SEATTLE – At Thursday’s practice on the eve of Game 1 of the 2018 WNBA Finals, Jewell Loyd was the first player that found herself surrounded by reporters. There we microphones in her face and the lights from three television cameras shining down on her.
“I don’t like the spotlight,” she said. “Even this spotlight, look at me right now, I’m not a fan of it. I like to be under the radar at all times.”
After her Game 1 performance, there is no way Loyd is going to find herself under the radar anytime soon. After a shooting slump over the final four games of Seattle’s semifinal series with Phoenix, Loyd had the ultimate bounce back game as she scored a game-high 23 points to lead the Storm to an 89-76 win to take a 1-0 series lead over the Washington Mystics.
Over the final four games against Phoenix, Loyd shot just 9-for-36 from the field and 2-for-12 from beyond the arc. In Game 1 on Friday, Loyd finished 9-for-12 from the field and made all three of her 3-point attempts.
Shooting slump officially broken.
“When you’re a shooter, you’ve got to have short-term memory,” said Loyd after the game. “I think I saw a post where Kobe [Bryant] was like, if you’re not open, still shoot the ball, and I was like, I made that my screen saver, because I’m like, I need to be able to shoot and just have short-term memory.
“But it helps when you’re playing with people who are unselfish that set you up and keep giving you the ball, and that’s what makes this team special. Everyone is willing to make the extra pass, and regardless if you miss 100 shots or you make the next 70, this team is going to give you the ball.”
Loyd didn’t make 70 straight shots, but the barrage she put together in the second quarter helped the Storm extend their lead and brought the 11,486 fans in attendance into a frenzy.
Over the span of two minutes and 26 seconds of game time, Loyd scored 10 points and pushed the Storm lead to 15 as she drained four consecutive shots: a 3-pointer off a dish from Sue Bird, a layup off a feed from Breanna Stewart, a pull-up jumper from midrange, and another 3-pointer off an assist from Alysha Clark.
Game 2 👉 Sunday, 3:30 PM ET, ABC pic.twitter.com/GtZVhGrtpv
— WNBA (@WNBA) September 8, 2018
At that point in the game, Bird and Stewart had combined for just six points on 2-for-7 shooting. Early in the game, Seattle’s offense was fueled by their defensive effort with Natasha Howard and Clark leading the way with a combined 16 points in the opening quarter alone.
“It was huge,” said Bird of the efforts of Howard and Clark. “The things that they do day in and day out for us don’t show up in the box score. The games that they do shine in terms of scoring and getting steals and rebounds, that’s just a huge boost for our team. They set the tone. They set the tone for the rest of the game. We were able to set the tone early defensively because of them, on the boards because of them and that just fueled our offense.”
But the second quarter belonged to Loyd as she got her shot back on track, just as her point guard knew she would.
“As basketball players, as athletes, you’re going to have off nights, you’re going to have tough stretches and what I’ve seen from Jewell from Year One to Year Four is you know the bounce back will come,” said Bird. “She understands, she had a rough series, she knows it, we all know it, everyone knows it. I’m sure people have been talking to her about it. But I was pretty confident to be honest, not like I knew this would happen, but I was pretty confident that she was going to come out and just be herself.”
There was someone else that was confident in Loyd’s scoring ability – Mystics head coach Mike Thibault. During Thursday’s practice sessions, Thibault talked about the importance of containing Loyd and not letting her get rolling.
“When you sit there and try to rank priorities, we’ve made it a priority the last year and a half that she has to feel uncomfortable as best we can,” he said. “We put one of our best defenders on her every game, and try to slow her down a little bit. Her athleticism is so good that she can explode and go off at any time, but she’s a priority.”
After her Game 1 performance, she’ll need to be an even bigger priority in Game 2. But that is what makes this Storm team so dangerous. If you focus too much attention on Loyd, then there’s the MVP in Stewart ready to attack you. And if you find a way to slow down Stewart, then Bird can take things into her own hands like she did in Game 5 against Phoenix.
But Bird much prefers games like Friday’s Game 1, when she attempted only four shots and instead was able to orchestrate the show and find her teammates.
“I was saying this is perfect; I don’t mind this at all,” she said. “It’s not a conscious decision but its just more of a feel. When you’re out there you’re kind of feeling the game, you’re understanding what’s happening and the minute you see Jewell was going you want to run as many plays as you can for Jewell.”