This time there were tears, on the court and in the stands. The finality of the situation finally hitting Sue Bird and the thousands that showed up hoping to see her career continue for at least 40 more minutes.
Chelsea Gray was simply too good, sending the Las Vegas Aces to the WNBA Finals and in the process brought and end to Bird’s illustrious career.
Gray scored 15 of her 31 points in the fourth quarter and the Aces advanced to the WNBA Finals with a 97-92 win over the Seattle Storm in Game 4 of their semifinal series on Tuesday night.
The Aces won the best-of-five series 3-1, all the games tense, pressure-packed and filled with spectacular shot-making. The Aces ended up making more, most notably Gray, who made five of six shots down the stretch and scored 12 of the final 20 points for the Aces.
“I don’t think anyone on planet Earth can guard her,” Seattle coach Noelle Quinn said. “She was unconscious.”
It will be the third Finals appearance in franchise history for Las Vegas. The Aces lost to Seattle in 2020 in the WNBA bubble played in Florida, and the franchise reached the Finals in 2008 while still in San Antonio, losing to Detroit.
“It’s kind of like the girl that beat Serena [Williams]. It’s bittersweet,” Aces coach Becky Hammon said. “I know myself and our staff and team and organization have so much respect for Sue. She’s had a fairy tale career, one that kids dream of. She got to live it.”
Breanna Stewart tied the WNBA playoff record with 42 points, just the fifth player to score 40 or more in a postseason game, and Jewell Loyd added 29. But Seattle failed to find a third scorer and the Aces had an answer for every charge Seattle made after Las Vegas surged in front early in the second half.
The Aces will get the spotlight in the Finals. On this night, the aftermath of the result was all about Bird and the conclusion to her two decades as a pillar to the Storm franchise and the WNBA.
Bird stayed on the court after the final buzzer, receiving hugs from the entire Aces roster. She wiped away tears while the crowd cheered and cried along with her and chanted “Thank you, Sue.”
“It’s been my honour to play for this franchise, to play for these fans. I don’t know what else to say,” Bird said.
The oldest player in the league at age 41, Bird started the year thinking this would be it, but brought finality to the decision midway through the regular season.
Las Vegas spoiled the party in Seattle’s home regular-season finale when Bird was honoured by the franchise and the league for her 21 seasons with the team and 19 as a player, missing two seasons with injury.
And it was Aces that finally eliminated Bird and the Storm after four stressful games filled with big performances.
Bird closes out her career as one of the most decorated players of all-time: four WNBA titles, five Olympic gold medals, two collegiate titles at UConn, the WNBA all-time leader in assists and games played, and recognition as one of the great players during a golden generation for the league.
She’ll also take into retirement the definition of being a floor leader and ultimately a winner.
But she wasn’t able to add a fifth title to that final resume.
Gray was the biggest thorn for Seattle with her clutch shooting often late in the shot clock. Seattle pulled even at 67-all, only to have Gray hit a 3 as the shot clock expired.
Gray scored consecutive buckets later in the fourth to keep the Aces ahead, but her miss and Gabby Williams’ driving layup pulled Seattle even at 82 with 2:40 left. After an officials review, A’ja Wilson was assessed a foul on the play for hitting Williams in the face, and her free throw gave the Storm a one-point lead.
That was Seattle’s last lead. Wilson’s three-point play put the Aces back ahead 85-83 and Gray wouldn’t miss, her jumper with 30 seconds left giving the Aces a 92-87 lead. Wilson finished with 23 points and 13 rebounds.
Stewart’s 26 points in the first half was the most in the first half of a playoff game, topping the 24 points Angel McCoughtry had in the first half for Atlanta against Minnesota in 2011. McCoughtry finished that game with 38.
Las Vegas will host either Connecticut or Chicago in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals on Sunday.