EVERETT — After 10 games, the identity shift is nearly complete as the Storm falls in line behind its new leaders, Natasha Howard and Jewell Loyd.
The Breanna Stewart-Sue Bird tandem that led Seattle to a 2018 WNBA championship is so last year.
The two All-Stars can’t help Seattle because of injuries that will force Stewart to miss the season and keep Bird out indefinitely.
If the Storm is going to make a bid to repeat as champions, which is a notion that seemed farfetched a month ago and is becoming increasingly plausible, then Howard and Loyd will need to deliver more performances like they did in Friday’s 84-62 victory over the Los Angeles Sparks.
In front of 6,114 at Angel of the Winds Arena, Loyd tallied a season-high 23 points while Howard, who is second in the WNBA in scoring, finished with 20 points.
Before leaving the game with 5:16 remaining and Seattle leading 74-49, the Storm stars nearly combined to outscore Los Angeles.
“I thought Jewell really came out, her and Natasha both just really were incredibly active and incredibly timely at different times to make some big plays for us,” coach Dan Hughes said. “And they are very good together. It’s just great to see those two just kind of elevate in this game.”
Loyd got going first and scored the first 11 points for the Storm, who fell behind 10-3 early before taking control with a 19-7 run over the final seven minutes in the first quarter.
Despite being paired against Alana Beard, the reigning two-time WNBA defensive player of the year, Loyd connected on 8 of 18 field goals and was 5 of 10 on three-pointers.
“I sat with her yesterday and we watched all of her shot attempts from the (previous) game and we watched some others,” Hughes said. “I totally believe Jewell is going to deliver and deliver in a big way if we can get her space. It’s really about getting her open.”
Loyd said: “Anytime I’m in space — and I don’t need a lot of space — but anytime I get a little bit of space, I’m able to create. And our team does a really good job of realizing where I’m at on the floor and realizing where I need to get to.”
With Loyd canning a career-high five three-pointers, Seattle made a season-high 14 of 26 shots behind the arc. The Storm, which set a season record for three-pointers in 2018, hadn’t made more than seven in a game this year.
“That three-ball may not be our feature,” Hughes said, “but it’s got to be a big part of our package for us to go where we’re going.”
Seattle, which led 22-17 heading in the second period, extended its lead in every quarter.
The Storm led 46-34 at halftime and was up 64-44 to start the fourth.
Near the end of the third, Loyd and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt engaged in a little skirmish while scrambling on the floor for a loose ball that resulted in a technical foul for the Sparks guard.
Otherwise, the Sparks didn’t put up much of a fight against a smothering Storm defense that held Candace Parker to two points on 1-for-9 shooting in 23 minutes. It was the second game for the All-Star center, who missed the first seven games because of a hamstring injury.
Beard, who made her season debut after a left-leg injury, had eight points and Nneka Ogwumike led the Sparks (4-5) with 10.
It was the most lopsided win of the season and a triumphant season debut for Hughes, who missed the first nine games while recovering from cancer surgery.
“It felt great,” he said. “I felt grateful to people that supported me in my health journey. I felt grateful for the team and for the coaches. I was a little bit humbled. There were a lot of people doing a lot of good work and there were a lot of people sending a lot of prayers my way for this day.
“My wife had no life for about two months just kind of caring for me. So things like that, that’s what I felt. And it was just great to be with the team. In a victory or even in a loss, I would have felt like I was in the right spot.”
The Storm (6-4) appears to be hitting its stride heading into a stretch where it plays 10 of the next 14 games at home.
“This team has to keep discovering who they really are,” Hughes said. “Last year, we got to a point where we kind of knew who we were and then we had to become tough enough to do it on a daily basis.
“This team is learning those roles within what we do. But they’re fighters and I love that about them. It’s a learning process and we’re still in it. But it’s a fun group to go into games with.”