Stewart, Storm kick off season with a win over Liberty

Seattle saw the long-awaited returns of Stewart and Sue Bird

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Seattle Storm Sue Bird shoots the ball during a game against the New York Liberty on July 25, 2020. In her return from injury, Bird scored 11 points, 5 assists and 2 rebounds. (Photo via @SeattleStorm on Twitter)

In the first game of the 2020 WNBA season, the Seattle Storm took on the New York Liberty and, as expected, strolled to a comfortable 87-71 win. The game also marked the long-awaited return of superstars Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird, following their respective injuries that caused them to miss the entire 2018 season.

The Storm won the title in 2018, and entered this season as clear favorites with Stewart and Bird back to full health and plenty of returning players like Jewell Loyd, Natasha Howard, Alysha Clark and Jordin Canada.

On Saturday, Stewart looked like she hadn’t missed a step, garnering 18 points, 8 rebounds, 4 steals and 2 assists in 28 minutes of action. After the game, interim head coach Gary Kloppenburg spoke about how comfortable Stewart looked on the court and how he does plan on managing everyone’s minutes throughout the season because of the condensed schedule.

“[Stewart] was aggressive at both ends of the floor, she changed some shots and I thought she really looked good for not having played for quite a while,” Kloppenburg said after the game. “Just an excellent job by her out there, scrambling, hustling, getting on the floor for loose balls. I was really happy for her to kind of get back into the flow of the game.”

A lot was made of Liberty rookie Sabrina Ionescu’s highly-anticipated debut, with fans and analysts joking about a potential match-up between the 22-year-old Ionescu taking on Bird, who is the oldest player in the league at 39 years old. The Storm threw a lot at the former Oregon sensation, making it clear that one of the focuses of their defensive game plan was to try and disrupt her flow.

“We know how good she is, if you allow her to do what she wants coming off screens,” Kloppenburg told the media after the game. “We really wanted to target her, get it out of her hands and try to force some turnovers. I think we did a pretty good job for the first game.”

Ionescu had a promising start to her young WNBA career, managing 12 points, 4 assists and 6 rebounds in 34 minutes of action, the most time on the court for any Liberty player. But fellow rookie Ezi Magbegor, whom the Storm picked with the 12th overall pick in the 2019 WNBA Draft before playing overseas, did a solid job at clamping Ionescu in the third quarter. The 20-year-old Australian center grabbed three boards in 12 minutes on the court, and scored 7 points, going three of four from the field.

In 19 minutes of play, Bird scored 11 points, 5 assists and two rebounds following her return from a knee injury. In more positive news for the Storm, Mercedes Russell found some success in the paint while Loyd and Canada showed that last year’s success was no fluke, combining for 34 points. Last season, in the absence of their two future Hall of Famers, Canada averaged career-highs in points, assists, rebounds and steals while Loyd was named an All-Star for the second time in her career after averaging 12.3 points, 2 assists, 2.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals.

Going into the first game of a uniquely circumstanced season against such a young opponent, the Storm had to prepare a little differently than usual. Typically, teams have the opportunity to scout opponents before games and watch game film to better understand what they would be going up against. 

But this time out, because it was the inaugural game and the Liberty had put together a roster that included seven rookies and just one player with more than five years of experience, Seattle didn’t have a lot of information to work with. The Storm decided to double down defensively and try to attack with pace following any forced turnovers.

“It was difficult because [the Liberty] are basically a new team other than some veterans that are coming back so in a way, we’re flying blind a little bit,” Kloppenburg said before the game.

The WNBA has dedicated its 24th season to furthering the Black Lives Matter movement and #SayHerName campaign, with the words, “Black Lives Matter,” painted on the courts, placards with Breonna Taylor’s name on the backs of jerseys and other social justice initiatives including the creation of a player-led Social Justice Council.

Following pregame warm ups, both teams walked off the court to the locker rooms ahead of the national anthem, and before the game tipped off, Stewart and Liberty guard Layshia Clarendon spoke about the importance of the #SayHerName campaign and fighting for justice for Black women. Members of both teams then held a 26-second moment of silence to honor Taylor, the 26-year-old EMT who was killed in her home by Louisville police officers in March.

Bird, Stewart and Loyd all used their time in the post-game press conference to further emphasize the importance of getting justice for Breonna Taylor and continue the Black Lives Matter movement.

On Friday, the Storm launched Force4Change, a social justice platform that the team will use to continue the conversation throughout the 2020 season and beyond. The campaign will focus on issues such as voting rights and the amplification of Black voices, with initiatives like designing custom sneakers to raise awareness, highlighting Black businesses disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and hosting a Pride Night that will recognize LGBTQ+ leaders of color.

For the rest of 2020, the Storm will continue to advocate for social justice causes related to Black Americans while on their quest for a fourth championship. Following their opening win against the Liberty, the Storm have two days off before their next game against the Minnesota Lynx.