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Preview: Without Stewart, Storm are vulnerable, but hope to keep title defense alive behind Loyd, home crowd

The Seattle Storm take on the Phoenix Mercury in the second round of the 2021 WNBA Playoffs. Jewell Loyd and Sue bird of the Storm and Birttney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith of the Mercury will be the players to watch.

Phoenix Mercury v Seattle Storm
Jewell Loyd and Skylar Diggins-Smith are about to go at it.
Photo by Joshua Huston/NBAE via Getty Images

The Seattle Storm are in a tough position entering their second-round game against the Phoenix Mercury on Sunday. They were flying high when they won the Commissioner’s Cup championship in blowout fashion on Aug. 12 and it seemed like they were the clear-cut WNBA championship favorites. But one fluky injury to Breanna Stewart on Sept. 7 has left the team facing the very real possibility of not even making the semifinals.

On the other side, Phoenix may be without Diana Taurasi (questionable), but even if that’s the case, Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith combined bring more star power than Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird combined at this stage of Bird’s career. The good news for Seattle is that the New York Liberty put together a successful defensive formula in the second quarter of their first-round game against the Mercury, holding Phoenix to just 13 points. If the Storm try to replicate that and keep the ball away from Griner, they may also find success. Of course, if Sophie Cunningham remains hot and knocks down open shots, then the Mercury may not have to worry.

Phoenix beat Seattle 85-77 at home in the first 2021 matchup between the teams on July 9 and that was without Taurasi while the Storm had Stewart. Griner had 29 points and 15 rebounds and Diggins-Smith had 26 points and six assists. However, the Storm won both games in Seattle to win the season series 2-1. Their second win over the Mercury came without Stewart. In their first win, they held both Griner and Diggins-Smith under 20 points and let Kia Nurse do most of the damage. In their second win, they surrendered 26 to Griner, but held Diggins-Smith to seven. Shey Peddy had 17.

We’ll see if the Storm try to make Phoenix’s non-superstars beat them and if they can continue their title defense beyond Sunday.

Meanwhile, Phoenix has played up to its talent better this season than last year and it has the momentum from a thrilling victory over New York. A trip to the semifinals would quiet a lot of critics.

Game information

No. 5 seed Phoenix Mercury vs. No. 4 seed Seattle Storm

When: Sunday, Sept. 26 at 3 p.m. ET

Where: Angel of the Wings Arena in Everett, WA

How to watch: ABC

Mercury injury report: Diana Taurasi (questionable; left ankle)

Storm injury report: Breanna Stewart (out; left foot)

Keys to the matchup: Jewell Loyd. With Stewart out, Loyd will need to have a big game. With a first-round bye on the line and Stewart out on Sept. 17, she scored 22 points in the first quarter en route to a career-high 37 as the Storm defeated the Mercury. Loyd also dropped 26 and 35, respectively, in Seattle’s first two games after the Commissioner’s Cup championship game when both Stewart and Bird were out. Unfortunately, both of those games were losses, which raises the question if Loyd can carry the team single-handedly. But at least she has proven that she will step up and be at her best when Stewart is out. If Loyd plays well on Sunday and the Storm go on to win the championship with Stewart winning Finals MVP again, maybe Stewie will decide to share the award with Jewell.