At full strength, Seattle has been nearly unbeatable in the "wubble." With starters Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird close to 100 percent healthy and expected to play, the Storm hope that continues to be the case Tuesday night when they open their WNBA playoff semifinal series versus the Minnesota Lynx.
This game was scheduled to be played Sunday, but was postponed nearly 90 minutes before tipoff due to inconclusive COVID-19 test results for Storm players.
''We needed more testing and data,'' WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a TV interview. ''As soon as I talked to them they were concerned about health and safety, and it wasn't about basketball at that point.''
The second-seeded Storm (18-4) received a double bye to the semifinals, missing out on the top seed after being swept in the season series versus Las Vegas. Stewart, who finished runner-up to Aces forward A'ja Wilson in MVP voting, and Bird - the team's veteran standout point guard - both sat out the season-ending 86-84 loss to the Aces on Sept. 13.
But Stewart, who averaged 19.7 points and 8.3 rebounds after missing the 2019 season with a torn Achilles, and Bird - who averaged 9.8 points and 5.2 assists while shooting 46.9 percent from 3-point range in 11 games often dealing with a bone bruise in her knee - are expected back in coach Gary Kloppenberg's starting five.
"Our intentions are both being able to play," said Stewart, who sat out with tendinitis in her left foot, to the Seattle Times.
The Storm were 10-1 in games both Stewart and Bird played, and both played key roles leading them to a season sweep of the Lynx. Seattle broke open both games in the third quarter and punished Minnesota on both ends of the floor, scoring 56 points off 48 turnovers and racking up 75 points in the paint.
As Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve noted, it was the same blueprint for success Minnesota used in winning four WNBA titles from 2011-17.
"Did you watch us in the Lindsay Whalen era?" Reeve told the StarTribune. "Well, we're on the other side of that now. They're that great team. When you're talented and you have the best combination of offense and defense, you wait for that moment to get separation, then you win the game. We used to do that all the time. They always keep playing, knowing at some point that they will allow them to take over."
That championship mettle means the Lynx will not go quietly. The No. 4 seed held off fifth-seeded Phoenix 80-79 in the second round to advance as Damaris Dantis scored a career-high 22 points and newly minted WNBA Rookie of the Year Crystal Dangerfield added 15 of her 17 in the second half, including seven in a decisive run that gave Minnesota the lead for good.
"For whatever reason, this team, they just keep playing," Reeve said. "Crystal gets better as the game goes on. We're thinking of sitting her in the first half, saving her for the second."
The win also extended veteran forward Sylvia Fowles' season one more game. After missing the final 13 games with a calf injury, the WNBA's all-time leading rebounder -- a milestone she claimed in Minnesota's 90-66 loss to Seattle on July 28 -- contributed six points and four rebounds in 18 minutes.
While most teams are hoping to have a full complement of players in the postseason, Reeve will again be short two assistants as both Plenette Pierson and Rebekkah Brunson left the bubble prior to the win over Phoenix. Pierson had a death in her family, while Brunson's departure had been planned as she is also a parent and business owner.
"Both of them will be supporting us from afar," Reeve said of Pierson and Brunson, leaving just her and top assistant Katie Smith for in-game coaching. "Katie and I are here in person, with Plenette and Rebekkah supporting. They're still involved, just remotely."