Sue Bird believes the Seattle Storm are the true definition of a team, achieving more than most by working together as a unit.
“That’s the thing I love most about this team: Everyone has to play their role and really fulfill that,” Bird said.
And this season, two key players in the Storm’s run to the W.N.B.A. finals have been guard Jordin Canada and forward Alysha Clark.
“Both of them do things that nobody on our roster can do, and they have to bring that to the table, to the games night in and night out, for us to be successful,” Bird said.
“All of us just try to encourage them to be themselves and kind of shine in that way.”
As the second-seeded Storm take on the top-seeded Las Vegas Aces in a bid for their second title in three seasons, Canada and Clark will be needed. In Seattle’s Game 1 win on Friday, Bird set a record for assists in a finals game with 16, and Breanna Stewart led the way with 37 points and 15 rebounds. But Canada helped with ball-handling duties, and Clark grabbed seven boards.
Their playmaking on both ends of the court has helped the Storm all season, leading to an 18-4 regular season record and a sweep of the Minnesota Lynx in the playoff semifinals.
In her ninth W.N.B.A. season, Clark is known for her swarming defense and clutch shooting. She is the team’s third-leading scorer at 10 points per game, behind Stewart and Jewell Loyd.
This year, Clark helped the Storm lead the league in points allowed per game (76), and she earned all-defensive honors for the second straight season. She was unanimously selected to the all-defensive first team, receiving the maximum 11 votes from the W.N.B.A.’s head coaches.
“I was super proud of the honor of being on this all-defensive team because of where I started as a collegiate post player to kind of having to find my way in this league and finding a way to stick and be different,” said Clark, who played for Middle Tennessee State. “Defense for me was something I had to buy into and commit to.”
A big part of Clark’s development in this area was Tanisha Wright, a former teammate on the Storm. “She was my vet the years I was in that transition,” Clark said. “She poured into me and helped me learn the defensive side of being a guard. And so for me, I took that as a challenge and wanted to be the best that I personally could be.
“For the coaches to recognize my efforts and the work I do on the court — regardless of if it shows up in the stat sheet every night or not — that, for me, speaks volumes.”
Canada has alternated between starting and coming off the bench when Bird — who missed last season with a knee injury — rests or takes games off. A 25-year-old guard, Canada is in her third season out of U.C.L.A., and she started 29 games in place of Bird last season. The Storm finished 18-16, but Canada showed she was more than ready for the spotlight, averaging 9.8 points, 5.2 assists and 2.9 steals per game.
She has subbed for Bird in a more limited capacity this season but when called upon has delivered big: In a game against the Los Angeles Sparks when she started in place of Bird, she had 16 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists.
“She’s a dynamic player,” Seattle Coach Gary Kloppenburg said. “It’s a luxury to have someone like that who can come in off the bench and change the tempo of a game with her speed and quickness and her defense. She has an ability to pressure opponents and got as quick of hands as anybody I’ve ever coached.
“Her role’s changed this year, but she’s fulfilled it really well and really gives us that depth, that change of pace coming in off the bench.”
Canada said she had learned from playing with Clark. She recalled situations in practice or shootaround when Clark showed the depth of her skill on defense.
“She’ll literally just stop and say, ‘This is what she likes to do, so I’m going to take this away and I need help here.’ Or: ‘I want to stay on her. I don’t want to switch. I want to make sure she doesn’t get to her sweet spot,’” Canada said.
She continued: “It helps me a lot because as a player and as a point guard, I want to be exactly like that — being able to be a defender like A.C. — knowing player tendencies and their strong suits and taking that away. When you have players like that on our team, it helps our team over all.”
Kloppenburg said coaches understand what Clark brings to the table defensively.
“She’s just one of those players: Whoever her assignment is, she’s going to take some things away and make them really work for everything they get,” he said. “I think that ability, combined with good team defense around her, can really cause problems, as it has all year for those really good players we have in our league.”
Clark is a threat on the offensive side of the floor as well, with an ability to knock down open 3-pointers, he said, adding that she had “improved these last couple of years and kind of made herself into a really excellent W.N.B.A. player.”
Loyd called Clark the “heart and soul” of the Storm.
“Numbers don’t lie: She’s defensive player of the year,” Loyd said. “Knowing what she can do every night and what she has been doing every night, it’s remarkable.”
Loyd said Clark was a “defensive specialist” who “knows tendencies, percentages, how you carry yourself.”
“She just wants to do her job,” Loyd said, “but in these playoff series she’s been super vital for us getting to the playoffs and making our run and getting to the finals.”