Considering its history with injured players, there was reason to believe the Storm was simply being cautious while holding out star forward Breanna Stewart from its final two regular-season games, including Friday, Sept. 17's, matchup against the Phoenix Mercury.
Last year, Stewart missed two games before the playoffs because of left ankle tendinitis and returned to lead the Storm to a dominant 6-0 run through the postseason to capture the WNBA title and Finals MVP.
Once again, Stewart is out with what the team is calling a left foot injury, but there’s no guarantee the MVP candidate will return once the playoffs begin next week, and the vibe at Storm practice is noticeably anxious and somber as the reigning WNBA champions near the start of the next week’s postseason.
“If the playoffs were Friday, Stewie would not play,” Storm coach Noelle Quinn said. “I would say no, but if you ask her, then it might be a different answer. Some more time will give us a better picture of where she’s at.”
Stewart suffered the injury during a 105-71 win over the Washington Mystics on Sept. 7 midway in the third quarter when she collided awkwardly with Mystics forward Erica McCall and did not return.
Without Stewart, the Storm got clobbered 81-53 against the Los Angeles Sparks on Sunday in one of its most lopsided losses of the season.
Stewart didn’t travel to L.A. and hasn’t returned to practice, which increases the speculation on when or if she’ll return.
“She’s walking around,” said Quinn who was unable to elaborate on the specifics of Stewart’s injury. “I’ve gotten very positive feedback on her process so far. Obviously, she’s not playing Friday, but the hope is that she’ll be available to play sometime in the postseason. Just understanding that it’s important to be attentive to her process and not try to put her out there if she’s not ready.
“She has a great team working around her and for her. I’m not nervous about that in any way. Just understanding that it’s not a rush for her, but a process to continue to feel better. When she’s available, then she’ll be available.”
If the Storm (20-11) beats Phoenix (19-11) 7 p.m. Friday at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett, it clinches a top-four finish in the standings and secures a first-round playoff bye.
A loss would give the Mercury the tiebreaker edge over the Storm, which would need the Minnesota Lynx (20-10) to drop its final two games to secure an automatic berth to the quarterfinals. The Storm has the tiebreaker advantage over the Lynx.
“It’s huge,” Quinn said when asked the importance of Friday’s game. “I tried to not stress it to the team because I know they’re professionals and they know it. But there is a sense of urgency that we need to play with.
“Win or lose, just to be playing better is important for us. … In L.A., if we were playing different, we could live with the outcome of the effort was there and you’re trying. But if it’s an effort issue, then that’s the problem and we have to flip that.”
Quinn chastised the Storm for a lackadaisical and uninspired performance in its last outing in which it was held to 31 points fewer than its scoring average and none of the starters tallied more than seven points.
“L.A. came out aggressive and physical,” Quinn said. “They were a desperate team and looked like a team fighting for a playoff spot. We were on our heels and never turned the corner. The biggest thing was our effort. It wasn’t there. You can talk X’s and O’s, you can talk rotation and the people on the floor, but the effort wasn’t there.
“We talked about that the last couple of days and that can’t ever waver or slip no matter if we’re going through ups or downs or how we feel. Fatigue wasn’t a factor. It’s disappointing that our effort wasn’t there and that can’t ever be an issue on a team that’s trying to find some rhythm heading into the postseason.”
Frankly, the Storm has been out of sync since beating the Connecticut Sun 79-57 on Aug. 12 to win the WNBA’s inaugural Commissioner’s Cup.
At 16-5, the storm had the best record in the WNBA heading into the Olympic break. Since the season resumed, it is 4-6, including blowout defeats in two of its last four games.
“We’re a team that’s had a rough month, and we’re still trying to get over the hump and get back to who are,” Storm guard Sue Bird said. “I think we actually took a step in that direction only to lose Stewie. And the truth is, Stewie is an amazing player and any team that loses their best player obviously there’s a period of adjustment. She’s also really our only true 4. I think we’re now dealing with another hump to get over.”
Quinn added: “Obviously, there’s not a lot of time left, but we have to get back to playing like we know we can. You never want to say anything is a must-win game until it really is, but like I said more than anything it’s important that we play like we’re capable and that starts with bringing effort and desire.”
* Backup point guard Jordin Canada is expected to play Friday after missing the past three games with a right knee injury.
* Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi will sit out Friday and miss her third consecutive game — 15th this season — due to an ankle injury.