After a string of blowouts to close the first round, the 2022 WNBA playoffs finally delivered a thriller. Late on Sunday afternoon, the Seattle Storm hung on for a 76-73 win over the No. 1 overall seed Las Vegas Aces in Game 1 of their semifinal series.
The Storm got off to a terrific start on both sides of the ball, and were able to push their lead to double digits at the end of the first quarter. They were not able to find any consistent offense after that point, however, which allowed the Aces to slowly work their way back into the game. In the middle of the fourth quarter the Aces finally took the lead for the first time, and from there, it was back and forth until the final buzzer.
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Jewell Loyd hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:45 remaining, which Chelsea Gray answered with a pull-up jumper to tie things up. Loyd then responded with a free throw followed by a devastating step-back jumper in A’ja Wilson’s face to extend the Storm’s lead to three. Kelsey Plum had two chances to send the game to overtime, including one in the waning seconds, but neither shot would go down.
Loyd finished with 26 points to lead the way in the scoring department for the Storm, while Breanna Stewart submitted another strong performance with 26 points, six rebounds and three blocks. Tina Charles may have struggled shooting the ball, but she still added 13 points and 18 rebounds in a monster effort on the glass.
Gray turned it on in the second half to drag the Aces back into the game, and finished with a team-high 21 points and five assists. Kelsey Plum added 20 points, and Jackie Young had 11. Those were the only double-figure scores for the Aces, who shot 41.2 percent from the field as a team.
Here are some key takeaways from the game:
Loyd comes up clutch again
In Game 1 of the Storm’s first-round series against the Washington Mystics, Jewell Loyd was flat-out terrible for the first three-and-a-half quarters. Then, she turned it on and hit clutch jumper after clutch jumper in the final minutes to help the Storm escape with a win.
Game 1 of the semifinals didn’t follow exactly the same script as Loyd played well the entire way through, but down the stretch it might as well have been a replay. Though Breanna Stewart is the team’s best player, Loyd is often the Storm’s closer because of her superior ability to create and make tough shots.
After the Aces opened up a three-point lead — their biggest of the game — with just over five minutes to play, Loyd took control. She scored 10 of the Storm’s final 12 points, and assisted on the other basket to help them escape with a win they deserved. Though many of her baskets during that run were impressive, the step-back over A’ja Wilson was toughest and most memorable.
Sizing up the potential Defensive Player of the Year, she took a few dribbles to catch a rhythm, stepped back and buried the jumper.
Stewart wins Round 1 vs. Wilson
Among the many storylines heading into this high-profile series was the matchup between A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart. Both players are leading contenders for MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, and have established themselves as the league’s brightest talents. That they also play the same position and will be guarding each other for long stretches in this series only made the showdown more intriguing.
Round 1 was a clear win for Stewart. Not only did her Storm win the game, but she outplayed Wilson, particularly on the offensive end. Stewart finished with 24 points, six rebounds and three blocks on 9 of 17 from the field, while Wilson settled for eight points, 12 rebounds and three blocks on 3 of 10 from the field.
Though both excellent offensive players, Stewart’s superior versatility was on display in this game. The Storm were successful, especially early on, in keeping Wilson away from the basket, where she is most effective. Only five of Wilson’s 10 attempts came in the paint, and she often had to settle for jumpers.
While Stewart had a bit of an easier time, it’s not as if the Aces were leaving her alone; her shot-making in Game 1 was just so spectacular that it often didn’t matter what the defender did. This fadeaway over Kiah Stokes was the prime example. There is no defense for shots like that.
Storm outrun the fast-paced Aces
During the regular season, the Aces embraced a modern style under head coach Becky Hammon that included becoming the fastest team in the league. They led the league in pace (stat which measures the number of possessions a team uses in a game) at 98.64 and were third in fastbreak points per game at 11.7.
In Game 1, they were not able to get into transition at all. In fact, it was the Storm who dominated in the fastbreak department, outscoring the Aces 16-0 in that category, which was a major reason for their win. On a day when the Storm were struggling to knock down jumpers (at least until Loyd got hot down the stretch), the easy baskets they found in transition were vital.
Much of that was their stout defense. Stephanie Talbot, for example, swiped a steal and scored an easy layup just a few possessions into the game. The Aces turned the ball over less than anyone in the regular season, but the Storm were able to force them into 11 turnovers on Sunday.
In addition, though, the Storm made a conscious effort to push the pace whenever possible — even off makes. There was one notable stretch in the third quarter where the Storm scored three transition layups in a two-minute span simply by beating the Aces down the floor.
This one, where Breanna Stewart converted a layup six seconds after Gray had made one of her own, had to be particularly frustrating for Hammon. Watch this play closely. Stewart is in line with Gray and A’ja Wilson as Sue Bird gets the ball, and there are three other Aces ahead of the play. Stewart puts her head down and sprints past all of them before they know what’s happening; she didn’t even catch the ball cleanly and was still able to score with ease.
The margins are so small once you reach this stage of the playoffs, and those type of moments made the difference for the Storm.