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WNBA semifinals: For keys to Storm-Aces, look beyond A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart

A’ja Wilson, Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird look on during a game between Las Vegas and Seattle. (Lindsey Wasson/NBAE via Getty Images)

When the No. 1 seed Las Vegas Aces and the No. 4 seed Seattle Storm square off Sunday for the opening game of their best-of-five semifinal series, all eyes will be on A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart.

And for good reason: The two former No. 1 draft picks (Stewart in 2016 and Wilson in 2018) are the leading candidates in the MVP race, with very similar stat lines. Wilson is averaging 19.1 points and 8.4 rebounds per game, while Stewart is averaging 20.3 points and 8.6 rebounds per game.

“Everyone always talks about the matchup between Stewie and I,” Wilson said. “We love it. We get better every single possession we guard each other, so we are going to give the people what they want, which is a good series, and we are going to have some fun while doing it.”

The teams played four times during the regular-season, with Vegas securing three of four victories. And while Stewart and Wilson may be the most eye-catching matchup, it’s far from the only storyline.

“I feel like this matchup with the Storm is going to be good no matter what,” Wilson said. “You have phenomenal players on both sides in this series.”

Here are four keys to the series:

Jewell Loyd

The former Notre Dame guard is one of seven No. 1 draft picks in this semifinal series, and she’s arguably the most important for the Storm.

Loyd has been absolutely dominant against the Aces this season in all but one contest. In three of their meetings, the guard put up 38, 24 and 19 points, at least keeping them within striking distance and once leading them to a victory.

But she isn’t unstoppable, and in the fourth matchup, the Aces managed to hold her to just 1 point in an 89-81 Las Vegas win on Aug. 7.

Loyd already has been crucial to the Storm this postseason, scoring 19 points in Seattle’s first win over the Mystics and 16 in the second. The Game 2 performance was especially important, as Loyd scored 12 of her points in the final five minutes of play to propel her team into the semifinals.

Loyd’s ability to step up in key moments could be the difference for the Storm against the top-seeded Aces this time around.

Chelsea Gray

Gray has been consistent for the Aces all season, but in the second half she’s taken her game to another level. She was key in Las Vegas’ win over Phoenix in the opening round, posting 17 points, four rebounds and four assists in Game 1, and 27 points, eight assists and three rebounds in Game 2.

The Storm saw her heightened play firsthand when she poured in 33 points, nine assists and seven rebounds to lead the Aces past Seattle in Sue Bird’s final regular-season home game.

As Loyd is for Seattle, Gray is the X-factor for Las Vegas. The Aces will need big games from her, while the Storm will seek to slow down the skilled point guard.

Balance

One of the reasons the Aces have been so tough to beat this season is their balance. They have four players who consistently put up big numbers: Kelsey Plum (20.2 points per game), Wilson (19.5), Jackie Young (15.9) and Gray (13.7). That trend showed itself in their four games against Seattle, as the Aces had four double-digit scorers in two games and five in the other two.

One knock on Las Vegas this season has been its lack of bench production, but the team has managed to make it work thanks to consistency in its starting five.

However, with Dearica Hamby (9.3 ppg and 7.1 rpg) out with a knee injury, the Aces are missing a crucial piece. They got past the Mercury without her, but Kiah Stokes will have to perform well in her absence in order to fend off the Storm.

On the other side, Seattle needs to find a way to shut down one of Las Vegas’ big four. If those players are all scoring at a high clip, the Aces become nearly impossible to stop.

Free throws and 2-pointers

The Aces spent a lot of time at the line during the regular-season matchups, with 72 attempts to Seattle’s 52. The Aces have capable scorers at every position, and stopping them is hard enough without giving them extra attempts. Seattle will need to defend without fouling to gain an edge.

These teams are also two of the best in the league at 3-point shooting. The Aces are second in the WNBA with 343 makes on the year, while Seattle slides in at third with 333.

The Storm have made more long-range shots in all four matchups this season, but that means Las Vegas has dominated from inside the arc. The Aces will look to continue that trend while also defending better at the 3-point line, while Seattle needs to find a way to lock up Las Vegas in the paint and the mid-range.

Prediction: Las Vegas in 5

When Wilson says this will be a good series, take her word for it. I’d be surprised if it goes any less than five games, but in the end, the Aces will win out.

The best-of-five WNBA semifinal series between the Storm and the Aces tips off at 4 p.m. ET Sunday.

The Late Sub Podcast: Can the USWNT Medal?

The USWNT takes a silly face photo during their team Olympic photo shoot
The USWNT will begin their 2024 Olympic medal hunt on Thursday. (Brad Smith/ISI/Getty Images).

This week, JWS podcast host Claire Watkins discusses WNBA All-Star Weekend, which felt both like a celebration of the league's explosive growth over the past year and a way to set Team USA up for a particularly competitive Summer Olympics.

Later, Watkins previews the field for the upcoming Olympic soccer tournament, nominating her personal "Group of Death" and discussing whether or not the new-era USWNT could still reach medal contention despite their current rebuild under new head coach Emma Hayes.

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Team USA, Germany Play Pre-Olympic Exhibition Game in London

Team USA's 5x5 Basketball Team stands for the National Anthem before Saturday's WNBA All-Star Game
Team USA looks to rebound from Saturday's WNBA All-Star Game loss in an exhibition against Germany today. (Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images)

USA Basketball's 5x5 team will tip off in an exhibition against Germany in London this afternoon, getting in one last tune-up before the Summer Olympics begin.

The US is hunting an eighth-straight gold medal this year, with group stage play starting on July 29th.

Team USA's Kahleah Copper, Alyssa Thomas, Kelsey Plum, and Sabrina Ionescu gear up to face Germany in pre-Olympic exhibition.
Team USA's Kahleah Copper, Alyssa Thomas, Kelsey Plum, and Sabrina Ionescu gear up to take on Germany in London. (Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)

US to use All-Star loss as fuel

Coming off the weekend's All-Star Game loss, the Olympians are ready to repeat history: They earned their Tokyo gold medal immediately after losing the first Team USA vs. Team WNBA All-Star Game back in 2021.

Breanna Stewart, who led Team USA with a 31-point, 10-rebound double-double on Saturday, said that the defeat "is going to help us tremendously. We don’t get that many game opportunities, [and now] we can go back and watch the film and focus on how we can continue to be better."

Today’s tilt against Germany will see the US work to lock in their defense, particularly in the paint. They'll also lean into their positional versatility before heading to Paris.

WNBA pro Satou Sabally leads Team Germany in today's pre-Olympic exhibition game against Team USA.
WNBA pro Satou Sabally helped Germany to their first-ever Olympic berth. (Axel Heimken/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Olympic debutants Germany enter first US clash

The exhibition marks the first-ever US-Germany linkup. The German team will make their Olympic debut in Paris after decades of failing to qualify for major international competitions. Their sixth-place 2023 EuroBasket finish sent them into February’s FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament, where they punched their ticket to the 2024 Games.

Leading Germany's run was two-time WNBA All-Star Satou Sabally, who put up career-high averages in points, rebounds, assists, and steals with Dallas last season. Her 20-point, 11-rebound double-double was the difference-maker in Germany's must-win 73-71 Olympic qualifying victory over Brazil.

Other German players to watch include 2022 NY Liberty draft-pick — and Sabally's sister — Nyara Sabally, along with Liberty sharpshooter Leonie Fiebich.

Where to watch the Team USA vs. Germany game

Today’s exhibition tips off at 3 PM ET with live coverage on FS1.

1v1 With Kelley O’Hara: USWNT Star Jaedyn Shaw Is Expecting “Dubs All Around”

retired uswnt star kelley o'hara interviewing san diego wave and uswnt forward jaedyn shaw
'1v1' is back with Jaedyn Shaw joining Kelley O'Hara for a conversation about the upcoming Paris Olympics. (Just Women's Sports)

In the latest episode of Just Women's Sports' 1v1 With Kelley O'Hara, San Diego Wave and USWNT star Jaedyn Shaw joins two-time World Cup champion and Olympic gold medalist Kelley O'Hara for a one-on-one conversation about the upcoming Paris Olympics.

We hear from the 19-year-old Wave FC phenom about her first impressions of new USWNT coach Emma Hayes, her experience with international competition at this point in her young career, and how she's preparing to take on the 2024 Summer Games.

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The 91st: Complete USWNT & Olympic Soccer Preview Featuring Jess McDonald

Logo for JWS USWNT Olympic show The 91st
The latest season of JWS' awarding-winning Olympics show 'The 91st' premieres today. (Just Women's Sports)

We're back! Hosts Jordan Angeli, Duda Pavao, and retired USWNT forward Jess McDonald deliver a full preview of this year's Olympic soccer tournament in Paris.

Watch for full analysis of USWNT manager Emma Hayes's coaching style, this team's shifting identity in this new USWNT era, and a projected starting XI for the team's group stage opener against Zambia. The 91st hosts also break down all three Olympic groups — including top players and teams to track throughout the tournament — plus give their predictions for the medal rounds and individual awards.

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