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Preview: Natasha Howard, New York Liberty begin season series against Seattle Storm

One of the biggest acquisitions of the 2021 WNBA free agency period, Natasha Howard is now a fixture of the New York Liberty. They’ll take on Howard’s old team, the Seattle Storm, for the first time this season.

New York Liberty v Minnesota Lynx
Former Storm Natasha Howard was excellent in her return from injury, scoring 30 points against the Minnesota Lynx.
Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

The defending WNBA champion Seattle Storm (16-6) begin their 2021 season series with the New York Liberty (10-12) on Wednesday night. It’s the first of two games between the Storm and Liberty and will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network at 7 p.m. ET.

The Storm and Liberty were involved in perhaps the biggest transaction of the past offseason: a sign-and-trade that sent 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Natasha Howard to New York in exchange for several first-round draft picks. The move, which was bolstered by several corresponding deals also involving the Phoenix Mercury and other big names like Kia Nurse and Sami Whitcomb, signaled the Liberty’s intent to compete in 2021 and beyond. Howard was inked to a four-year, maximum salary contract, earning well above $200,000 per year (Her Hoop Stats).

Howard hasn’t yet had much of an opportunity to justify New York’s investment, only recently returning from an MCL sprain that had kept her out since late May. She played spectacularly in her first game back, however, scoring 30 points in as many minutes on the floor in a Liberty loss to Minnesota. Howard also recorded a single-game usage rate of at least 30 percent for the third time this season, matching her total from all of 2020 — a decent indicator of how much larger her role is on her new team.

Seattle Storm v Chicago Sky
Jewell Loyd, fresh off winning a gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, will continue to be Seattle’s focal point as her high-profile teammates sit for another game.
Photo by Randy Belice/NBAE via Getty Images

While Seattle’s depth in the frontcourt and all-around star power have kept the team rolling without its former defensive fulcrum — the Storm currently rank fourth in the WNBA in defensive rating at 97.1 — the team’s recent strategy of resting some of its players for long-term success leaves it ripe for a short-term upset. Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart were both held out of the Storm’s most recent game against Chicago — a Seattle overtime loss — and will be resting again for Wednesday’s game in New York.

It will be up to Storm guard Jewell Loyd to pick up the slack in the meantime. While Loyd showed out for her hometown crowd against the Sky, scoring 26 points and recording five steals, she shot jut 7-of-30 (23.3 percent) from the field. If the Storm are to avoid being upset by New York, they’ll need Loyd to be more efficient with her scoring. They’ll also need centers Mercedes Russell (10 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists) and Ezi Magbegor (21 points, nine rebounds) to continue their strong play in Stewart’s absence.

Game information

Seattle Storm (16-6) vs. New York Liberty (10-12)

When: Wednesday, Aug. 18 at 7 p.m. ET

Where: Barclays Center, Brooklyn, NY

How to watch: CBS Sports Network, JOETV

Storm injury report: Sue Bird (out; rest), Breanna Stewart (out; rest)

Liberty injury report: Jazmine Jones (out; foot) Jocelyn Willoughby (out for season; Achilles)

Keys to the matchup: New York has struggled to take care of the basketball this season, turning the ball over on over 20 percent of its possessions. With ballhawks like Loyd and Jordin Canada getting the bulk of Seattle’s backcourt minutes, the Liberty will need to be crisp with their passing to avoid too many Storm fast break points. For Seattle, a secondary scorer will need to step up to help Loyd shoulder the burden, especially if Russell and Magbegor are unable to hit the glass like they did against Chicago.