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WNBA Finals 2018 Preview: (1) Seattle Storm vs. (3) Washington Mystics

For the first time since the new WNBA postseason format was introduced in 2016, the WNBA Finals will feature a traditional East vs. West matchup when the Washington Mystics and Seattle Storm clash in the best-of-five series, which tips off Friday in Seattle (9 PM ET, ESPNews).

Seattle, the No. 1 overall seed, is back in the Finals for the third time in franchise history and the first time since 2010. The Storm won the championship in each of their first two Finals appearances in 2004 and 2010 and will look to become the sixth franchise in league history to win at least three WNBA championships.

Seattle would join Minnesota (4), Houston (4), Los Angeles (3), Phoenix (3) and Detroit (3) in the three-time champions club. Sacramento (2005) and Indiana (2012) are the only other franchises to hoist the championship trophy. Washington will look to join that short list.

Washington, the No. 3 seed, is making its first Finals appearance in the franchise’s 21-year history, becoming the final active franchise to advance to its first championship series. The Mystics advanced to the Semifinals last season, but were ousted by the eventual champion Lynx. This year, they were able to advance and move one step closer to their first title.

SCHEDULE: WNBA FINALS 2018 PRESENTED BY YOUTUBE TV
Game 1 — Washington at Seattle: Friday September 7, 9 PM ET, ESPNews
Game 2 — Washington at Seattle: Sunday, September 9, 3:30 PM ET, ABC
Game 3 — Seattle at Washington: Wednesday, September 12, 8 PM ET, ESPN2
Game 4* — Seattle at Washington: Friday, September 14, 8 PM ET, ESPN2
Game 5* — Washington at Seattle: Sunday, September 16, 8 PM ET, ESPN2
* – If necessary

HOW THEY GOT HERE

Both teams punched their tickets to the Finals on Tuesday by coming out on top of winner-take-all Game 5s. Washington was the first team to advance as the Mystics defeated the Dream, 86-81, in Atlanta behind 20 points from rookie Ariel Atkins, 19 points from Kristi Toliver, a career-high-tying 17 points off the bench from Tianna Hawkins and a gutsy 14-point, 11-rebound double-double from Elena Delle Donne, who played through the pain of a bone bruise in her knee for the second straight game after having missed the second half of Game 2 and all of Game 3 of the series (the only two games Washington lost).

The Mystics and Dream traded blows the entire game as the contest featured 14 lead changes and nine ties. The final lead change came with 5:15 to go in the game after a Toliver jumper put the Mystics up 73-71. They would not trail again as the Mystics held off a Dream charge in the final minute as they secured the win at the free-throw line with Delle Donne sinking four straight in the final 12 seconds.

On the other side of the country, Seattle did what no team had ever done before – beat Diana Taurasi in a winner-take-all game. The WNBA’s all-time leading scorer entered the night with a perfect 13-0 in such games, but left KeyArena at 13-1 after her longtime friend Sue Bird did her best Taurasi impersonation late in the fourth quarter. With Seattle down by four when she re-entered the game with 6:41 remaining in the fourth quarter, Bird took the game over. The veteran point guard, playing with a mask to protect the broken nose she suffered in Game 4, scored 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting, including four 3-pointers. Her final trey was the dagger as she put the Storm up by 10 points with under 46 seconds remaining.

Bird is the only holdover from Seattle’s championship teams in 2004 (her third season) and 2010 (her ninth season). Now in her 16th season, she is back in the Finals with a chance to add to her already impeccable list of accomplishments.

SEASON SERIES

Seattle won the season series with Washington during the regular season (2-1) as the home team won all three games. The Storm prevailed in a pair of close contests at KeyArena – wins by four and six points, respectively – while the Mystics routed the Storm by 23 points in their only game in the nation’s capital. It was Seattle’s most lopsided loss of the season as they finished with a league-best 26-8 record to earn the top seed in the playoffs.

May 29 at Seattle
Storm 81, Mystics 77

Jewell Loyd (27) and Breanna Stewart (25) combined for 52 points as the Storm beat the short-handed Mystics 81-77 early in the 2018 WNBA season. Washington was without Elena Delle Donne as they suffered their first loss of the season.

July 8 at Seattle
Storm 97, Mystics 91

Sue Bird scored a regular-season-high 21 points (her 22 points on Tuesday surpassed it) as she became Seattle’s all-time leading scorer in the Storm’s 97-91 win over the Mystics. Washington led by eight points with seven minutes to play in the third quarter before Seattle closed the period on a 27-10 run to take control of the game. Stewart led the Storm with 25 points and 10 rebounds, while Delle Donne scored 29 in her first game against Seattle of the season.

August 9 at Washington
Mystics 100, Storm 77

While the first two games of the season series had a combined 17 lead changes and 12 ties, the final game of the series had none of either as the Mystics led wire-to-wire in a 100-77 rout of the Storm. It was Washington’s fifth win of its season-high eight-game win streak as the Mystics closed the season with eight wins in their final nine games. Delle Donne scored 30 points on just 16 shots, while LaToya Sanders posted a double-double (17 points, 12 rebounds) on a perfect shooting night (6-6 FG, 5-5 FT) for Washington.

INJURIES

As mentioned above, both Sue Bird and Elena Delle Donne suffered key injuries during the Semifinal round, which could effect their play during the Finals.

Delle Donne went down with what appeared to be a devastating left knee injury late in the fourth quarter of Washington’s Game 2 loss to Atlanta. While many feared the worst (ligament damage and a season-ending prognosis), it was diagnosed as a bone bruise, that while extremely painful, can be played on as long as swelling is kept under control. Delle Donne went on around-the-clock treatment to get back on the court. She missed Game 3, but returned for Games 4 and 5 of the series. While Delle Donne’s explosiveness has been limited and her production down from her incredible pre-injury numbers, just having her on the court is an immense presence for the Mystics. It’s not just her scoring and rebounding – she has posted a double-double in every game this playoffs – but the fact that defenses must respect her, which opens up the floor for her teammates.

If seeing Sue Bird in a protective mask brought feelings of deja vu on Tuesday, there’s good reason for that. Bird suffered her fifth broken nose during Seattle’s Game 4 loss to Phoenix when an inadvertent elbow from teammate Breanna Stewart caught Bird in the face and sent her crashing to the court. Playing in the mask did not mute Bird’s aggressiveness or production as she scored a season-high 22 points in the series-clinching Game 5. Bird improved to 20-15 overall and 6-5 in the playoffs while wearing a protective mask in her WNBA career.

STATS SPOTLIGHT

3-Point Shooting

The Storm and Mystics rely heavily on the 3-point shot in their offenses; Seattle led the league with 31.1 percent of their points coming from beyond the arc, with Washington right behind them at 29.8%.

Both teams carried over their frequency and accuracy on the 3-point shot from the regular season to the postseason.

Regular Season Playoffs
Team 3PM/gm 3P% 3PM/gm 3P%
SEA 9.0 (1) 37.6% (1) 8.8 (2) 37.0% (2)
WAS 8.4 (3) 35.8% (5) 8.5 (3) 35.7% (3)

 

On the defensive end, both teams defended the 3-point shot well as the Storm and Mystics each allowed opponents to shoot 33.8% from beyond the arc – tied for the third-best mark in the league during the regular season. In the postseason, the two finalists have had the stingiest 3-point defense with Seattle holding Phoenix to 28.0% shooting in their five-game series and the Mystics allowing its two opponents to shoot just 31.8% from three.

Pace / Fast Break Points

The Storm will constantly look to push the pace. During the regular season, they ranked second in offensive pace at 82.8 possessions per 40 minutes. The Mystics offense played at a much-slower rate of 78.1 (9th in the WNBA).

A byproduct of Seattle’s desire to run was a league-high 11.6 fast break points per game during the regular season. That is nearly four more points per game on fast breaks than the Mystics (7.94), who ranked seventh in the league.

Bench Scoring

The Storm rely heavily on their starting unit, as they rank third-to-last in bench scoring during the regular season (19.62 points per game) and had 18 bench points in their series-clinching win over Phoenix (11 from sharpshooter Sami Whitcomb and seven from rookie Jordin Canada). The Mystics ranked fourth in the regular season in bench scoring (23.6 points per game) and got big contributions from Tianna Hawkins (17 points in 10 minutes) and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt (five points, two assists in 12 minutes) during their Game 5 win in Atlanta.

KEY MATCHUPS

SEATTLE, WA – JULY 8: Elena Delle Donne #11 of the Washington Mystics boxes out Breanna Stewart #30 of the Seattle Storm during the game on July 8, 2018 at Key Arena in Seattle, Washington. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Joshua Huston/NBAE via Getty Images)

Breanna Stewart vs. Elena Delle Donne

In the two games she played against the Storm during the season, Delle Donne averaged 29.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists while shooting a combined 22-of-38 (57.9%) from the field and 6-of-13 (46.2%) from beyond the arc. While her knee injury could arguably prevent her from posting those gaudy numbers in the Finals, the 2015 WNBA MVP will have to make her presence felt for the Mystics to have a shot at their first title.

Meanwhile, the 2018 WNBA MVP scored 25 points in each of Seattle’s wins over Washington this season but was held to 10 points – her second-lowest total of the season – in the Storm’s only loss to the Mystics. This is a matchup of two of the most uniquely talented forwards in the WNBA today as both players have the height and length to play inside and the shooting and off-the-dribble skills to excel from the perimeter. Delle Donne’s injury may prevent much one-on-one time between these two unicorns as each will be vital to their team’s success.

Jewell Loyd vs. Kristi Toliver

When it comes to perimeter scoring, Loyd and Toliver are the primary weapons for their respective teams. However, both have had ups and downs with their jumpers during the postseason. Toliver started slowly as she shot a combined 14-of-46 (30.4%) from the field and 5-of-24 (20.8%) from beyond the arc during the first four games of the playoffs, before coming alive for 16-of—35 (45.7%) overall and 7-of-19 (36.8%) from three in the final two must-win games of the semifinals.

Loyd had 23 points on 9-of-16 (56.3%) shooting, including 2-of-5 (40.0%) from three, during Game 1 of the Semifinals against Phoenix. However, after knocking down nine shots and two treys in Game 1, she combined for those same totals over the final four games of the series as she shot 9-of-36 (25.0%) from the field and 2-of-12 (16.7%) the rest of the way. Loyd will have to find her shot in order to give the Storm another primary scoring threat in this series.

Sue Bird vs. Natasha Cloud

While Bird was heroic in Seattle’s Game 5 win, Cloud remained steady for Washington as she finished with seven points, seven rebounds, five assists and two steals in the decisive win over Atlanta. Cloud has dished out at least five assists in five of Washington’s six postseason games and has shot the ball well from beyond the arc (10-of-20) as she has taken advantage of open looks. The playoff experience difference between these players is glaring as Bird has 43 games under her belt (including six in the Finals) compared to 13 playoff games for Cloud (making her Finals debut).

Natasha Howard vs. LaToya Sanders

Both Howard and Sanders assumed major roles for their teams this season. Howard was acquired via trade in February after playing in a reserve role in Minnesota for the past two seasons. Playing as a starter in Seattle, her minutes more than doubled and her production went through the roof as she set career-highs across the board to earn Most Improved Player honors this season.

Sanders assumed the starting center role once it was announced that Emma Meesseman would miss the season in order to train with the Belgian National Team for the FIBA World Cup. Sanders had played just four WNBA games in the previous two seasons as she had national team commitments in 2016 and missed all of 2017 due to foot surgery. Similar to Howard, she set career-highs in nearly every statistical category this season and has maintained her production in the Playoffs.

Alysha Clark vs. Ariel Atkins

After Sue Bird, Clark is Seattle’s longest tenured player, having been with the squad since her rookie season in 2012. She has been a full-time starter over the past three seasons as the Storm climbed from the lottery to the Playoffs to the Finals. In addition to being a solid on-ball perimeter defender, Clark is one of Seattle’s many 3-point threats. Her 39.2% accuracy from beyond the arc ranked 13th in the WNBA this season and fourth among Storm players.

While Clark is wrapping up her seventh WNBA season, Washington rookie Ariel Atkins is already playing like a seven-year veteran. In the Mystics’ Game 5 win over Atlanta, Atkins finished with a game-high 20 points to go with seven rebounds and three assists in 30 minutes. Her hustle plays on both ends of the floor were infectious and helped the Mystics fend off the Dream for a berth in the Finals. After being the team’s third-leading scorer during the regular season (11.3 points per game) she has climbed to second in the playoffs (15.0 per game). Among the 17 players with at least 15 3-point attempts this postseason, Atkins’ 45.8 percent shooting is second only to her teammate Natasha Cloud.