@SEATTLESTORM

Seattle is supposed to win it all this season.

From the first week of the season through the tip-off of its finale, the Seattle Storm were on top of the WNBA standings. But with a top-two seed clinched and a double-bye to the semifinals guaranteed, the Storm rested Breanna Stewart, saw Sue Bird miss her 11th game, and allowed the Las Vegas Aces to wrestle away the top seed in the playoffs.

Something tells us the Storm aren’t too concerned. Throughout the season, they have led the league in both offensive and defensive rating, giving them the best net rating at 15.0. And in their two previous games against the Minnesota Lynx, Seattle won 90-66 in the second game of the year and 103-88 on Sept. 6.

If there is one key for Seattle, it is finding rhythm from deep. In wins, Seattle shot 42.4% from beyond the arc. In losses, that rate dropped to 28%. That falloff of 14.2% is the highest difference in 3-point percentage between wins and losses among playoff teams and second in the entire league to New York, which lost all but two games.

Seattle is an excellent 3-point shooting team. In the regular season, the team shot 39.8%, second only to Los Angeles. While the Sparks proved in their 2-of-18 showing against Connecticut that anyone can get cold, in a five-game series it is unlikely that Seattle will struggle for a prolonged stretch of play.

Five players for the Storm take at least three 3-pointers per game. All five shoot better than the league-wide average 35.5%, and both Bird and Alysha Clark average well above league average. Bird is shooting 46.9% for the season, the best mark in her Hall of Fame career, but Clark tops even that with a 52.2% number that is the best in the league for any player taking at least 2 3-pointers per contest.

Jewell Loyd, Sami Whitcomb, and Stewart can also knock down 3’s with the best of them. There’s a reason the Storm are still the favorites to take home the title.

If Sue Bird is healthy enough to play, which is the expectation, she will be a major boost. Despite being limited to 11 games, Seattle went 10-1 in those contests. And while Seattle may not need Breanna Stewart to play at an MVP-level in the series to win, expect her to play with a chip on her shoulder after losing to A’ja Wilson it what was a tight, season-long race.

If Stewart raises her level of play, Minnesota could be in for a rough series. Of the five teams with the most points per game scored by rookies, four did not make the playoffs. Only Minnesota, led by Rookie of the Year Crystal Dangerfield’s 16.1 points per game, made it to the dance.

While Dangerfield struggled through the first half of her debut WNBA playoff game, Minnesota will continue to rely on their vaunted rookie. Despite leading the team in scoring in the regular season, Dangerfield struggled to open games throughout the campaign. In the first quarter, Dangerfield scored just 2.7 points on average, but that number steadily increased throughout each game, and in the fourth quarter she was up to 6.3, second in the entire league.

Nerves for her first playoff game may have been a part of the slow start, but Dangerfield has waited to get going all season long. The Lynx won’t panic if Dangerfield fails to get things going early against the Storm. Luckily, they have talent across the board.

Napheesa Collier has had an excellent season with 16.1 points and 9.0 rebounds per outing. After winning Rookie of the Year last season, Collier finished 5th in MVP voting this season. As she told Just Women’s Sports, winning MVP is her next big goal, but “First and foremost, I want our team to win.”

If the Lynx can pull off the upset of the Storm, the return of Sylvia Fowles could prove to be the decisive factor. After missing all five weeks with a calf injury, the 2017 league MVP and WNBA career rebound leader is back in action. The team’s 9.9 offensive rebounds per game, which was second in the league, affords valuable extra possessions, and with Fowles back in the paint, expect that number to only go up.

With Coach of the Year Cheryl Reeve pulling the strings, don’t expect the Lynx’s relative youth to trip them up against the Storm. This team plays beyond their years. But in order to topple an extremely talent Seattle side, the Lynx will need to be nearly perfect.

Prediction: Seattle in 4