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WNBA Finals Game 2 Notebook: The MVP Delivers

SEATTLE – The Storm are one win away from claiming their third WNBA championship in franchise history, thanks in large part to the 25-point performance from league MVP Breanna Stewart on Sunday as the Storm held off the Mystics, 75-73, to take a 2-0 series lead as the series shifts East.

Stewart Delivers MVP Performance

Seattle’s leading scorer put together a performance worthy of an MVP on Sunday. While she would love to have those two missed free throws back that could have sealed the victory and lessened the drama in the final 17 seconds, the rest of her performance in Game 2 was stellar.

After a slow start to Game 1, Stewart came out of the blocks rolling, scoring Seattle’s first basket with a fading jumper off glass just 14 seconds in to the game. She had six of Seattle’s first eight points and finished the first quarter with a game-high 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting from the field and 3-of-4 from the free throw line.

The free throw line was the MVP’s friend on Sunday as Stewart made 10 of her game-high 14 attempts. But she had her entire offensive arsenal going – mid-range jumpers off the pick and pop, driving runners in the lane, pull-up jumpers off the bounce, a hook shot off deep post position, an open 3-pointer in the fourth quarter and drawing contact with aggressive moves to the rim that got her to the free throw line frequently.

“You know, right from the jump, I just wanted to be really aggressive,” said Stewart. “You knew that this was Game 2, and they were going to come out like a better DC team than we saw in Game 1. I was able to get to the free-throw line, and I would have loved to have made those last two at the end, but the majority of the game, just being aggressive, assertive, and doing the plays to win the game.”

Despite her outstanding play in the first 39:43 of game play, she left the window open for the Mystics late with those missed free throws. With Washington coming up empty-handed on the ensuing possession, Stewart was left off the hook and her MVP-worthy performance was not spoiled.

“Yeah, she definitely came out assertive,” said Storm point guard Sue Bird. “You could tell right away. I think what makes this an MVP type game is down the stretch she wanted the ball, she was posting up hard. We wanted to get her the ball, and she finished the plays off.

“MVP-type performances, anyone can get lucky, right, like anyone can have a great game, á la myself Game 5 [of the Semifinals against Phoenix], anybody can have one night. But for somebody who consistently has presence and consistently wants the ball and consistently is winning your team basketball games, that’s an MVP, and Stewie obviously showed that tonight, but in all honesty, she’s been showing it all season. This wasn’t new. And yeah, she was just super assertive, and I’m glad she was.”

Storm Know How To Open Quarters

The Storm opened up the first quarter with an 8-4 burst in the game’s first 2:13 thanks to six points from Stewart. It was a common theme in Game 2 for the Storm to strike first in each quarter.

After leading by nine points after the first quarter, the Storm opened the second with a 3-pointer from Sami Whitcomb that gave them their biggest lead of the game. Of course, the Mystics would respond, by outscoring Seattle by 16 the rest of the half.

When the second half began, it was once again the Storm that made the initial punch, opening the third quarter on a 9-2 run to turn a four-point deficit into a three-point lead. Once again, the Mystics battled back and took a three-point lead into the fourth quarter (61-58).

But the pattern held true in the fourth quarter as well with the Storm going on a 7-0 run in just 2:08 of game time to take a 65-61 lead. Seattle would eventually build the lead to five but could not gain any further separation as the Mystics battled back after each Seattle run.

“We had our moments where we went on little runs but they hung right in there and it comes down to the last couple of plays,” said Bird. “In these type of games you just go home knowing that in some ways you were lucky, but you fought really hard to get it done.”

Storm Win The Glass, Courtesy of Natasha Howard

Howard had as many rebounds (13) as the entire starting frontline of the Washington Mystics – LaToya Sanders (7), Elena Delle Donne (4) and Ariel Atkins (2) – combined. The Storm won the rebounding battle 36-26, including an 11-6 edge on the offensive glass.

“We had a big emphasis on rebounding, and honestly throughout the game it didn’t feel like we had a plus 10 rebounding margin,” said Stewart, who finished with seven rebounds. “It felt like they kept getting some scrappy ones or big rebounds, and we just knew that they were going to crash offensively.”

Bird’s Bank Is Open On Sundays

If there is one highlight we will see replayed over and again from this game, it will be Bird’s desperation 3-pointer that banked in off the glass from 30-feet away. In a game decided by two points, that unlikely basket proved to be the difference.

While Bird joked with ESPN’s Rebecca Lobo and Ryan Ruocco after the game that “of course, I called bank, the whole time I knew what I was doing,” she copped to getting lucky when discussing the improbable shot in the locker room after the game.

“The shot clock was running down, I knew I had to just get something up, because at the very least if you hit the rim maybe you get an [offensive] board,” she said. “But as it went in I could see the whole arena around me be like ‘Whoa!’ and everybody’s hands went up. As far as momentum goes and energy, it gave the building some, it gave us some, so be it.”

Storm Win With Defense

When discussing the impact of their new head coach Dan Hughes this week, every Storm player brought up his priority to improve the team’s defense.

“What Dan did when he got here is he really put emphasis on our defense,” said Bird. “He looked at our team in previous years and he understood our offense – I think we were top three in the league in the last three years offensively – but defensively was really the issue.”

After finishing the 2017 season ranked ninth in defensive efficiency (104.7 points per 100 possessions allowed), the Storm improved to third (98.8) in Hughes’ first season at the helm.

How fitting is it that in a game that saw the Storm shoot just 42 percent from the field and 26 percent from 3-point range, that their fate would be decided by a defensive stop. Seattle was up by one with 16.9 seconds to play and Stewart at the free throw line, but a pair of misses and a Mystics rebound gave Washington a chance to take the lead in the closing seconds.

“I mean do whatever it takes,” Bird said of the defensive mentality on that critical possession. “I think when you have a chance to go up three and a certain someone misses free throws it can be deflating, so it was really important in that huddle that we kept talking to each other like ‘The only way that’s not going to feel like crap later is if we get this stop.’ So, at that point you pretty much have five people willing to do whatever it takes and I’m glad it worked out.”

Washington got the ball in Toliver’s hands – who had just delivered on two clutch shots in the previous minute – and as she drove baseline, Bird was able to poke the ball from behind her, which led to a loose ball and eventual jump ball between Howard and Tianna Hawkins. Washington hoped for a foul call on Toliver’s drive, but didn’t get the whistle.

On the ensuing jump ball, Howard won the tip and Seattle played keep away until Alysha Clark was finally fouled with 1.8 seconds left. She split her two free throws, but without a timeout Washington could only launch a 60-foot desperation heave that missed the mark and sealed the victory for Seattle.

Dynamic Duo To A Big Three

Mystics rookie Ariel Atkins had yet another productive game for the Mystics on Sunday as she finished with 15 points, two rebounds, three assists and two steals in 33 minutes. While her jumper wasn’t always on point (she finished 4-of-15 from the field), she was able to get herself to the free throw line (7-of-8) and knocked down clutch shots in the fourth quarter when the team needed her most.

The Mystics already have a pair of All-Stars in Toliver and Delle Donne, but as Atkins continues to shine we may be looking at a Big Three in DC.

Mystics Bench Makes An Impact

A bright spot for the Mystics in Game 2 came from their bench play, with Tierra Ruffin-Pratt playing 29 minutes (her most in a game since June 1) in place of starting guard Natasha Cloud (two points, 0-for-5 shooting, minus-14 in 10 minutes). While Ruffin-Pratt’s numbers aren’t jaw-dropping (four points, four rebounds, two steals, one block), the Mystics outscored the Storm by 11 points in her minutes on the court.

Washington also got another solid performance from rookie Myisha Hines-Allen, who has yet to miss a shot in these WNBA Finals. After going 4-of-4 in Game 1, she was 3-of-3 in Game 2 and finished with six points and four rebounds in 13 minutes.

“We got good performances from some of our bench,” said Mystics coach Mike Thibault following the game. “Obviously, Myisha Hines-Allen and Pratt were big. Aerial Powers gave us a couple good minutes in the first half.”

Despite Ruffin-Pratt’s effectiveness, Thibault plans to keep the same starting unit come Game 3.

“Our starting lineup got us this far,” he said. “Just one of those nights Tash was having a tough night tonight, and our plus-minus on the floor with Pratt was much better, so we stuck with that.”

Mystics Need To Make History

Entering this postseason, no team trailing 0-2 in a series had ever come back to force a Game 5. Well, it happened this year when the Phoenix Mercury dropped the first two games of their semifinal series with the Storm in Seattle, only to return home and win the next two in Phoenix to force a winner-take-all Game 5 back in Seattle.

The Mystics now face the same prediciment against the same team. While the initial goal is to defend home court and get the series back in Seattle for a decisive Game 5, for the Mystics to win the championship, they will need to do what no team has ever done in the WNBA and that is win three straight after falling down 0-2.

Deja Vu For The Storm

The Storm were just in this situation 10 days ago. They took care of business at home, but were unable to close out the series on the road. They fully understand that going up 2-0 is great, but it doesn’t guarantee anything just yet.

“We just understand that 2-0 doesn’t mean anything, you haven’t won anything,” said Bird. “Are we happy? Absolutely. Did we take care of home court? Absolutely. But we understand it’s not over. I’m hoping that this will keep up alert. This was a tough, gritty win, we feel good about it and hopefully those good vibes stay with us when we go to Washington.”

The Storm will enter Wednesday’s Game 3 riding a seven-game win streak in the Finals that spans their championship runs in 2004 and 2010 as well as this year’s Finals. That is the longest streak in league history as is their six straight home wins in the Finals.