Good morning, I’m Kevin Sweeney. I’m going to miss watching Sue Bird play basketball.
In today’s SI:AM:
🐐 From August: Sue Bird says goodbye
🏈 Forde on the 12-team College Football Playoff
🍎 Inside the mind of Eli Apple, the NFL’s top trash-talker
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With two potential elimination games on the docket last night, we knew it could be an incredible back-to-back in the WNBA. And it didn’t disappoint. Fans got everything they could have asked for and more with a high-scoring opener that led to an all-time battle between the Aces and Storm. Here’s what to know about last night’s action.
This was perhaps the best game of this outstanding postseason. An unforgettable back-and-forth second half with everything on the line played out before an incredible crowd in Seattle. In the end, it was Las Vegas guard Chelsea Gray who delivered the knockout blow.
Facing elimination, the Storm started strong behind the highest-scoring first half in WNBA playoff history from Breanna Stewart, who had 26 points at intermission. Stewart and Jewell Lloyd dominated and pushed Seattle to a two-point lead into halftime.
But the Storm came out of the gates in the second half cold, missing their first 10 shots of the third quarter to allow the Aces to edge ahead. But Seattle refused to go away, using key buckets from Stewart and Lloyd (who combined for 71 total points in the game) to respond time and time again to Becky Hammon’s Aces. That led to one of the most exciting fourth quarters I can remember, with both teams trading buckets and rarely allowing the crowd to get off its feet.
In the end, though, Gray was just too much to handle. The 29-year-old guard was already having a stellar postseason before last night, but the Duke alum made so many tough, momentum-changing shots. That included the game-deciding shot, a deep three with just over a minute to play that gave the Aces a lead they would not relinquish.
It’s a tremendous accomplishment for Hammon in her first year as head coach, getting Vegas one step away from a championship with a talented roster that has failed in previous years to get over the hump. But the biggest story of the night still feels like the end of Bird’s storied career, which has had an indelible impact on not just the WNBA but the trajectory of women’s basketball as a whole. Before leaving the floor one final time, Bird was greeted with hugs from Aces players and massive applause from the Storm faithful. We won’t see another player quite like her anytime soon.
Coming into last night’s elimination game, the Sun hadn’t topped 80 points once in the series. Connecticut absolutely blew through that total, scoring 58 first-half points en route to a 104–80 victory that sets up a winner-take-all Game 5.
What makes the Sun so dangerous is the team’s dominant frontcourt size. Connecticut hit just six threes in the game, but still topped 100 points because of elite play inside. The Sun outrebounded the Sky by 16, 39–23, and shot a highly efficient 57% from the field in the game, never allowing Chicago’s offense to keep up. In all, the Sun scored a playoff-record 66 points in the paint. Coach Curt Miller also had three bench players score in double figures, a huge lift in an elimination game particularly when considering 2021 league MVP Jonquel Jones was held to just nine points.
The series now heads back to Chicago for Game 5, where the two teams split Games 1 and 2. It’s also where the Sky knocked out the Sun last season in the postseason, so there’s plenty of history between these two teams in this venue. Now, the Sun get a chance at revenge and an opportunity to eliminate the defending league champions. Chicago has gotten outstanding play all series long from Candace Parker and will need it tomorrow night if it wants to get back to the WNBA Finals.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
In today’s Daily Cover, Alex Prewitt profiles the trash-talking, mean-tweeting Eli Apple, who has found his way in the NFL after struggling early in his career.
The 27-year-old’s taste for smack talk is why I’m here in the first place. Most famously this reputation is burnished on his 111,700-follower Twitter account, where an increasingly emboldened Apple burned every bridge in sight during the Bengals’ run to Super Bowl LVI last season. Included on the hit list were vanquished playoff foes like the Titans’ Julio Jones (“season on the line that man was hiding”) and the Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill (“He’s a baby ! @cheetah”), along with the entire residential population of one of Apple’s three previous NFL stops: “New Orleans is the dirtiest smelliest city and has the worst food ever 😂 it’s that swine and crawfish thts killin yall brains.”
We are one day away from the start of the NFL season, and the MMQB staff has dropped its first power rankings of the season. … Pat Forde has thoughts on why a 12-team College Football Playoff is good for the game. … Rohan Nadkarni handed out awards for the NBA’s offseason, including declaring the Celtics the winner of the summer. … Nick Selbe wrote about why you once again shouldn’t have counted out the Rays after a recent monthlong surge to solidify their playoff standing. … Jonathan Wilson analyzes Chelsea’s abrupt firing of manager Thomas Tuchel.
PSG flashed moments of brilliance in its Champions League opener (a 2–1 victory over Juventus) but still wasn’t quite as dominant as it could have been. … Coco Gauff’s U.S. Open run ended in straight sets, but fifth-seeded Ons Jabeur punched her ticket to the semifinals in yesterday’s other women’s singles match. … Meanwhile, the men’s draw got even more wide-open with Nick Kyrgios getting bounced by Karen Khachanov in five sets. … And in the sports media world, College GameDay is adding a big name to its lineup: Pat McAfee.
… things I saw yesterday:
5. Coach O talking about his LSU buyout.
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo dominating in EuroBasket.
3. Rice football’s NASA-themed jerseys.
2. Bronny James in Buckeyes colors.
1. Sue Bird’s last standing ovation.
As the most recent Super Bowl champs, the Rams have the honor of opening the NFL season tomorrow. Sean McVay, who took over the franchise as its coach in 2017, has never lost in Week 1. Only one franchise has a longer active win streak in season openers than the Rams. What franchise owns this streak, which dates back to ’15?
Check tomorrow’s newsletter for the answer.
Yesterday’s SIQ: American Frances Tiafoe beat 22-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal in four sets Monday to make his first U.S. Open singles quarterfinal. It was the first time Nadal has lost to an American man at any stage in a major since 2005. Who was that U.S. player?
Answer: James Blake. By 2005, Blake was in the tennis wilderness. After rising up the rankings, Blake faced an unbelievably difficult year in ’04. He slipped on a clay court and broke his neck. A few months later his father died of gastric cancer. Around the same time, Blake developed shingles, resulting in blurred vision and having temporary paralysis in half of his face.
By April 2005, he was ranked as low as 210 in the world, opting to focus on playing on the Challenger circuit, the level just below the ATP Tour. Gaining confidence, Blake began to rise rapidly in the rankings and by the end of the summer, he won the ATP event in New Haven, Conn., pushing him into the top 50 by the U.S. Open. He was given a wild-card berth into the year’s final Grand Slam.
Blake took out 28th-seeded Gregory Rusedski in the first round and Igor Andreev in the second before facing Nadal. The No. 2 seed (as he was this year) hadn’t dropped a set through two matches and had won his first French Open earlier that year. Blake was ready for the 19-year-old and used his powerful forehand to take out Nadal in four sets.
The win set up a dream run for Blake, who beat 19th-seeded Tommy Robredo in the fourth round to face No. 7 Andre Agassi in his first major quarterfinal. The match would prove to be one of the greatest in the history of the tournament, with Agassi ultimately prevailing in a fifth-set tiebreak.
Blake’s career head-to-head against Nadal is impressive. The American took the first three matches between the two players, while Nadal won the four played between 2008 and ’09. All seven matches were played on hard courts, and Blake has the only straight-set wins (both in ’06) between the two players.
Rod Mar/Sports Illustrated
The offseason move in the NFL that may take the most time to get used to is Russell Wilson’s move from Seattle to Denver. Wilson took over the starting job for the Seahawks before the 2012 season and immediately gave life to a franchise that hadn’t finished above .500 in a season since ’07.
The Seahawks won the Super Bowl after the 2013 season, in Wilson’s second year. They found themselves back there again following the ’14 season, aiming to become the first franchise to go back-to-back since the Patriots did after the ’03 and ’04 seasons.
Playing New England, the Seahawks went up 24–14 in the third quarter only to see Tom Brady put up touchdowns on consecutive fourth-quarter drives to give the Patriots a four-point lead with just over two minutes left in the game.
Wilson got the Seahawks all the way down to the 1-yard line with about 30 seconds left. The rest is history: Instead of opting to hand the ball off to Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks threw it … straight to Patriots defensive back Malcolm Butler. Game over.
Greg Bishop’s story about Wilson and the Seahawks on the eve of the 2015 season is about the franchise’s quest to bounce back from that heartbreaking loss. Seattle ended up making the playoffs in ’15 as a wild-card team, but fell short of another Super Bowl appearance. The team hasn’t been back since.
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