SEATTLE (AP) — 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 by beating the Seattle Storm 97-92 in Game 4 of their WNBA playoffs semifinal series Tuesday night.
It brought an end to Bird’s illustrious career. With it came thanks from fans, tears and one last walk off the court in the same spot where Bird’s career began more than two decades ago.
“Kinda weird. Definitely surreal. I think initially … I felt sad about the season and the game. And I then think as the emotions started to come to the surface that was also what I know deep down in that was my last game,” Bird said.
Gray scored 15 of her 31 points in the fourth quarter and 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 fairytale 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.”
“I also wanted to kind of have one last moment to say thank you, to soak it all in because in some ways, it is a happy thing,” Bird said. “I’m proud of of everything we’ve accomplished here.”
The oldest player in the league at age 41, Bird started the year thinking she’d retire, 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 honored 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 the 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 resume. Bird finished her final game with eight points and eight assists.
“As sad as it is that we’re we’re not having the ability to compete for a championship, I think what’s more devastating … is just the fact that we’re no longer going to be on the court with Sue,” Stewart said.
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’ three-point play gave Seattle an 83-82 lead with 2:40 left.
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. Gray finished as the first player in WNBA playoff history with 30 points and 10 assists in a game.
“When Chelsea is rocking and rolling my biggest thing is just getting the hell out of her way,” Wilson said. “At the end of the day, you just got to get out of the way and let people rock.”
Tuesday was also the final game for Seattle’s Briann January after 14 seasons in the league. January played for four teams with most of her career spent in Indiana.
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.