In the build-up to Sunday afternoon’s showdown between the Las Vegas Aces and Seattle Storm, all the focus was on Sue Bird playing in her final regular season home game. She was honored by the city of Seattle and the organization in a touching pre-game ceremony and addressed the sold-out crowd after the final buzzer.
When the game actually tipped off, however, A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart stole the show in a terrific duel between the leading MVP candidates. Wilson got off to a flying start and finished with 29 points and six rebounds as the Aces held off the Storm for an 89-81 win despite 35 points and 10 rebounds from Stewart.
Here are three key takeaways from the game:
1. Wilson and Stewart duel
Following the conclusion of the season, one of A’ja Wilson or Breanna Stewart will win the 2022 WNBA MVP Award and become the seventh player in league history to earn the honor multiple times. During Sunday afternoon’s matchup between the Aces and Storm, they showed why they’re the two best players in the league.
Wilson was on fire early on, and helped the Aces take the lead for good in the second quarter. She finished with 29 points and six rebounds on 13-of-24 from the field, and came up with a number of important baskets in the fourth quarter to hold off the Storm. Though she’s always been a strong scorer, this performance was another reminder of how much she’s improved her offensive game. She was hitting jumpers, putting the ball on the deck to get to the basket and showing off some real craft in the post.
On the other side, Stewart was doing everything she could to keep the Storm in the game despite getting no help from anyone besides Tina Charles, who was the team’s only other double-digit scorer. Stewart went for a season-high 35 points and 10 rebounds on 10-of-18 from the field and 4-of-5 from 3-point land. She was particularly effective down the stretch, scoring 14 of the Storm’s 18 fourth-quarter points, but it just wasn’t enough. This was the second-straight 30-point game for Stewart, as she improved her scoring average to career-high 21.9 points per game and closed in on her first scoring title.
2. Bird honored before final regular season home game
Sue Bird is the WNBA’s all-time leader in games played, and very few of those 651 contests have meant as much as Sunday’s, which was her final regular season home game in Seattle. And, due to the new playoff format, possibly her last ever game in the city she’s made her home.
The Storm are locked in a battle with the Mystics for the No. 4 seed and homecourt in the first round. Under the league’s new playoff system, first-round series will be best-of-three with the higher seeded team hosting Games 1 and 2. Therefore, there’s a scenario where the Storm finish fifth and are swept 2-0 by the Mystics without playing a playoff game at home. That’s unlikely, of course, but it is possible, which made Sunday even more meaningful.
Prior to the game, the mayor of Seattle declared Sunday “Sue Bird Day,” and she was honored by the team with a heartfelt pre-game ceremony. She also received a custom ring that honored her many accomplishments, which include four titles, a record 13 All-Star appearances and the WNBA’s all-time assists record.
“Right now I just want to say, from the bottom of my heart, how thankful I am,” Bird said while addressing the crowd after the game. “Not only for today, and all of you showing up and supporting us, but for 21 years… This place is not only where I played, it’s where I call home.”
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3. Playoff implications for both teams
Both teams have already clinched a playoff spot, but are still fighting for better seeds.
First, the Aces. After the Sky beat the Sun earlier in the day, the Aces desperately needed a win to keep pace in the race for the No. 1 seed and create some separation in the fight for the No. 2 seed. They got what they needed, and remain two games behind the Sky with one game remaining between the clubs that will determine the tiebreaker. They are also now a game up on the Sun and already have that tiebreaker, which means they are closing in on securing at least a top-two seed. The Aces finishing second remains the most likely outcome, but they’re still in the hunt for first.
As for the Storm, they got some major help from the Los Angeles Sparks, who upset the Washington Mystics on Sunday. With both the Storm and Mystics losing, nothing changed in the race for the No. 4 seed. The Storm remain half a game ahead in the standings with one game in hand, and own the tiebreaker between the clubs. They do have a tougher schedule down the stretch, however, with games against the Sky, Lynx and Aces still on the docket.