1-for-5 from beyond the arc.
Sami Whitcomb gave Seattle a six-point lead (22-16) in the primary stages of the second quarter with a ceiling-scraping three from the wing. Less than two minutes into the game’s second period, Taurasi picked up her third foul of the evening. At a dead ball with 5:43 to go in the second, Seattle still had a tight 24-23 lead. Phoenix would reclaim the lead on a Stephanie Talbot jumper from the corner seconds before the three-minute juncture of the second quarter. The Storm then reached a cold front, missing on all nine of its field goal attempts in the last seven minutes of the first half. Free throws kept the team in the game; Seattle connected on 13-for-14 first half free throws.
Two of the marquee stars of this game were held mostly silent in the first half. Taurasi’s foul trouble kept her tethered to a chair for most of the half as she managed two points in under seven minutes of action. At halftime, Loyd was 0-for-7 during open play, but got on the board with six free throws. Neither of the dynamic guards had a field goal to their name in the first half. The Mercury went into the locker room with the score in its favor, 32-31. A majority of those 32 points were a product of Griner and Yvonne Turner. Griner fought her way through constant double teams to notch 11 points in the first half. Turner cooked all half, going a perfect 4-for-4 for 10 points. Rebounding, as it has all season, proved to be difficult for the Storm. Playing on the road against the most prolific rebounder in the league, Seattle claimed 17 first half boards to Phoenix’s 23, six of which fell into the hands of Griner. Stewart led Seattle after two quarters with 12 points and six rebounds.
Stewart would end the dry spell by splashing a three over Griner a minute and a half into the third quarter. This broke a run of eight and a half minutes without a Storm field goal. Langhorne was forced to the bench early in the half again, as she collected her fourth foul before many fans could even return to their seats after halftime. Clark flicked home a long two at 7:55 in the third quarter for her first appearance on the scoring sheet. With the scoreboard showing 6:00 in the third quarter, Phoenix was sitting on its biggest lead of the game to that point (43-38). Having a chance to go up by seven or eight, Taurasi threw an errant pass. Bird capitalized, knifing her way into the lane for a three-point play on the other end of the court.
An eight-point gap (49-41) opened when Camille Little stuck two free throws as the third quarter wound down. Griner’s turnaround rolled in on the next possession, resulting in the first double-digit scoring schism of the night (51-41). Loyd’s first field goal swished through with under a minute remaining in the third quarter. She was wet on a three seconds later to bring the count to 53-46, but Mitchell erased her work with a buzzer beating trey. With the game 75 percent over, Seattle’s season hung in the balance. The girls in green were down by 10, having scored less than 18 points in each of the first three quarters.
Griner ladled the ball to a cutting Danielle Robinson for a layup on the Mercury’s opening touch of the fourth quarter. The bucket meant Seattle was in a 12-point trench with less than 10 minutes to dig out. An unguarded Loyd narrowed the division to nine points by cashing in a three to make things 60-51. Stewart later galloped through the post for an and-one with a mere 4:32 on the clock. This put the Storm back 62-54, desperately needing some defensive stops. Loyd scooped in a finger roll while coaxing Griner into a foul, and buried the ensuing free throw. With four minutes of game time still to be played, Seattle trailed 64-57.
Sandy Brondello was pressured into calling a timeout after Stewart banked in a runner to chop Phoenix’s lead down to five (64-59). This punctuated an 8-2 run that made for a more nerve wracking finish than the Mercury would have liked. Seattle inbounded the ball under the Mercury’s hoop with the hourglass nearing its completion, stuck in a 67-61 hole. Stewart twirled a reverse layup at the rim, and it fell off. After Griner was flagged for a travel to give the ball back to Seattle at the 1:33 point, Bird nailed a pull up to get the Storm within striking distance. On perhaps the biggest play of the night, Taurasi sent in a deep ball from the top of the key. Clark would earn two points on a layup to push Seattle’s deficit back to five (70-65), but with less than a minute left, the lead’s elasticity was starting to die. Reminiscent of the Aug. 27 game at KeyArena, Mitchell snapped the net on a backbreaking three with under 40 seconds in the fourth quarter.
Bird kept the team within two possessions when her rainbow three landed in a pot of gold. Seattle was hanging by a thread, staring at a five-point obstacle (73-68) when Mitchell snuck in two free throws that all but sealed the Storm’s fate. When the final horn rang, it signaled the conclusion of the Storm’s 2017 season. Stewart closed the book with 23 points and eight rebounds, with Loyd working for 17 and five. Griner played every second of the game, never taking a breather as she crafted a 23-point, 11-rebound double-double.