It’s one down, six to go for the Seattle Storm.
Using a balanced offense and an active defense, the Storm seized the lead early on and never gave it up, racing to a 79-66 victory over the Los Angeles Sparks in the opener of the best-of-three Western Conference playoffs in front of 10,589 fans at KeyArena on Wednesday night.
The second game will be played at noon Saturday at Staples Center.
If necessary, the third game will be played at 7 p.m. Tuesday at KeyArena.
The Storm has not advanced out of the first round of the playoffs since winning the WNBA title in 2004.
“Every game in a short series like this is very important,” Storm coach Brian Agler said. “They’re all must-wins in a short series.”
Though Seattle was tied or led for all but about nine seconds of the first quarter, there was always the question of whether the Storm could hold on.
After all, it was just four days prior that Seattle lost a 12-point lead at home to the Sparks only to pull out a one-point win to complete the regular season 17-0 at home (and a WNBA-best record 28-6 overall).
And don’t forget, this is the same Sparks team that was 8-3 all-time against Seattle in the playoffs, winning all five previous postseason series against the Storm.
Los Angeles knocked Seattle out of the playoffs in the first round the past two years.
But back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter showed that Wednesday was the Storm’s night.
Leading by eight with 5 minutes, 31 seconds to play, center Camille Little – who’d made eight 3-pointers all season – banked in a 3 from the top of the key with four seconds left on the shot clock. On the next possession, a loose-ball rebound rolled to guard Tanisha Wright, who buried a 3-pointer from the left wing, giving Seattle a 14-point lead with 3:42 to play, essentially ending any hope for Los Angeles.
“Everyone really contributed tonight, and that’s when we have most of our success,” said guard Sue Bird, who had nine points, five rebounds and 12 assists. “It seemed like every time we needed it, someone made a big play, either on offense or defense.”
Indeed, seven of the nine players who played for the Storm scored at least three points, led by the 20 points of Swin Cash and the 17 of Lauren Jackson, who added nine rebounds in her first playoff game in three years after missing the past two postseasons with injury. Little added 11 points and, most surprisingly, rookie Jana Vesela had 11 points (including 3-for-3 on 3-pointers), all in the second quarter. She was averaging just 3.2 points.
“We tried some of everything tonight,” Los Angeles coach Jennifer Gillom said. “We tried double-teaming the post but they kicked it out for some threes. We wanted to limit Lauren’s touches and limit their inside players. Vesela came in and hit some huge threes that we didn’t expect.”
Storm leads best-of-three series, 1-0
SATURDAY: Seattle at Los Angeles, noon, ESPN2
TUESDAY (if necessary): Los Angeles at Seattle, 7 p.m., NBA TV