Natasha Howard shines in starring role for WNBA champion Storm

FAIRFAX, Va. -- Natasha Howard had been a reserve in the WNBA Finals the past three seasons. This year, she played a starring role. Howard had a career-high 29 points, plus 14 rebounds, in the Seattle Storm's 98-82 victory over the Washington Mystics in Game 3 on Wednesday.

It completed a sweep for the Storm, who know they couldn't have done it without the 6-foot-2 post player. Howard was the league's most improved player this season, progress that came mostly because she had more of a chance to play in Seattle. She came off the bench for Indiana in 2015, and for Minnesota in 2016 and '17.

A February trade sent her to a franchise that needed her exact skill set. And her experience with the Fever and the Lynx in previous WNBA Finals showed in how well she played throughout this year for the Storm.

After 13.2 points and 6.4 rebounds per game during the regular season, she averaged 15.8 PPG and 8.3 RPG in Seattle's eight playoff games.

"Natasha Howard, what an incredible story to me," Seattle coach Dan Hughes said. "The way she realized that opportunity, and what she did, and how she blended with this basketball team."

Howard is a native of Toledo, Ohio, and Hughes was once an assistant coach at the University of Toledo when Howard's father played there. When he was coach in San Antonio, Hughes always hoped he might get to mentor Howard, who starred collegiately at Florida State and then was drafted No. 5 by Indiana in 2014.

But it didn't look as if it was ever going to happen when Hughes retired after the 2016 season. The chance to come back in 2018 with a championship-caliber team was something Hughes couldn't pass up. It meant getting to coach a veteran leader like Sue Bird, an MVP-caliber star like Breanna Stewart and -- at last -- a player like Howard, with so much potential waiting to be realized.

"I think Natasha Howard is the biggest difference between their team last year and this year on the court," Mystics coach Mike Thibault said. "Defensively, they had a better identity this year.

"She was the perfect complement to Breanna Stewart. The two of them learned how to play off each other. They're both active and mobile, and Natasha Howard has a will about her to get on the boards, and to move and cut."

Stewart agreed that Howard made things easier for her this season.

"Just the fact that she is so versatile," Stewart said. "She helped to relieve the pressure off me. Last year and the year before, it was, 'You have to guard the other team's best player and try and score 20-plus.' To have her come in, we could relieve one another. If I'm tired, she can guard [Elena] Delle Donne, and if she's tired, I can do it."

"I think Natasha Howard is the biggest difference between [the Storm] last year and this year on the court. ... She was the perfect complement to Breanna Stewart. The two of them learned how to play off each other." Mystics coach Mike Thibault

Howard said she learned a lot as a bench player, but she was ready for a bigger role. She became the third WNBA player to win back-to-back championships with different teams.

"The opportunity that I had with Minnesota," Howard said, "playing behind great players, as well, learning behind some Olympians and bringing it over to Seattle, it helped our team a lot with my experience."