Breanna Stewart Went Home And Conquered
9:07 AM EDT on May 31, 2023
The early part of the league calendar is the ideal time for a hater to train their attention on a freshly constructed superteam. The reasons for this are obvious: It's in those early days and weeks that such teams are most likely to struggle while the stars attempt to figure out a pecking order and playing philosophy that works best for everyone. The inevitability of a winning season and the probability of a championship be damned, the haters will be ready when the season kicks off, rubbing their hands together, just waiting for a few early-season losses to seize upon.
On paper, Wednesday night's game between the New York Liberty and Seattle Storm was an ideal game for fans from the anti-superteam lobby. The Liberty—who added two former MVPs in Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones in the offseason, and also added all-star point guard Courtney Vandersloot, and also still employ Sabrina Ionescu—came into the game with a 2-1 record, that one loss being a 16-point blowout to the Mystics in the first game of the season. Wednesday's game was also a homecoming for Stewart, who spent the first six seasons of her career in Seattle and had to deal with the emotions that came with returning to Seattle to face her old team as a visiting player for the first time. Pregame, one could sketch out the shape of a Storm victory in one's mind: the Liberty still haven't quite figured out where everyone is supposed to stand; the raucous home crowd gets behind the players and wills them toward revenge; Stewart gets overwhelmed by the emotion and spectacle of it all and has a bad game; Jewell Loyd seizes on the opportunity to show everyone what she can do as a No. 1 option and shoots the Libs out of the building.
The execution of this vision ran into an immediate hitch, which is that everyone in Seattle seemed to be pleased to have Stewart back in the building, even as a visitor. You can't blame them—she put two banners in the rafters—but the pregame hugs she got from her former teammates and the cheers she got from her former fans sucked a lot of the tension out of the building. Stewart still had some weird feelings to navigate, though, and admitted after the game that her quiet first half (eight points on 2-of-4 shooting) was the result of her head not totally being in the game. "I was just floating," Stewart said. "I don't think I was really doing anything except just, like, not sure what I was doing."
While Stewart floated through the first half, a pretty good basketball game unfolded around her. The Liberty hummed along efficiently, consistently creating open looks and shooting 53 percent from the floor through the first two quarters. But the Storm were up for a fight, and Loyd in particular played her part, scoring 16 points in the first half as the Liberty carried just a one-point lead into the break. Somewhere, a hater began to draft a tweet: Why switch up when you can step up?
Such tweets would have to stay in the drafts folder, because when the second half arrived, so did Stewart. She scored 17 points in the final 20 minutes on 6-of-10 shooting, finishing the game with a sparkling 25-11 to go with two blocks and two steals. Loyd did her best to keep pace, scoring 10 more points in the half, but nobody can put a game out of reach quite as easily as Stewart. Loyd hit a jumper late in the third quarter to bring the Storm within three, and on the next possession Stewart grabbed an offensive rebound and hit a fadeaway jumper over two defenders. After a Storm miss, Stewart caught the ball on the elbow, turned to face the hoop, felt one defender attempting to burrow her way into her chest, saw another blitzing her from the foul line, and decided to just raise up anyway and sink a jumper. The Liberty led by seven, and the margin would only grow from there. By the time Stewart did this a few minutes later, the lead was 13 and the game was effectively over:
It was a successful homecoming for Stewart, if a bittersweet one. Throughout the broadcast, ESPN spliced in interview clips in which Stewart was remarkably candid about her feelings. At one point she admitted that after staying in Seattle for a few days following the conclusion of her pro season in Turkey, she began to wonder if she'd made the right choice in leaving the Storm for New York. But she also reiterated something that she's been very up front about since signing with the Liberty: She came to New York to maximize her exposure, to try to become the face of the game, and to try to push the league forward.
You can admire the attempt to reposition what's usually seen as a cynical career move (teaming up with a bunch of stars to thirstily pursue a ring) as a noble one (teaming up with a bunch of stars for the good of the game), but in the end Stewart's intent matters far less than her execution. Whether she's after rings or a bigger profile for herself and the league, the path forward requires a lot of scoring and a lot of winning. So far, so good: Stewart is averaging 25 points and 10 rebounds on the season, and the Liberty are 3-1. The superteam haters may be running out of time.