Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird sat side by side on the Seattle Storm’s bench, wide smiles across their faces as they chatted.
About five minutes of game action remained, but their work was done for the night. Their stay in the W.N.B.A.’s bubble was almost complete. They were about to depart as champions.
The Storm dominated the Las Vegas Aces, 92-59, on Tuesday night to complete a sweep in the best-of-five finals series in Bradenton, Fla. It was Seattle’s fourth championship, tying a league record shared by the Houston Comets and the Minnesota Lynx.
“The fact that I’m sitting here, I think I’m having this, like, in-shock moment,” said Bird, who has been part of all four Storm titles, “because it doesn’t really feel real that we just won and that I was able to contribute in the way that I did.”
Seattle’s title win — which was cemented by the largest margin of victory in finals history (33 points) — capped a 6-0 run through the playoffs. It also concluded a W.N.B.A. season like no other.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the league’s 12 teams played a shortened 22-game regular season and a playoff slate starting in late July inside a bubble at IMG Academy. The league and its players also took on a bigger purpose, putting Breonna Taylor’s name on the backs of their jerseys as part of a broader push for awareness about social justice issues.
“It’s a championship for little Black girls and Black women across the country, honestly,” Seattle’s Alysha Clark said. “I said it after the game, when I was letting it all soak in: ‘I hope each and every one of them feels just as victorious in this moment as I do, because you should. We see you, we hear you. We acknowledge you, and your life matters.’
“That was what this season was about. To be able to win a championship with that message, with that on our minds, man, it’s special and really historic.”
The Storm fulfilled preseason expectations to win their second title in three seasons. That was largely because of the return of Stewart and Bird, who both missed the 2019 season with injuries.
Stewart won the 2018 Most Valuable Player Award, then ruptured her Achilles’ tendon while playing overseas in April 2019. This year, she returned to dominant form. Her regular-season production — 19.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game — was perhaps surpassed only by that of Las Vegas’s A’ja Wilson, the newly crowned M.V.P.
Bird, the league’s career assists leader, who will turn 40 next week, was in and out of the lineup because of knee troubles but brought sharp passing and calm leadership when she played.
Talent, versatility and championship experience extended throughout the Storm’s deep roster.
Jewell Loyd, an explosive scoring guard, continued to play like a two-time All-Star. Clark was a unanimous choice as a first-team all-defensive player, and she is one of the league’s best 3-point shooters. Natasha Howard, last season’s defensive player of the year, and Jordin Canada, who ranked third in assists per game during the regular season, were impressive complementary players.
The roster was managed by Gary Kloppenburg, who stepped in as interim head coach for Dan Hughes, who did not join the team in the bubble. Hughes, who had surgery to remove a cancerous tumor on his appendix in 2019, was considered to be at elevated risk for serious health complications if he contracted the coronavirus.
Bird said her team’s best quality was its “chill” collective personality.
“We’re actually kind of made for a ‘Wubble,’” she said, using the nickname for the W.N.B.A.’s bubble while accepting the championship trophy.
Seattle tied Las Vegas for the best record in the league (18-4) but held the playoff’s No. 2 seed because the Aces won both of their regular-season meetings. The Storm and Aces ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in both offensive and defensive rating during the regular season.
So it was fitting that Seattle and Las Vegas would eventually meet in the finals, after the Storm swept the Minnesota Lynx in the semifinals and Las Vegas beat the Connecticut Sun in five games. The primary threat to Seattle during that series came when three players received inconclusive coronavirus test results, postponing Game 1 for two days until everyone was cleared.
A major difference in the title-clinching series was Bird, who did not play in either regular-season meeting against the Aces.
In Game 1’s 93-80 win, Bird posted a career-high 16 assists, which was also a record for the finals and the playoffs over all. In Game 2’s 104-91 victory, she spearheaded the 33 team assists that set a finals record. She added seven more assists Tuesday.
In the aftermath, Bird reflected on playing 17 seasons with the Storm and winning multiple championships in different franchise eras. She also kept the door open for returning for the 2021 season to help Seattle defend its title and to play in the Olympics.
“I’m not trying to be elusive,” Bird said. “Like, listen, the way I feel right now, if I can go through my off-season and continue to build on that in a good way, I don’t see why I won’t be playing next summer.”
Stewart, who joined the league and the Storm in 2016, was a unanimous choice for the finals M.V.P.
In Game 1, she totaled 37 points, one shy of the finals record, 15 rebounds and 4 blocks. She scored 22 points, including five 3-pointers, in Game 2. She scored 26 points in 25 minutes on Tuesday.
“I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to be back to where I was,” Stewart said. “But to be able to be here, to be able to see myself playing like this and having so much potential going forward, it’s exciting.”
In the first two games of the finals, Seattle’s offense was efficient, balanced and free-flowing, allowing the Storm to start fast and then pull away in the final quarter. In Game 3, they withstood an early push from the Aces and built a lead with Stewart in foul trouble.
Then came the post-halftime onslaught, which never let up. The lead ballooned so much that Kloppenburg got every player into the game.
The Storm also forced 18 turnovers, slowing a Las Vegas offense that thrived on attacking the basket and getting to the free-throw line. Wilson produced for the Aces, as she had done all series, but did not get consistent help. She led Las Vegas with 18 points.
Before the finals, Kloppenburg said his team could see the light at the end of the bubble. He joked that the living arrangements served as extra motivation to “finish it up, and everybody can go home.”
As Tuesday’s final seconds ticked down, Canada bounced up and down while dribbling. Clark, her hands on her head, looked up and closed her eyes, soaking in the moment. Stewart shouted out to Hughes and to an absent teammate, Sami Whitcomb, who left the bubble before the finals to be with her wife as she gave birth.
Loyd, with green and yellow confetti at her feet, dedicated the championship to Kobe Bryant, her mentor, who nicknamed her the “Gold Mamba,” and to his daughter Gianna. Kobe, the former Los Angeles Lakers superstar, and Gianna were among nine people killed in a helicopter crash in January.
About 30 minutes later, Stewart sat at a news conference wearing oversized goggles and holding a Champagne bottle.
There was “plenty of alcohol in the bubble,” Stewart said. She was ready to spend her last night in Bradenton celebrating.
Then Stewart and her teammates would leave as the 2020 W.N.B.A. champions.
“It’s a huge gold star next to that,” Stewart said. “This season wasn’t easy.”