Seattle needed a buzzer-beating putback from Alysha Clark to win Game 1 of their semifinals series against the Minnesota Lynx. From their, the Storm rolled, sweeping the only active franchise with four WNBA championships and giving themselves a chance to now become the second.
Las Vegas took considerably longer to wrest control of the series with the Connecticut Sun, with the outcome largely uncertain until A’ja Wilson scored 11 points on 9-of-10 from the line in the fourth quarter of a decisive Game 5. Connecticut, the No. 7 seed in the playoffs, was on the precipice of an enormous upset, leading 45-39 at half time. But the Sun scored just 18 points after the intermission and none within the last 2:39.
Now, the top two vote-getters in the MVP race, Wilson and Breanna Stewart, and the two best teams in the WNBA will be facing off with a championship on the line.
The matchup also pits the best offensive team in the regular season, Las Vegas, against the best defensive team, Seattle.
In the playoffs, though, Seattle has been the top scoring team, averaging 89.7 points per game. Sue Bird, Jewell Loyd, and Stewart have all increased their per game scoring averages.
Bird in particular has come back from injury rejuvenated, scoring 11.3 points per game, and she now has the chance for a legacy burnishing fourth WNBA title. The point guard is also averaging a team-high 7.3 assists in the playoffs.
Seattle was such a strong preseason favorite because the team was essentially running back their 2018 squad, which swept the finals as Breanna Stewart was named MVP. Even with Sami Whitcomb leaving the bubble, they have eight players back from that trophy-winning team.
After being held out of the final few games of the regular season, and with a week off while the single elimination portion of the tournament played out, Breanna Stewart is looking outright dominant. Through the three playoff games, she has put together a line of 23 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 5.7 assists per game.
The sweep of the Lynx was picture perfect for the Storm. The team hauled in more defensive rebounds per game than any other team in the playoff (29 per game), dished out more assists than any other team in the playoffs, and turned the ball over less than any other team in the playoffs (12 per game).
On the season, Seattle shot 47.0% from the field, and they have sustained that mark in the postseason. For Las Vegas, that number is worrying, because in the six games their opponent shot at least 45.9% from the field, the Aces lost four.
Of course, none of those losses came against Seattle. The two teams met twice, and the No. 1 seed Aces swept both.
On August 26, Wilson scored 23 and Danielle Robinson added 23 off the bench to overcome a 29-point effort from Stewart. Loyd shot 1-of-11 from the field and Seattle lost by eight.
On September 13, with the top seed on the line, both Wilson and Dearica Hamby scored 23. While Loyd’s 30 points were a massive improvement over her first outing, they were not enough, and Seattle lost by two.
How much do those games matter now? Well, Bird sat for both, Stewart missed the second, and Hamby is now out with a knee injury. Seattle is playing its best basketball and Las Vegas slogged through five games to bypass the No. 7 seed (albeit a very hot No. 7 seed). Though the Aces advanced, Connecticut actually outscored their opponent in the series.
To win, Las Vegas needs multiple MVP-caliber performances from Wilson. The top offensive team in the regular season has been held to just 72.6 points per game in the playoffs, the second lowest output of any playoff team — behind only Los Angeles’ 59 from their one-and-done performance.
While the Sun’s defense contributed to that 16 point differential between regular- and postseason scoring, Seattle’s defense has been even better.
Las Vegas scored 51.8% of its regular season points inside the paint, more than any other team. Seattle allowed just 15 made field goals in the paint per game, fewest in the league. In the matchup of the two best teams in the league, this is another strength-on-strength matchup to watch.
Last round, Las Vegas was even worse from behind the arc than in the regular season, when they averaged just 4.2 3-pointers per game. They also made 2.8 fewer free throws per game. Simply put, if Seattle can keep Las Vegas off the line and out of the paint, the Aces will not be able to win.
The difference maker is Angel McCoughtry. Still the all-time leader for points in a finals game, her 38 in 2011 was spectacular— though it came in a losing effort. In fact, McCoughtry has never won a WNBA finals game in nine tries, getting swept as a member of the Atlanta Dream in 2010, 2011, and 2013. Her experience will be crucial however, as she’s just one of two Aces players with Finals experience, the other being Sugar Rodgers, who was a rookie on the Lynx team that beat the Dream in 2013.
While Las Vegas is an excellent team, there’s simply too many factors that are trending towards the Storm.
Prediction: Storm in 4