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Inside The W With Michelle Smith: 2019 WNBA Finals Edition

We landed at the spot we thought we might all along. The WNBA Finals will match the top two teams in the regular-season – the Washington Mystics and the Connecticut Sun.

One of them will be a first-time WNBA champion.

Washington has reached the championship series for the second straight season after losing to Seattle a year ago. Connecticut hasn’t been to the Finals since 2005.
Both teams, who last played in the regular season back on June 29, have shown themselves to be worthy postseason competitors, with depth and balance and star performances. The Sun took two of three in the season series, but what happened early in the summer is no longer relevant in the dwindling light of fall. Let’s look at some of the top storylines in this No. 1 vs. No. 2 championship matchup.

Which is a bigger motivator, disrespect or redemption? Each of these teams is playing with its own narrative. The Connecticut Sun feel as if they have been underestimated all season, that a team full of players that don’t necessarily rise to the top of the WNBA marquee were never truly taken seriously. They live for their “role players” label. The team cut a video heading into the playoffs entitled “DisrespeCT”, detailing the ways in which they felt doubted. In reality, the Sun are the underdog in this series. And seemingly quite happy to wear the mantle. Washington, meanwhile, got close enough to taste a title a year ago, and if not for Elena Delle Donne’s knee injury, they might have gotten a lot closer than getting swept by the Storm. A healthy Delle Donne is as motivated as anyone to win the first title of her already legendary WNBA career. But the Mystics are not solely reliant on the league MVP to do it and that bodes well for them.

Can Alyssa Thomas hold up for five more games? Thomas, the Sun’s star power forward, is nursing a chronic injury – torn labrums – in both shoulders. She can barely lift her arms between games. But never doubt her heart, because the 6-foot-2 forward is the Sun’s “engine” – proven by the fact that every time she has the ball in her hands, the sound of an engine plays over the P.A. system. Thomas opened the Sun’s Semifinals series with 22 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and four steals. But it’s clear she’s hurting. In Game 3 against the Sparks, Thomas played just 25 minutes, going 1 of 6 from the floor with two points, five rebounds and six assists. The extra time off that the Sun earned with the sweep, ending the Semifinal series on Sunday, gives her a full week off to rest and recuperate as much as possible. Connecticut will need Thomas to win this title.

Is Emma Meesseman the biggest star in this series that you don’t know? Meesseman missed the 2018 season and the Mystics’ run to the title series while preparing for the FIBA World Cup with the Belgian National Team. She played 23 games this season, missing 11 to play in the EuroCup Tournament. But when she arrived in Washington, she rounded out an already deep Mystics roster and brought unmistakable offensive punch. Meesseman is averaging a team-leading 21.3 points a game in the postseason for the Mystics. She put up a career-high 30 points in Game 2 vs. Las Vegas. And she scored 11 points (including 3 3-pointers) in three minutes of the fourth quarter in a nip-and-tuck Game 4 in Las Vegas on Tuesday night. There is little question that she will be a big factor in this series, an X-factor that the Mystics didn’t have on the floor a year ago. And it might make the difference between disappointment and a celebration.

Does defense win a championship? The Sun held L.A. to 66.3 points a game in their Semifinal sweep, and just 39.6 percent shooting from the floor. Washington, meanwhile, gave up at least 90 points in every game to the Aces in their Semifinal series. Connecticut’s Jasmine Thomas is a stellar on-ball defender. Washington’s Natasha Cloud is regarded as one of the best defenders in the game, an heir to the legacy of Alana Beard. The Sun have the defensive momentum coming into this series and they are going to need it against a team that had 13 wins of 20 points or more during the season. Still, it’s entirely plausible that a defensive stop could be the deciding moment of this series.

Will experience count? Will it matter in this series that most of the Mystics players have played in a championship series? Will Connecticut react in crunch time when most of its players have not? The Sun, ousted from the playoffs the previous two seasons in single-elimination games, come into this Finals series with a different kind of experience, togetherness. Connecticut has started the same five players since the season began. Curt Miller built a team for stability and consistency and kept them intact. Washington, meanwhile has seen Meesseman come and go from the lineup with her international commitments, Toliver missed 11 games at the end of the season with a bone bruise, making her first start since August 8 on Tuesday night. But the Mystics are at full strength and full health now, they have home-court advantage, and they have recent experience of making a run at a championship on their resume. In the final minutes of a close game, let’s see if it matters.

 

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on WNBA.com throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.