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Storm eliminated from WNBA playoffs with overtime loss to Mercury in second round

UPDATED: Sun., Sept. 26, 2021

Seattle Storm's Sue Bird (10) drives against Phoenix Mercury's Skylar Diggins-Smith in the second half of the second round of the WNBA basketball playoffs Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, in Everett, Wash.   (Associated Press)
Seattle Storm's Sue Bird (10) drives against Phoenix Mercury's Skylar Diggins-Smith in the second half of the second round of the WNBA basketball playoffs Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, in Everett, Wash.  (Associated Press)
Percy Allen Seattle Times

EVERETT — The game went a little longer than anticipated and the season came to an end sooner than many expected.

And when it was over, the No. 4-seed Storm was eliminated from the second round of the WNBA playoffs following an 85-80 defeat against the fifth-seeded Phoenix Mercury on Sunday afternoon.

As the Seattle players walked off the court toward an uncertain future they left behind their iconic leader, Sue Bird, who remained for what might be one last curtain call.

The 5,375 spectators at Angel of the Winds Arena shouted “one more year,” which felt more like a serenade than a plea. Standing at midcourt, Bird smiled and waved before jogging off the floor with Mercury star Diana Taurasi’s jersey in her hand.

“We had planned on that before the game,” Bird said when asked about the jersey swap. “We had never done it before. Obviously, the reality is it might be the last time we play against each other. Just wanted to take that time as a sign of respect.”

And what about retirement?

“When you have the fans cheer ‘One more year,’ the minute I let myself think about it, it makes me want to cry,” said the 40-year-old Bird, who has played 18 seasons over the past 20 years. “So I’ve really been pushing it off and just wanting to focus on this season. It’s a first time for me — I’ll be honest — this is the first offseason where I feel like I need to weigh it.

“Usually I’m like one more year if I feel good, I’ll be there. I think this is the first time when I’m really going to have to sit back and just kind of see how I feel and weigh some things. I know for sure that I want to let the emotion of the season die down. I don’t want to make an emotional decision. And I also feel very lucky that it’s not the physical part that’s ‘taking me down.’ It will be my own decision.”

If Sunday was the end, then Bird emptied the tank with yet another brilliant performance that included dynamic play-making, spectacular three-point shooting and fourth-quarter heroics.

“Sue is great,” Seattle coach Noelle Quinn said. “I’ve seen her as her teammate and obviously as her coach. She lives for these moments. She’s built for these moments. No matter what the season may bring I trust that in those moments that she’s going to come through because she has the clutch gene. It’s in her DNA.”

Considering their rich WNBA playoffs history, the Storm and Mercury were destined to produce another postseason classic.

Sunday, the Western Conference rivals staged another epic battle that needed five extra minutes to determine a winner.

“We know when we walk into this building it’s a different type of energy,” Taurasi said. “They want to beat us and we want to beat them. That’s healthy for our game and for the WNBA.”

Phoenix appeared to deliver an early knockout after going up 32-20 late in the second quarter, but Seattle overcame its 12-point deficit with a 15-0 run to end the first half and take a 35-32 lead into the break.

Neither team led by more than six points the rest of the way and both teams had their chances to win in the final minutes of the fourth quarter.

Tied at 70-70 at the four-minute mark of the fourth quarter, Skylar Diggins-Smith connected on one of two free throws and Brittney Griner powered in a layup over Mercedes Russell to give Phoenix a 73-70 lead.

After three empty possessions for Seattle, Bird drilled a three-pointer that knotted the score at 73-73 with a minute left.

In the fourth quarter, Bird scored 10 of her 16 points while connecting on three of five shots, including two three-pointers.

At the other end, Diggins-Smith, who shot 83.5% on free throws this season, missed a pair of foul shots with 40.8 seconds left.

On the ensuing Storm possession, Jewell Loyd missed a contested layup and Ezi Magbegor blew an open putback on Seattle’s last offensive trip in regulation.

Needing a defensive stop, Russell spiked Diggins-Smith’s short jumper as time expired to set up a thrilling overtime.

“We knew they were going to give us a punch,” said Russell, who finished with 10 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and two blocks in 45 minutes. “We were solid. It just came down to a few little plays.”

Katie Lou Samuelson, who scored a career-playoff-high 18 points, began the extra period with a three-pointer, but Phoenix quickly seized momentum and outscored Seattle 12-7 in overtime, including a go-ahead jumper from Taurasi with 2:14 left.

Taurasi, who made her return Sunday after missing four games due to a left ankle injury, scored six of her 14 points in overtime.

“This isn’t a typical Diana game in that she was hobbled,” Bird said. “So through the course of the game — and she’s going to love that I’m saying this — but we tried to take advantage of that. Tried to get certain matchups and then offensively tried to get her to do certain things that she didn’t want to do. What happened in overtime, we just made a couple of mistakes that gave her two open shots and you can’t give a player like that open looks whether they’re on half a leg or not. You can’t make those mistakes.”

Without Breanna Stewart, who missed her third consecutive game due to a left foot injury, scoring was going to be an issue for the Storm and Seattle’s offense came to a halt in overtime.

In the regular-season finale, Loyd scored a career-high 37 points against Phoenix.

Sunday, however, Loyd, who finished with 15 points on 5-for-24 shooting, embodied the Storm’s offensive troubles, especially in the extra period when she converted just 3 of 13 field goals.

“Without Stewie on the floor, we went through big droughts just finding ways to get easier shots,” Quinn said. “You got to roll with Jewell making those decisions.”

The Mercury, which got 23 points and 16 rebounds from Griner, gets the No. 1 Connecticut Sun and the sixth-seeded Chicago Sky travels to No. 2 Las Vegas for the best-of-five WNBA semifinals.

Seattle, meanwhile, with just four players under contract for next season, gets an offseason to ponder what would have happened if Stewart was healthy and how did the 2020 WNBA champions fall so precipitously late in the season after climbing to the top of the standings at 16-5 two months ago?

And there’s the question about Bird returning next season.

“It’s a little bit of sadness,” Bird said. “A little bit of disappointment. Probably some thoughts of I wish I could have done that or I wish we would have done this. It’s a melting pot of all the emotions.

“But, of course, simultaneously you can get reflective in that moment and understand we had a lot of ups and downs this season and we can all be very proud of the effort that we put out every time we stepped on the floor. No, we didn’t always win every game, but this group can really be proud of all the things we went through.”

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