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Inside The W with Michelle Smith: Finals Preview

The epic conclusion of a most unique WNBA season is approaching with the league’s top two teams — the Las Vegas Aces and Seattle Storm — having weathered injuries, unprecedented challenges, a singular focus on social justice, and a fast-paced schedule to get right here.

To the WNBA Finals presented by YouTube TV.

The best-of-five series — marking the fourth time in five years that the league’s No. 1 and No. 2 seeds played for a title — will be one unlike any other in league history. And it begins on Friday night (7PM ET, ESPN2) with a star-studded matchup. Las Vegas won both regular-season games between these two teams, yet a mere 10 points separated them in those games.

Seattle, who are 3-0 in championship series, comes into the Finals with 10 wins in its last 11 games and a three-game sweep of Minnesota in the semifinals, giving the Storm a valuable chance to rest.

 

The Aces, reaching the Finals for the first time since the franchise moved to Las Vegas, gutted out a five-game series win against Connecticut, storming back from a 16-point deficit in the first half to win the deciding game by a 66-63 margin.
This has the makings of a compelling championship series, one that will be a strong punctuation mark on this historic season.

Here are five factors that could decide this series:

Experience. In this case, Seattle has more of it. At least on the floor. The majority of the team that won a title together in 2018 are still on the roster for the Storm. Sue Bird alone has played in 50 career playoff games. They are a cohesive group and they have been here with one another before. But don’t count out the experience that Las Vegas counters with. While key players like A’ja Wilson, Kayla McBride and Jackie Young have never played in a WNBA Finals, their coach Bill Laimbeer has coached in more postseason WNBA games than almost any coach in league history. On Friday, Laimbeer will coach in his 62nd playoff game, passing Minnesota’s Cheryl Reeve for No. 2 on the all-time list. And then there’s glue player Angel McCoughtry, who played in three WNBA Finals series during her time in Atlanta. She has never won a championship and will be as hungry as anyone on the floor.

Defense. Some of the top individual defensive talents in the league are in this matchup, starting with Storm forward Alysha Clark, who has a unanimous selection to the WNBA’s All Defensive First Team. Her teammate Breanna Stewart was a second-team selection, as was Vegas’ A’ja Wilson for their defensive rebounding and their ability to patrol the paint, in particular. Seattle collected a league-leading 10 steals a game, using the length of Stewart and Clark and the perimeter quickness of Jordin Canada.

Three-point shooting vs. free-throw shooting. Seattle has averaged 10 3-pointers made per game in the Playoffs, which has propelled them to a playoff-best 89.7 points a game so far. Las Vegas is averaging just two 3-pointers made a game and it shows in their offensive output, as they are averaging 72.6 points a game, a drop-off that can also be attributed to the recent absence of WNBA 6th Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby. The Storm, who will go forward without one of their best long-distance shooters in Sami Whitcomb, who returned to Australia for the birth of her child, will want to score from the perimeter and force the Aces to keep up with Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Clark. The trio has made more than 35 3-pointers each this season. Las Vegas, meanwhile, wants to get to the line. Led by Wilson, they are 81-for-96 (84.4%) from the stripe in five playoff games.

Star Power. The two players who battled to the end of the season in the WNBA’s MVP race will battle in this series and that’s probably not a coincidence. Wilson won the MVP Award over Stewart, but both have had stellar seasons. Wilson has carried her team at moments in the postseason, averaging 21.8 points and 10.4 rebounds a game vs. Connecticut. She has scored in double figures in all 27 games she appeared in this season. Stewart is averaging 23 points a game and 5.7 assists in the postseason, getting her teammates involved in the offensive flow. Interesting tidbit here, the team with the league MVP has won the WNBA championship every year since 2016.

 

X-Factors. For Seattle it’s going to be point guard play. Sue Bird, who played in just 11 regular-season games, averaged 7.3 assists in the semis against the Lynx. Canada can be a game-changer off the bench with her quickness and her ability to break out and score. She has scored 19 points with 12 assists in two games against the Aces this season. Vegas, meanwhile, is going to have to figure out how to energize its bench scoring without Hamby, who was leading the best bench scoring crew in the league all season. But the bench accounted for zero points in Game 5 against Connecticut and that can’t happen against a team that scores like Seattle. Jackie Young is Vegas’ top bench scorer at 7.0 points a game in the Playoffs. Veteran guard Danielle Robinson had a pair of double-digit scoring games in the semifinal series against the Suns, including a pivotal 18 points in Game 4. The Aces will need more of that