Seattle Storm celebrate Sue Bird in final regular-season home game; Las Vegas Aces play spoiler

SEATTLE -- The stage was set for a memorable game Sunday as the Seattle Storm celebrated Sue Bird's 19 seasons with the franchise ahead of her final regular-season home game in Seattle.

A franchise-record crowd of 18,100 packed Climate Pledge Arena for the Storm's game against the Las Vegas Aces. Bird was honored with an on-court tribute pregame, a video featuring highlights from Seattle's four championships with Bird and by former teammates and coaches in attendance.

Only one thing didn't go as planned: the Aces' 89-81 victory, which saw them hold off Seattle behind 29 points from forward A'ja Wilson and multiple key buckets in the fourth quarter from guard Chelsea Gray.

"I'm not going to lie, it kinda sucks to lose my last game here," Bird said when she addressed the crowd postgame. "But it's OK, I lost my first game here too."

As Bird's comments indicated, the loss couldn't overcome the emotion on a day two decades in the making.

"Outside of the outcome," she told reporters, "it was a wonderful afternoon for me."

When Bird took the court to work out more than an hour before the game, she could already feel the energy from fans arriving early and see plenty of her jerseys and T-shirts featuring her in the crowd. By the time the Storm ran out for pregame layup lines, passing a tunnel of her friends and family, including fiancée Megan Rapinoe, Bird noted that fans were already in their seats rather than waiting for tipoff.

To Bird, the pregame ceremony followed by an important game -- Seattle could have moved within a game of Las Vegas in the standings with a win -- was reminiscent of Senior Day at the University of Connecticut.

"You have this big ceremony and your parents walk you out and you're all emotional," she recalled. "And then it's like, 'Oh, you've got to play this game.'"

There were still interruptions of nostalgia during game action. Bird noted seeing highlights from her rookie season 20 years ago (including her career-high 33 points against the Portland Fire, which came two decades ago Tuesday) and being reminded of the moment.

For the most part, however, Sunday's game was simply a matchup of two of the WNBA's best teams, both battling for playoff seeding. Tina Charles, who arrived to the game wearing Bird's high school jersey from their shared alma mater (Christ the King in Brooklyn, New York), kept the Storm in the game early. By halftime, both Charles and Breanna Stewart had 14 points and six rebounds apiece, though the Aces still led by one.

Neither team led by double-digits the entire game, but Seattle could never go ahead in the second half as Las Vegas seemed to answer every rally. Stewart, who finished with a season-high 35 points, and Charles (19) were the lone Storm players to score double-figures. Four of the five Aces' starters scored at least 15 points for their team.

Wilson jokingly apologized when asked by a reporter postgame about being "party crashers" for Bird's tribute.

"I wasn't trying to crash Sue's party," Wilson said. "She invited me to the party. I'm just trying to have some fun, trying to lighten it up a little bit.

"This was a big night for Sue. I'm so glad that her and [Sylvia Fowles] are both getting their flowers. The things that Sue has done with this franchise are amazing. I'm honored to be her teammate on the Olympic team, especially getting her fifth [gold medal] alongside her. This is a big night for her. I'm sure it's going to continue to be a big night for her and it's all love for sure."

In Bird's case, she not only received metaphorical flowers in the form of deserved compliments for her career. She was literally handed a flower by a young fan sitting courtside before handing it back "to keep."

The memorable moments helped Bird move past the result.

"Listen, Vegas is a really good team," she said. "I think -- myself included -- we made a lot of mistakes that were in our control. Eight points doesn't, I don't think, really tell the story. They just kind of extended it there at the end. We get to see them again and while I would have loved to have gotten a win ... maybe it's a sign of good things to come. That turned out OK in 2002."

Pokey Chatman, who served as Seattle acting head coach with Noelle Quinn missing the game due to the WNBA's health & safety protocols, acknowledged the loss was painful but vowed to get the team back to Climate Pledge Arena for the playoffs.

"I think when everyone goes home and we're packing and going on our trip tomorrow," Chatman said, "it's going to be like, 'Dammit, I wish we could have gotten that done for her.' [But] Sue doesn't make you feel like that.

"The good thing about it is it's not over yet and we're going to be back here."

To earn a first-round bye in the playoffs, the Storm will have to hold off the Washington Mystics for a top-four seed. Washington's home loss Sunday to the Los Angeles Sparks kept Seattle one game up in the loss column.

If the Mystics win their final two games, both against the league-worst Indiana Fever, that means the Storm will have to finish at least 2-1 on a road trip that starts against the WNBA-leading Chicago Sky and concludes with a rematch next Sunday in Las Vegas.