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Recap: Howard’s double-double leads Storm over Mercury

Seattle’s new-look starting five did most of the offense, but its defense shut down Phoenix in the second half, leading to the 77-68 win.

WNBA: Finals-Seattle Storm at Washington Mystics
Natasha Howard’s 21 points and career-high 16 rebounds led Seattle to its opening-game win over Phoenix.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Down by double-digits early, the defending-champion Seattle Storm ramped up its defensive effort and picked up right where it left off last season, beating the Phoenix Mercury 77-68.

With two of their most important players out with injury in Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird, the Storm’s new-look starting five stepped up to account for all but five points. Natasha Howard led the way for the victors with 21 points and a career-high 16 rebounds, while Jewell Loyd had 17 points and Jordin Canada added a career-high 16 points.

For Phoenix, the DeWanna Bonner-Brittney Griner scoring duo, left one down from 2018’s formidable offensive trio in the absence of Diana Taurasi, took over. The two combined for 49 points — including all 36 of the Mercury’s second-half points — with Bonner’s 31 leading all scorers.

The game was tied heading into the halftime break despite Phoenix’s lead of as many as 11 points in the first half. Phoenix initially saw some success in the second half, funneling its offense through Griner and Bonner with Bonner going on a 15-0 solo Mercury run. But Seattle was able to interrupt the tandem’s efforts by forcing turnovers and creating scoring opportunities of its own.

The Storm’s most notable area of weakness was at the free throw line, where they finished just 15-of-23. Loyd converted all seven of her attempts, but Howard went 4-of-9. Bonner, meanwhile, was the only Mercury player to shoot free throws all game, going 7-for-7.

While both teams had 23 defensive rebounds, Seattle’s 13-6 edge on the offensive glass provided more shooting opportunities and more chances at the line. A better showing at the free throw line may have iced the game earlier, but as it stood, their balanced and consistent scoring effort didn’t necessitate it — yet.

It was an encouraging effort for the Storm, who are still playing without head coach Dan Hughes as he continues cancer treatment. And while the Mercury hung in there, finding more offensive options late is clearly going to be paramount if they want to win games.

Up next: Seattle travels to Minnesota on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, CBSSN). Phoenix hosts Las Vegas on Friday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2).

Bonus: The Storm received their 2018 championship rings Saturday afternoon in a pre-game ceremony.