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Jewell Loyd leads the Storm into their first playoff game against the Mercury

Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Defending Finals MVP Breanna Stewart will be out with an injury for the Seattle Storm’s single-elimination playoff game against the Phoenix Mercury on Sunday, but there’s no reason for 2020 champions to panic when they have a weapon like Jewell Loyd.

The All-Star point guard recently had a career-high 37 points against none other than Phoenix in Seattle’s last regular-season game on Sept. 17. The 94-85 win earned the Storm a bye to the second round of WNBA playoffs.

“She really understands who she is as a basketball player and within a game is trying to get to certain spots, trying to create certain space for herself,” said Storm guard Sue Bird. “I think that’s what was on display against Phoenix: just Jewell in her element, Jewell doing what she does best, and for me, when you see a player like Jewell doing that, you’re just trying to get her the ball.”

Loyd was drafted first overall by Seattle in 2015, coming to the league early after three years with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

The 2021 season has been her best one yet, with the 27-year-old averaging 17.9 points, four rebounds and 3.8 assists. In the top WNBA scoring performances of the regular season, Loyd ranked first and third with her 37 points against the Mercury and 35 over the New York Liberty in August. Last week, she was named to Just Women’s Sports All-WNBA first team.

“The evolution of her is like watching her blossom into this beautiful butterfly,” said Seattle coach Noelle Quinn.

Quinn, who played as Loyd’s teammate on the Storm before retiring in 2018, expressed excitement for what’s to come for the young veteran.

“If you understand the evolution of Jewell, we know she can get a bucket,” said Quinn. “Now it’s just the growth in her leadership, the growth of defending on the other side of the floor and putting it all together in a package, and so in games like this, you want to rely on her ability to hit shots – we have to rely on that ability – but also we have to rely on her ability to get stops on the other end of the floor.”

Growth was a common word for both Quinn and Bird when talking about Loyd. The Lincolnwood, Ill. native is always looking for ways to keep building, even as she ascends to the top ranks of the WNBA.

Bird described the Storm’s recent game against the Mercury as a perfect example. After Loyd put up 22 points in the first quarter, there was a lull from both her and Seattle, which allowed Phoenix to cut into the Storm’s once-comfortable lead. In the final minutes of the fourth quarter, Loyd rekindled her spark and showed up with another seven points, including a layup over Mercury star Brittney Griner that solidified Seattle’s win.

“She still was able to bounce right back and make a huge play,” said Bird. “That’s what you want to see in one of your go-to players.”

A gold medalist at the Tokyo Olympics, Loyd’s been a game-changing player for the Storm and national squad all summer, but by competing on teams of so much depth, sometimes the standout moments get overshadowed.

“All of the things that she does within her, within our community, within our team, I think I will continue to vouch for her because I think a lot of times people undervalue her or not show her enough love, and I will always shout from the mountaintop how great she’s been and how she’s continued to grow,” said Quinn.

The Storm play the Mercury at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday, with the winner moving on to the semi-finals against the Connecticut Sun or Las Vegas Aces.

Having lost three games to the Chicago Sky since mid-August, there is some relief for Seattle in the fact they are playing the Mercury, who they went 2-1 against through regular season. If No. 8 New York Liberty had defeated No. 5 Phoenix in the first round of playoffs, the Storm, set to play the higher seed, would have been facing the No. 6 Sky again on Sunday.