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WNBA: Breanna Stewart, Seattle Storm have work to do before playoffs

The Seattle Storm fell into a tie for fourth place with their 88-83 Thursday night loss to the Connecticut Sun and, with perhaps the toughest remaining schedule in the WNBA, they are very much in danger of losing home court advantage for the first round of the playoffs.

The Washington Mystics defeated the Dallas Wings Thursday night to move into that tie with the Storm at 18-11. I may have underestimated the Mystics when I said they were a tier below the top four of Chicago, Las Vegas, Connecticut and Seattle because most people seemed to disagree with me. And now they have a golden opportunity to indeed move ahead of Seattle. They beat the Wings without Elena Delle Donne, who is likely to play a lot more down the stretch to get herself peaking by the playoffs.

The Storm face the Mystics in DC each of their next two games on Saturday and Sunday, having beaten them in their one meeting so far, 85-71 in Seattle on June 23. They then close the season out with (not in the following order ) two more games against the 20-8 and Commissioner’s Cup champion Las Vegas Aces, a game against the 21-7 and defending WNBA champion Chicago Sky and two games against a Minnesota Lynx team that has struggled this year, but could be fighting for its playoff life. The Mystics will also face the Aces and Sky before the season ends (once more each), but close with a game against the 12-16 Los Angeles Sparks and two games against the 5-25 Indiana Fever.

The Storm have failed to rise to the occasion of late, having lost close games to good teams. They are 1-3 in their last four with close losses coming to the Sky and Sun, the latter of whom are 20-9 and clinched a playoff spot with the win. The other loss in the stretch was another rise-to-the-occasion moment, as the Storm fell to the Phoenix Mercury by 16 in what was an emotional game for Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi because it was the last regular-season meeting between her and Sue Bird.

The one win during the 1-3 stretch was promising because new addition Tina Charles, who is supposed to take the Storm to another level, had 27 points and 15 rebounds — a typical performance of her stellar WNBA career. Charles also played well over the Storm’s four-game winning streak leading up to the Sky loss and although she didn’t do much in her Seattle debut against the Aces the Storm rose to the occasion by winning that game on June 29. But it’s now been exactly a month since that game and the Storm are no longer riding the high of that win, instead staring at a potential No. 5 seed and road playoff opener.

On Thursday, Seattle held reigning MVP Jonquel Jones to just nine points, but allowed Alyssa Thomas to continue her tear with 19 points, five rebounds, 11 assists and two steals. Thomas, an All-Star and early-season MVP candidate who could be coming back into the conversation, has averaged 16.8 points, 9.5 rebounds, 8.3 assists and three steals over her last four games. She was 8-of-11 from the field on Thursday.

For the Storm, Gabby Williams and Charles had the best games. Williams, who has struggled to live up to very high expectations at times this year, notched her first double-digit scoring performance since July 7 with 16 points, nine boards, four assists and three steals. Charles added 14 points, 10 rebounds and five helpers. Sue Bird scored in double figures for the first time since June 29 with 14 points and dished out seven assists, her most since July 12. The team’s big two of Breanna Stewart (17 points) and Jewell Loyd (14 points) didn’t stuff the stat sheet beyond the scoring column.

Down 79-70 with 8:04 to go, the Storm went on a 9-0 run capped by a Stewart back-pedaling three from the left corner. They went back down again and tied it again at 83 on a G. Williams steal, spin move and layup with 2:55 to go.

The Sun closed the game on a 5-0 run, but Seattle was in it pretty much the whole time that was going — until Stewart missed a three to tie with 13 seconds left and Courtney Williams made two free throws with seven seconds left. Natisha Hiedeman had made a deep, straightaway three to make it 86-83 and Seattle turned the ball over on its next two possessions before Stewart missed three-consecutive field goals, the three with 13 seconds being the last. The first was a jump shot from just in front of the free throw line that was heavily contested by Thomas. The second was more makeable, but Stewart stumbled a bit on her way in for a layup and missed on a bank shot. The three at 13 seconds was a pretty good look, but you could tell Stewart was slightly impacted by Brionna Jones’ closeout.

Stewart’s track record speaks for itself, but Thursday would end up not adding to her resume of clutchness. The Storm need to execute better in close games against good teams if they want to win the championship this year against a competitive field. They also would have liked to hold onto the 10-point first-quarter lead that they had.

The game was Sue Bird’s final regular-season appearance in Connecticut as a WNBA player. She of course went to college and is a legend in that state. Bird and Briann January, also retiring after this season, were honored before the game. January played for the Sun in 2020 and 2021.

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