Breanna Stewart sat out the Storm’s exhibition and there’s concern the team’s leading scorer is hampered by a lingering knee injury that could keep her on the sideline indefinitely.
“I don’t know,” coach Jenny Boucek said following Wednesday’s 86-64 exhibition win over the Phoenix Mercury when asked if Stewart will be available for Sunday’s rematch and exhibition finale.
“These are preseason games so we’re taking it day by day with all of our players that aren’t playing right now,” Boucek said. “We’re going to do what makes the most sense for our team. I can’t answer that right now. She’s looking great and all that kind of stuff.
“But we’re still getting her back and integrated into full speed and full contact because she was out quite a bit of time from China. It’s not that she’s not healthy, it’s just there is a return-to-play phase that we feel is very important.”
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Stewart warmed up with the team, but her absence is an ominous sign for the 6-foot-4 forward who sprained her posterior cruciate ligament in her right knee on Jan. 7 while playing for the Shanghai Baoshan Dahua in the Women’s Chinese Basketball Association.
The injury did not require surgery and she spent the past three months rehabbing in Los Angeles to prepare for her second WNBA season.
Losing Stewart is the latest setback for the Storm, which began training camp without nine-time WNBA All-Star Sue Bird, who underwent a left knee scope last month
“My knee is doing well,” said Bird, who did not play Wednesday. “I just have to do the rehab and take it step by step.
“I started to do more contact stuff. I’ve been on the court now for probably a week. … Just progressing the way I need to be. I don’t really have a timetable (on a return). It’s just kind of how I feel.”
Bird and Stewart are doubtful for Sunday, but Boucek said they could return for Seattle’s May 13 regular-season opener at Los Angeles against the defending WNBA champion.
“They’re all in a return-to-play phase for a variety of reasons,” Boucek said. “They’re healthy, but there is a return to play which we feel like it sets them up for the most success when we do get them back out there.”
Until then, Jewell Loyd is forced to carry the Storm the way she did Wednesday.
Before sitting out the second half, the third-year star guard scored 14 points and led Seattle to a 39-31 lead at the break.
“We got to be ready to play without them or with whoever when the season comes,” Loyd said. “I think everyone was ready today. … Everyone played their roles, which is really vital in this league.”
The Storm didn’t need its trio of stars in the second half thanks to dazzling debuts from newcomers Carolyn Swords and Sami Whitcomb.
“It was really fun to play with this group today and I’m looking forward to getting to know everyone better,” said Swords, who finished with 15 points, eight rebounds and three steals in 21 minutes.
The fifth-year 6-6 center who was acquired in an offseason trade helped the Storm to a 37-25 rebounding advantage.
She also took over offensively with 11 points in the third quarter, including an impressive spurt in which she sank layups on three consecutive possessions that stretched Seattle’s lead to 52-37.
From there, Whitcomb polished off an understaffed Phoenix team that was missing coach Sandy Brondello and four players, including stars Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner who are overseas.
The former Washington Huskies standout scored 15 points on 6-of-12 shooting, including three three-pointers. She also had four rebounds, three assists and four steals.
“The scoring generally translates,” said Whitcomb, a 28-year-old rookie and free agent guard who averaged 24.1 points in Australia last season. “A lot of times shooters are going to keep shooting and eventually they’re going to knock down shots.
“But for me, I wanted to show that I could hang defensively. That I could get stops, guard 1 on 1 and I could make reads. That’s what I was more pleased with.”
Whitcomb also provided the game’s highlight early in the fourth quarter when she collected a 90-foot pass from Jenna O’Hea that sailed over a defender. Whitcomb finished the play with a contested layup that thrilled the 4,128 at KeyArena and gave the Storm a 69-50 lead.
“We were pretty good for our first game with a lot of new people and a lot of different rotations and lineups,” Boucek said.
In addition to its stars, the Storm sat out backup guard Noelle Quinn citing rest. Seattle was also without third-year forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Nikki Green, who are playing in France and Poland respectively.