By Tim Booth, AP
A lot of Breanna Stewart in the closing minutes and one big defensive stop in the final seconds has the Seattle Storm on the cusp of a third WNBA title.
Stewart scored nine of her 25 points in the fourth quarter, Sue Bird came up with a key defensive play in the final 10 seconds, and the Storm held off the Washington Mystics 75-73 on Sunday to take a 2-0 lead in the WNBA Finals.
Seattle will head to Washington for Game 3 on Wednesday night needing only a split back east to claim the third title in franchise history. Since the WNBA went to a best-of-five format for the Finals in 2005, no team has lost the first two games and fought back to force a Game 5.
”It came down to a stop, and I thought we did a really good job,” Seattle coach Dan Hughes said. ”This is a team that has grown defensively. All year, we have watched the defensive numbers get better and better and better and better and better I thought it was quite poetic that some of these games were going to come down to a stop.”
Stewart went nearly 18 minutes of game time without scoring, but was responsible for six of Seattle’s final seven points as the Storm held off Washington’s late rally. The league MVP got her touches in the closing minutes, while Washington didn’t make sure star Elena Delle Donne got her opportunities. Delle Donne finished with 17 points, but was scoreless in the fourth quarter and took just one shot.
Delle Donne scored on a three-point play late in the third quarter. It was her final points.
”I think we fell in love too much with me getting the ball on the block. I’m more than just a back-to-the-basket type of player. Playing in space opens up my teammates, also opens myself up,” Delle Donne said. ”We’ve got to find a way to not become one-dimensional and just try to force it in.”
While Game 1 was a romp for Seattle, Game 2 was in the balance inside the final minute despite all that didn’t go right for Washington. The Mystics didn’t hit a 3-pointer for the first time all season. Delle Donne wasn’t absent from the offense in the fourth quarter. The Mystics were outrebounded by 10 and had just 10 assists on 29 made baskets.
Yet the opportunity was there to go home with the series even.
Kristi Toliver’s two key jumpers pulled Washington within 74-73 and when Stewart missed a pair of free throws with 16 seconds left, Washington had a chance to take the lead.
That’s when Bird, the oldest player in the league, relied on her experience.
Toliver appeared open for a 3 and Bird lunged forward. That opened a lane baseline, but as Toliver was going by, Bird was able to reach from behind and poke the ball free. The mad scramble ended up in a jump ball between Natasha Howard and Tianna Hawkins ended up in the hands of Jewell Loyd. Seattle was able to run seven seconds off the clock before Alysha Clark was fouled and her free throw gave Seattle a two-point lead. Washington was out of timeouts and couldn’t advance the ball into the front court. Atkins’ desperation half-court shot at the buzzer was well off.
Washington believed Bird had fouled Toliver, especially with Seattle having a foul to give.
”I got fouled going baseline. I think it was pretty blatant, pretty obvious,” Toliver said.
”Sue Bird took the foul. Officials didn’t understand that Seattle was actually trying to take the foul, ball got knocked loose on floor,” Washington coach Mike Thibault said.
Bird insisted Washington’s interpretation was wrong. She was going for the steal.
”Once she went by me, I did the good ol’ Sue Bird move and was lucky to get a piece of the ball,” said Bird, saying she’s done that move since she was in college. ”I knew we had a foul to give, but that was not my intention at all.”
Toliver and Ariel Atkins both added 15 points for Washington, but got nothing from behind the 3-point line. Their season-low prior to Sunday was one. Toliver was 0 of 6 from deep.
”That’s a huge facet of the game too. As a 3-point shooting team, we need some of those to go in,” Toliver said.
Bird finished with 8 points, but had one of the biggest shots of the game when she banked in a 35-footer midway through the fourth quarter as the shot clock was expiring. The basket gave Seattle a 68-63 lead.
”I did not call it, I did not mean it,” Bird said. ”I’m glad it went in.”
Seattle has won seven straight Finals games dating to 2004. They have never lost a Finals game at home. … Bird moved into second place on the all-time playoff assists list.
Game 3 is Wednesday night in Washington.
SCHEDULE: BEST-OF-5 FINALS 2018 PRESENTED BY YOUTUBE TV
Game 1 — Seattle 89, Washington 76
Game 2 — Seattle 75, Washington 73
Game 3 — Seattle @ Washington: Wednesday, September 12, 8 PM ET, ESPN2
Game 4* — Seattle @ Washington: Friday, September 14, 8 PM ET, ESPN2
Game 5* — Washington @ Seattle: Sunday, September 16, 8 PM ET, ESPN2
* – If necessary