“I think it could be an ugly first five minutes,” Becky Hammon said with a chuckle, quite presciently, before her Las Vegas Aces and the Seattle Storm spent an ugly first five minutes shaking off a week’s worth of rust to begin the WNBA semifinals on Sunday afternoon. The score of the first game of this series remained 13-4 for what felt like an eternity in the first quarter; both teams shot poorly from three and also, for that matter, from two. The only good thing I can say about the game’s beginning is it seemed like everyone was trying very, very hard.
Maybe they were all taking their cues from Jewell Loyd, who’s shown this postseason that you should focus on making your best impression in the last five minutes of the game instead. When Loyd hit a long step-back two over A’ja Wilson, late into the shot clock, to give the Storm a three-point lead with 34 seconds left, she had scored six of her team’s last six points and 10 of their last 12. Last round, in the first game against the Mystics, Loyd went without a field goal for the first 35 minutes of play before scoring 12 straight Storm points. The all-star guard’s up-and-down regular season has been rendered a distant memory by her characteristically intense playoff performances. “She continues to grow up before our eyes,” said Storm head coach Noelle Quinn on Saturday, after Loyd put up 26 points in the Storm’s 76-73 win. Later, Quinn said what has felt true of the Storm all season: “We’re not going to be successful if Jewell is not at her best.”
That might sound like a strange thing to say about a team with Breanna Stewart on it, but I’ve sometimes thought that Stewart’s role is to raise the Storm’s floor and Loyd’s is to raise their ceiling. As No. 2 scoring options go, you won’t find a better one in the WNBA. Loyd entered the league a 21-year-old rookie with plenty of holes in her game in 2015—a weak three-point shot the most glaring—and has since evolved into one of the WNBA’s most dynamic guards, capable of elite shot creation, speed in transition, and craft off the ball. She’s shown a special flair for rising to the occasion, whether in the Storm’s 2020 championship run, or in the absence of her more-lauded teammates; Stewart and Sue Bird have both missed significant time with injuries in the past three seasons.
Last year, Loyd’s best in the WNBA, she inspired some questions about what she might look like as a primary option somewhere. On certain nights, she seemed obviously capable of it. But there were others when the answers were less encouraging. The Storm’s season came to an end in the second round last year, in a game Loyd finished 5-for-24 from the floor. Stewart watched from the sideline with a foot injury. Loyd re-signed with the Storm in February, but her regular season numbers have been a tick down from where they were last year. Consistency has always been the issue when it comes to figuring out what exactly this player might be. In a not-so-distant future, it’s possible Loyd is asked to step into a larger role. Sue Bird will retire at the end of the season and Stewart, back with Seattle on a one-year deal this year, was wined and dined by the Liberty last offseason. What the Storm look like in 2023 is anyone’s guess.
But why worry about that now? We are through the first game of what looks to be a great semifinal matchup, and Loyd can take responsibility for making Game 1 such a thriller. A good playoff series needs players like her, the shot-making geniuses who are at their best when they can hunt for moments that need meeting. There’s more than one way to be a championship player, and Loyd meets at least one criterion: She can drive the opposing coach nuts. “Well, I don’t know. If I had the key, I’d certainly use it,” Hammon said to a reporter who wanted to know about the key to shutting Loyd down.”If you have any ideas, hit me.”