Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird leading Storm to top of WNBA at All-Star break


MINNEAPOLIS — At an All-Star Game, it helps to have people around who know what you want. Near the end of Team Delle Donne’s low-key practice Friday, coach Dan Hughes of the Seattle Storm gathered his players near one foul circle at Target Center to explain a spot-up shooting drill. When he finished, Sue Bird, the veteran Storm point guard, jumped in to explain it a little more for Diana Taurasi, her old friend from Team USA and multiple All-Star gatherings.

Bird, 37, is the WNBA’s oldest player, and her savvy and leadership are major reasons for the Storm’s league-leading 19-7 record. But the emphasis on defense and rebounding brought by Hughes, the two-time WNBA Coach of the Year who came out of retirement this season to coach the Storm, meant even more. Breanna Stewart developing into the league’s leading scorer and a Most Valuable Player candidate also helped come together.

Stewart, Bird, Hughes and fourth-year Storm guard Jewell Loyd are all here, with Loyd on Team Parker and the rest on Team Delle Donne. Their presence reflects Seattle’s improvement. One year after coach Jenny Boucek was fired late in a lackluster 15-19 season that ended with a fifth consecutive first-round playoff loss, Seattle stands 2 1/2 games clear of the pack in the race for the WNBA’s best record and top overall playoff seed.

“We were always a really good offensive team,” Bird said. “On the defensive end, we’ve gotten a lot better. I think that’s a product of adding talent. We’re just much more talented. I think we’re talented and deep, and that’s the biggest difference from this year to the previous couple of years.”

Last year, Seattle gave up exactly as many points per game as it scored (82.6), and its defensive and offensive ratings matched as well (104.7). Hughes set out to fix that. He said he used analytics more than any other time in his 17-year WNBA head coaching career to illustrate the tenacious defense he wanted — getting stops, forcing turnovers and letting the offense flow from there.

The difference is noticeable. Seattle gives up about three fewer points per game than last year (79.5), and its 98.5 defensive rating ranks third behind Atlanta (95.9) and Minnesota (97.5). Seattle also grabs 51.1 percent of available rebounds, up from last year’s 47.5 percent. That created a slight uptick in possessions per game and a league-leading 107.8 offensive rating, exactly what Hughes was looking for.

Hughes credited holdover assistant coach Gary Kloppenberg, the interim coach after Boucek was fired, with leading the defensive instruction.

“The other thing I’m a beneficiary of, they wanted to be good, and they knew it was an area we had to get better,” Hughes said. “I was very impressed offensively with the chemistry I inherited. But I also want them to understand, when you look at the successful teams in our league, there’s a counterbalance of the defense. Yeah, we can win some games offensively. But if we’re going to win really important games, we’ve got to have a balance.”

“We were always a really good offensive team. On the defensive end, we’ve gotten a lot better. I think that’s a product of adding talent. We’re just much more talented. I think we’re talented and deep, and that’s the biggest difference from this year to the previous couple of years.”

Sue Bird

Seattle also added depth in forward Natasha Howard, acquired in a trade with Minnesota; free-agent forward Courtney Paris, the two-time league rebounding leader; and guard Jordin Canada, a first-round draft pick from UCLA. Howard, a backup with the Lynx, is averaging 12.8 points and 6.5 rebounds as a starter, both career highs. Paris and Canada contribute important minutes off the bench. Loyd, the 2015 Rookie of the Year and a first-time All-Star, strung together five consecutive 20-point games in May and averages 16 points.

“A lot of what we do has come from our chemistry as a team that we’ve built over the last couple of years,” said Bird, selected to her record 11th All-Star Game. “Last year there was definitely something off, but simultaneously we have more talent this year. It allows your team to play better when you have better players.

“We were the youngest [team] the last few years. We’re no longer that. Though Natasha Howard is still relatively young, she has a wealth of experience playing for Minnesota. Courtney Paris, very experienced. We just have depth and experience about us now.”

Then there is Stewart. Hughes aimed to cut her minutes and improve her efficiency, a formula that played out. Her scoring (22.8 points) and shooting percentages (54 percent) are up over last year. If her current pace holds, her offensive and defensive ratings and effective field goal percentages will be career highs.

“The way she’s performing this year is head and shoulders above what she did her first two years,” Bird said. “In this league, there are times when things are not going to go your way, and you need that player that can bail you out no matter what. Look all the great teams. Minnesota, Maya [Moore] is their bailout. Phoenix, Diana is their bailout. Now Stewie is proving to be our bailout.

“Not every game is going to be roses and rainbows. Sometimes it’s going to be really hard. You’ve need that player who no matter what’s happening can go and get you 30 [points], and Stewie is doing that.”

Loyd is among those benefiting.

“If you leave her single guarded, she’s going to go off,” she said. “If you double her, she’s still able to go off and have five assists. It opens up a lot. As a whole, we do a very good job of passing the ball. We’re hard to trap and hard to double because everyone can shoot from 3, everyone can penetrate, everyone’s willing to make the extra pass.”

As good at Stewart is, Bird remains the face and heart of the franchise, the tough-minded competitor everyone turns to for so much. Bird is the last link to Seattle’s 2004 and 2010 WNBA championships, and her teammates would love to get her one more title before she retires.

“Sue has helped us and pushed us to get to this point,” Stewart said. “Any advice, or anything she has from previous experiences, we’re just taking it all in. She’s like a player-coach. That experience you only get from longevity and playing over time. Us as younger players, we hope to get the point where she’s at — be 37, and still be one of the best players in this league.”

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