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Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird are basketball’s perfect storm | Bryan Armen Graham

Breanna Stewart, the 26-year-old star forward of the Seattle Storm, stands 6ft 4in with a 7ft 1in wingspan, blending the size and strength of a top-drawer post player with the skill, coordination and fast-twitch agility of an elite wing. There’s nothing she can’t do on a basketball court. When she’s not using her length and physicality to dine out in the paint, you will find her on the perimeter, calmly draining three-pointers or creating opportunities off the dribble for herself and her teammates. Geno Auriemma, who coached Stewart during her record-breaking collegiate career at the University of Connecticut, once called her “the first Durantesque player in the women’s game”. There’s a special joy to be found in watching her go about her work.

The same could be said about Sue Bird, the longtime Seattle point guard who turns 40 next week and like Stewart has a habit of stockpiling trophies wherever she laces them up: NCAA titles, WNBA titles, Euroleague titles, Fiba World Cups, Olympic gold medals. Watching her marshal an offense in the half-court or in transition, stretching out defenses filled with opponents nearly half her age and picking out the open team-mate with preternatural efficiency (and inimitable style) is to behold the peak of the craft.

On Tuesday night, the two biggest winners in women’s basketball added yet more silverware to their overflowing cabinets by leading Seattle to a 92-59 blowout win over the Las Vegas Aces to complete a three-game sweep in the WNBA finals and undefeated run through the playoffs. The Storm’s fourth championship, which followed their previous title wins in 2004, 2010 and 2018, puts them level with the Minnesota Lynx and the defunct Houston Comets for the most in the 24-year-old league’s history. Incredibly, all four teams featured Bird as a starter.

Stewart was eight years old when Seattle chose Bird with the No 1 overall selection in the 2002 WNBA draft. Fourteen years later, the Storm won the rights to the first pick again and took Stewart following her illustrious career at Connecticut, where she won four NCAA championships and a record four Final Four most outstanding player awards. “When I got drafted to Seattle in 2016, that’s what I thought about: ‘I’m going to play with the best point guard in the world,’” Stewart said of Bird, who also won big at UConn. “I’m not sure I’d be in this position here without her.”

It didn’t take long for the partnership to click. Two years ago, Stewart won the league’s Most Valuable Player award as the Storm roared to a WNBA title and appeared to be a dynasty-in-waiting. Then disaster struck. Stewart suffered a ruptured achilles tendon in her right leg in April 2019 while playing for Dynamo Kursk in the Euroleague Women championship game. A few weeks after, Bird underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove a loose body, which she described as the size of a golf ball, from her left knee. Both stars were sidelined for the entire 2019 season with Seattle drifting back to the pack in their absence.

Sue Bird

The severity of Stewart’s injury and the mileage on Bird’s tires meant there were no guarantees either would return to form. And yet Stewart finished second in MVP voting this season after a monster campaign where she was the only player to rank in the top 15 in all five statistical categories: points (19.7 per game, fourth), rebounds (8.3, third), assists (3.6, 14th), steals (1.7, ninth) and blocked shots (1.3, fifth). The road back was tougher for Bird, who suffered a bone bruise to the same knee early in the season and played only 11 of 22 regular-season games. But by the time the playoffs rolled around, she was playing the best basketball of her career nearly two decades after her pro debut.

“This is the one time I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It’s been hard,” Bird said after Tuesday’s clincher. “A lot of ups, a lot of downs. I think the hardest part about being an older player is when there’s that down physically, you start to question whether you can do it anymore. You start to question why you’re doing it. You start to question if it’s worth it because it can be hard.”

The best-of-five championship series against Las Vegas found both stars at the top of their game. Take Friday’s opener. After three quarters, Stewart had scored a game-high 23 points while Bird had already broken the WNBA single-game playoff record for assists (on her way to a career-high 16). But the Aces remained within touching distance throughout and only trailed by two entering the fourth.

That’s when Stewart found another gear and took over, scoring the first 11 points of the period to restore Seattle’s double-digit lead and finishing with 15 in the quarter. Driving finger rolls, turnaround fadeaways, cutting lay-ups, one three-pointer after another: she could not be stopped. Her 37 points were one shy of the WNBA finals record. It was one of the more dominant individual performances you will ever see.

“Stewie is just one of those players, a generational player that comes through once in a while that can face adversity and even get stronger because of it,” Storm coach Gary Kloppenburg said on Tuesday. “She missed that whole year and she came back as a better player in pretty much every category, on both sides of the ball.”

Bird averaged 11.0 assists per game in the finals – extraordinary considering the single-game playoff record was 12 before this week – but the raw numbers only tell part of the story. The Storm shot 73% (33-for-45) off her passes in the series, a nod to Bird’s ability to get her team-mates the ball in the best spots at the right time. More than half of the assist opportunities that she created were uncontested.

She was non-committal when asked whether she planned on returning next season. “I just kind of start working out and I see how I feel,” said Bird, who is one half of America’s most venerable sports power couple with girlfriend Megan Rapinoe. “The way I feel right now, if I can go through my off-season and continue to build on that in a good way, I don’t see why I won’t be playing next summer. I’m not trying to be like elusive but as I’ve always said, things happen. That’s what the last two years have taught me. Anything can happen.”

Knowing Bird, we can expect to see her again, especially with the opportunity for a fifth Olympic gold in the offing. But things do happen. What’s certain is we’re lucky to be watching one of the great tandems in basketball history. And we should enjoy them for as long as we can, because there won’t another quite like it any time soon.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen after rupturing my achilles,” Stewart said Tuesday. “You see all the worst things. I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to be back where I was. To be able to be here, to be able to see myself playing like this and having so much potential going forward, it’s exciting. Being able to play with Sue, I guess it just makes you appreciate more. I want to win.”

Source:

www.theguardian.com

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