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Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Retooled Storm head into ‘measuring-stick game,’ hoping they can beat Aces

SportsRetooled Storm head into ‘measuring-stick game,’ hoping they can beat Aces

Nearly a decade of experience in the WNBA has taught Skylar Diggins-Smith to not put too much emphasis on any opponent during a 40-game schedule.

“I compete against everybody the same way,” the Storm point guard said this week. “That’s the biggest compliment you can give people in this league is just to go as hard as you can every night against everybody, so I don’t discriminate there.”

Not surprisingly, steely forward Nneka Ogwumike echoed similar remarks after Thursday’s practice before the Storm embarked on a pivotal two-game road trip that will have Commissioner’s Cup and potential WNBA playoff implications.

“The most important game is the next one,” Ogwumike said. “That’s the focus that we have. You have to respect every opponent.”

Especially when the next opponent is the Las Vegas Aces.

Led by A’ja Wilson, Chelsea Gray, Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum, the Aces ended the Storm’s five-year dynastic run in 2022, while sending WNBA great Sue Bird into retirement following an epic playoff series that felt like a passing of the baton between the old guard and the league’s reigning two-time champions.

Las Vegas has beaten the Storm in seven straight games starting with a dramatic victory in Game 2 of the 2022 WNBA semifinals.

Last season, the Aces rolled over the Storm en route to their second straight league title, winning all four games by at least 16 points and an average of 29 points, including a 105-64 beatdown in the season opener.

The Storm, who were trounced 103-77 in their last trip to Las Vegas in 2023, underwent a major offseason makeover with the Aces in mind.

The Storm brought in perennial WNBA All-Stars Diggins-Smith and Ogwumike along with defensive standout Victoria Vivians to start alongside holdovers Jewell Loyd and Ezi Magbegor.

While Ogwumike publicly minimized the importance of Friday’s 7 p.m. game against the Aces at Michelob ULTRA Arena, there’s an undeniable anticipation to the matchup between the WNBA’s premier super team and one of its top challengers.

“It feels like there’s a lot with this particular game,” Storm coach Noelle Quinn said. “The focus for me is the Commissioner’s Cup is on top of our minds.

“We’re valuing each possession, understanding the magnitude of the game and where we can be after these five [Cup] games.”

The Minnesota Lynx lead the Commissioner’s Cup standings in the Western Conference at 2-0 while the Storm and Aces are 1-0. Los Angeles and Dallas, which are 0-2, are on the brink of elimination while Phoenix (1-1) remains in contention.

Beyond the Cup ramifications, Quinn is interested to see how her team fares against a WNBA rival that’s pushed them off the pedestal and ran roughshod over the league the past two years.

“This is also a measuring-stick game to see where we are as a group,” Quinn said. “We’re going up against the defending champs who have an amazing player [Wilson] playing at a high level and has her team clicking on all cylinders.

“There is a reality in the fact that we’re going up against a team that is essentially where we are trying to get to and where we want to be.”

The Storm (6-3) are riding a five-game winning streak, which is tied for the 10th-longest in franchise history, and is their most consecutive wins since June 2021. That year, they also won six straight games early in the season.

But here’s the thing: The Storm have recovered from a shaky 1-3 start while feasting on lower-tier teams and haven’t beaten an opponent with a winning record.

In fact, the Storm’s wins have been against four teams with a combined 9-29 record. They lost twice to Minnesota (7-2) and once against the New York Liberty (8-2).

The Aces (5-2) have played the fewest games in the WNBA and have gotten off to a relatively impressive start considering they’ve been without All-Star guard Gray (foot) and backup forward Kierstan Bell (lower leg) because of injuries.

Through the first four weeks of the season, Wilson is the apparent front-runner for WNBA MVP.

The Aces’ star forward is averaging 27.9 points and 12.6 rebounds — the first WNBA player to put up at least 25 points and 10 rebounds through the first seven games.

“As a basketball fan, I appreciate what she’s doing,” Quinn said. “We need to make sure we’re giving her flowers. For her to be playing at such a high level, continuously expanding her game and leading her team, it’s really cool to see from a basketball perspective and from a fan perspective.”

In her last outing, Wilson had 36 points, 12 rebounds and six steals during Wednesday’s 95-81 win against the Dallas Wings.

“From a coach’s perspective, [Wilson] is a nightmare because she can shoot the three now so you can’t [give her room on the perimeter],” Quinn said. “If she’s in isolation and you double team her, she’s going to make the correct read. She’s finishing well around the rim and what she does defensively with her rebounding and shot blocking — she has a complete game.

“It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be a team effort on her. It’s going to be staying locked in for the entire game.”

Seemingly, Magbegor and Ogwumike, who is expected to return from a one-game layoff because of an eye injury, will share the defensive assignment to contain Wilson in a game that features many must-see matchups.

Loyd and Diggins-Smith will pair against Young and Plum, the former Washington Huskies star, in a battle of two of league’s top backcourts.

“You have to respect what [Las Vegas] has done,” Ogwumike said. “Because of what they’ve done, they play a certain way and we’re going to have to match that energy.”

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