Storm point guards Sue Bird and Temeka Johnson will lead their Russian teams against each other for the domestic league’s championship. Bird’s UMMC Ekaterinburg swept Dynamo Moscow (Lindsay Whalen, Kristi Toliver) in a best-of-three semifinal series to advance. Bird had 12 points and nine assists in the Game 2 win. Phoenix All-Star Diana Taurasi led with 19 points.
Johnson’s Nadezhda Orenburg swept Dynamo Kursk (Rebekkah Brunson, Seimone Augustus) in its best-of-three semifinal to advance to its first Russian Championship in club history. Johnson had 13 points in the Game 2 win. Tulsa All-Star Glory Johnson led with 21 points.
The best-of-five championship round begins Friday at Ekat’s DIVS Sport Hall. You can watch live at 6am PT via www.basket.ru. The site is in Russian. The link to the game should be available at tip-off on Friday in the third box on the right where the schedule is listed. Follow me on Twitter where I’ll provide any updates on how to watch, if needed. Game 2 is Saturday and will broadcast live at 7am PT.
Game 3 is slated for Tuesday in Orenburg.
Ekat swept Orenburg in two meetings during the regular season. Bird had 11 points and six assists in the 72-54 win in December and nine points and 11 assists in the 91-69 win in February. Majority of those assists were to Taurasi, who scored a game-high 34 points. Johnson averaged 5 points in the defeats.
“Each playoff series is a new start for every team,” Ekaterinburg coach Olaf Lange said about the championship series. His wife, Sandy Brondello, serves as an assistant coach. The former Storm guard will head the Mercury this summer.
“We have a great experience of playing with Nadezhda face to face,” Lange continued. “But I think the better you know each other the higher is the possibility of getting too self-assured. My personal experience convinced me that there is nothing you can be absolutely sure about. The semifinal match against Galatasaray is a good example. We need to be perfectly ready and never underestimate our opponent.”
Ekat’s pursuit of the Russian title is on the heels of what was called the “biggest upset in EuroLeague Final Eight history.” Bird did not play due to FIBA rules about the number of American players on a team. Ekat lost 77-70 to eventual champion, Galatasaray odeabank (Shavonte Zellous, Sancho Lyttle, Kelsey Bone). It was the first time a Turkish club won the premier European championship.
“Frankly speaking our self-esteem has been slapped, but it’s not a disaster for UMMC, because we have (a) title,” UMMC basketball club director Maxim Ryabkov said this week of not defending the team’s 2013 EuroLeague championship despite hosting the 2014 event on its home court. “It’s (2013 championship) first one for me, but for my direction, for the club founders it is the second title in the carrier. Maybe that is why it seems to be easier to stand the slap on our pride that we had. We will do our best to cope with it all together.”
Bird led Ekat to the 2013 Russian Championship, undergoing knee surgery after the celebration and missing the WNBA season.
This time Bird will return to Seattle and play in her 12th Storm season with Johnson as part of the Storm’s backcourt, her second in Seattle. The expected starters, who’ll be first-time teammates, could arrive as late as the week of the season-opener on May 16. Game 5, if necessary, for the Russian Championship is scheduled for May 3 in Ekaterinburg.
Storm coach Brian Agler said his complete team would be intact for the WNBA opener but he typically gives his players time to return to the states, regroup from overseas play and then join training camp. Bird and Johnson should be the last to arrive.
Returning starters Tanisha Wright and Camille Little could arrive earlier than planned. Their Turkish team was swept last week in the semifinals of its domestic-league championship playoffs and were expected to be late arrivals, according to Agler last week.
Free agent C Angel Robinson will definitely be late. Her Spanish team, Perfumerias Avenida, reached the best-of-three championship series. The defending champions lost Game 1 and will play a must-win Game 2 on Saturday. Robinson had 19 points and 15 rebounds in Game 1 against Rivas Ecopolis.
Storm training camp opens Sunday. Camp signees Taylor Hall, Valencia McFarland, Chelsea Douglas, and Jasmine Lister; 2014 draftees Michelle Plouffe and Mikaela Ruef; free-agent signees Jenna O’Hea, Charde Houston; trade acquisition Crystal Langhorne and returnees Noelle Quinn, Shekinna Stricklen, Alysha Clark, and Joslyn Tinkle are the anticipated on-time arrivals, according to Agler.
WNBA rosters must be paired down to a 12-player maximum May 15. Agler said he’ll likely use the new CBA option to have a 12th player on the roster.