The top-seeded Las Vegas Aces and the No 2 seed Seattle Storm are the last two teams standing in the WNBA’s bubble in Bradenton, Florida. With the best-of-five championship series tipping off on Friday night, here’s a look at what to expect in a showdown between two sides with little to separate them.
What the Storm need to do to win
Continue to shoot the ball well from outside. During the playoffs, Seattle are averaging 10 made three-pointers per game, while the Aces are only averaging two. Knocking down threes will keep Las Vegas on their heels and encourage them to force bad shots. LG
Clog the paint. Seattle and Las Vegas ranked first and second respectively in offensive efficiency during the regular season, but the Aces scored a league-high 48.2% of their points in the lane while the Storm filled it up with a far greater frequency from beyond the arc. You can’t fully contain A’ja Wilson, but Seattle can make things complicated for the Aces’ centerpiece with an all-hands-on-deck approach involving Breanna Stewart, Alysha Clark, Natasha Howard, Ezi Magbegor and Mercedes Russell, daring Vegas to hurt them from the perimeter. BAG
What the Aces need to do to win
Don’t worry about style points. The Aces have to ugly these games up if they have any shot, and the best way is to make it physical early and get the Storm’s top players into foul trouble. Las Vegas averaged 23.4 free-throw attempts during the regular season, compared to 18.9 for Seattle. LG
Lock down the perimeter. Vegas beat Seattle in both their meetings this year but the Storm were without Sue Bird, the ageless point guard in her 17th WNBA season, for each of them. With Bird fit and pulling the strings from the backcourt, they’re averaging even more three-point attempts in the playoffs (27.7 per game) than in the regular season (21.4). The Aces have been one of the better teams in the league at defending the three, but they’ll need to be vigilant at the arc to keep Seattle from scoring in bunches. BAG
Unheralded player to watch
Jackie Young, Las Vegas. The Aces are without their Sixth Woman of the Year, Dearica Hamby, which means Young needs to step it up. So far in the playoffs, she’s averaging 7.0 points and shooting 30.6% per game. In the regular season, those figures were 11.0 points per game and 49%. The Storm are deep, so Young’s performance will be key for the Aces. LG
Carolyn Swords, Las Vegas. The Aces’ title hopes took a hit with the loss of Dearica Hamby to a season-ending knee injury in Game 3 of the semi-finals. The two-time Sixth Woman of the Year may have come off the bench for Las Vegas but averaged more minutes than every starter except Wilson and was one of the team’s best defenders. The bulk of her playing time will shift to Swords, a former second-round pick who briefly retired in February to join the Aces’ front office but had second thoughts after Park Ji-su opted to sit out the season.
One bold prediction
Angel McCoughtry will finally win a WNBA finals game. The two-time WNBA scoring champion went to the finals three times with the Atlanta Dream, and each time, the Dream were swept. That will not be the case this time. The veteran will put the Aces on her back in a couple of games and will be a huge reason why Las Vegas push this series the five-game distance. LG
Jewell Loyd will play well enough to win MVP. If the Storm do win the title, Stewart is the narrative favorite for WNBA finals MVP given her journey back from last year’s gruesome achilles injury. But Loyd, the former No 1 overall pick from Notre Dame who can play either guard position, has lifted her scoring output to 17.3 points per game in the playoffs (from 15.5 in the regular season) and will have ample opportunity to shine as the Aces struggle to cover all their bases.
Your finals MVP will be …
Breanna Stewart, Seattle. Stewart and A’ja Wilson were neck-and-neck all season long in the Most Valuable Player race, and I think that while Wilson rightfully earned the MVP for the regular season, Stewie will walk away with the ultimate prizes. Especially without the injured Dearica Hamby’s pressure on defense, Stewart will have space to show that she is better than ever. LG
Breanna Stewart, Seattle. The 26-year-old from upstate New York is already one of the most decorated players in history: an Olympic gold medalist who won four NCAA titles at UConn (and a record four Final Four most outstanding player awards). The 2018 WNBA MVP and 2020 runner-up, who missed the entire 2019 campaign due to injury, didn’t miss a step in her comeback season and enters the finals on a head of steam after pouring in a franchise playoff record 31 points in Sunday’s semi-final clincher over the Minnesota Lynx. BAG
What will you remember most about the WNBA’s bubble season?
Without a doubt, the night the Washington Mystics led the two-day WNBA sit-out in the wake of police shooting Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Mystics arrived at the arena in T-shirts that spelled out “Jacob Blake” with seven bullet holes drawn in the back, and decided at that moment, basketball didn’t matter. The rest of the WNBA quickly followed suit. LG
Newbies might point to the players’ powerful calls for racial and social justice, including the decision to dedicate the season to Breonna Taylor, the Jacob Blake walkout and the regular name-checking of victims of police violence during in-game interviews all season. But real ones know the WNBA was out in front on activism years before it became vogue, touching on issues from sexual assault prevention to LGBTQ+ youth education support to Planned Parenthood. I’ll remember it as the year the 24-year-old league took a leap forward in exposure with 87 of 132 regular-season games on national TV, average viewership up 68% and the #OrangeHoodie going viral. BAG
The winner will be …
Storm in five. I really, really like this Aces team, and think in some ways, they match up better against the Storm than they did against the Connecticut Sun. But ultimately, the Storm just have too many weapons able to step up under pressure, and almost all of them have finals experience (with no fewer than eight holdovers from their 2018 title team). If Stewie’s outside shot is off? Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird will cover that. If they need to push the pace and get to the basket? Jordin Canada is right there. Plus, Alysha Clark is going to make life miserable for Angel McCoughtry. LG
Storm in four. It’s been five years since a WNBA team won the title without that year’s MVP on its roster, which suggests Wilson’s Aces have the edge. But the Storm have found their best form in the playoffs and are the better rested side entering the finals – no small matter for their 39-year-old floor general. This one was a dead heat statistically and felt too close to call until Hamby’s injury, which I fear will cost Vegas dearly. Seattle appeared to be a dynasty-in-waiting after winning it all in 2018. Injuries to Stewart and Bird may have put those plans on ice for a year, but look for them to pick back up where they left off and close out the wubble in style. BAG