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WNBA Finals 2020 Preview: (1) Las Vegas Aces vs. (2) Seattle Storm

The 2020 WNBA Finals are set as the No. 1 seed Las Vegas Aces and No. 2 seed Seattle Storm will meet in a best-of-five series to determine the 2020 league champion in Bradenton, Fla.

Since the WNBA debuted its current playoff format in 2016, this is the fourth time in five years that the top two seeds in the playoffs are meeting in The Finals, and with both of those teams representing the same conference. The only exception came in 2018, when the No. 1 seed Seattle Storm swept the No. 3 seed Washington Mystics in five games.

The Storm are back in the Finals for the fourth time in franchise history as they look to join the Minnesota Lynx and Houston Comets as the only teams to win four WNBA championships. The Aces are making their second appearance in the WNBA Finals, 12 years and one relocation and rebranding removed from the San Antonio Silver Stars being swept in the 2008 WNBA Finals by current Aces coach Bill Laimbeer and the Detroit Shock. This franchise isn’t just looking for its first championship, but even its first Finals victory.

Series Schedule

Game 1: Friday, Oct. 2 – 7PM ET (ESPN2)
Game 2: Sunday, Oct. 4 – 3PM ET (ABC)
Game 3: Tuesday, Oct. 6 – 7PM ET (ESPN)
*Game 4: Thursday, Oct. 8 – 7PM ET (ESPN2)
*Game 5: Sunday, Oct. 11 – 3PM ET (ABC)
*if necessary

How They Got Here

Las Vegas Aces (18-4 Regular Season, 3-2 Playoffs)

While Seattle welcomed back two of its stars in 2020, Las Vegas had to replace two of its stars as Kelsey Plum (Achilles) and Liz Cambage missed the entire season after being key pieces in the Aces’ run to the Semifinals in 2019. The Aces welcomed Angel McCoughtry and Danielle Robinson to help fill the void, and saw A’ja Wilson rise to MVP level in her third WNBA season to lead the team to the Finals. Wilson edged out Stewart for the MVP award after averaging 20.5 points (2nd in WNBA), 8.5 rebounds (6th), 2.0 assists, 2.0 blocked shots (1st) and 1.2 steals.

The Aces closed the regular season by winning their final six games and going 10-1 in the second half of the season to finish the year tied with Seattle for the league’s top record at 18-4. Las Vegas won the regular-season finale against Seattle – who played without Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird – to earn the tiebreaker and the No. 1 seed in the postseason.

Las Vegas earned a double-bye to the Semifinals, where they met the No. 7 seed Connecticut Sun in what turned out to be a hard-fought series that would go the full five games. With their season on the line, the Aces won Game 4 to force a winner-take-all Game 5 on Tuesday, Sept. 30. After trailing Game 5 by as many as 16 points, the Aces rallied behind the play of McCoughtry, who finished with 20 points, and Wilson, who scored 11 of her game-high 23 points in the fourth quarter as she single-handedly outscored the Sun 11-9. Las Vegas held Connecticut to just 18 points in the second half to earn a 66-63 win and a trip to The Finals.

Seattle Storm (18-4 Regular Season, 3-0 Playoffs)

This 2020 Storm squad includes eight players form its 2018 championship team, including Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird, who both missed all of 2019 due to season-long injuries. Stewart has returned to MVP form in her first season back following a torn Achilles; she finished as the runner-up for the MVP and was the only player to finish in the top 15 in all five statistical categories: points (19.7 PPG, 4th), rebounds (8.3 RPG, 9th), assists (3.6 APG, 14th), steals (1.7 SPG, 9th) and blocks (1.3 BPG, 5th). Bird missed half of the 22-game regular season as she dealt with a bone bruise in her knee, but Jordin Canada was able to step up and fill the role while Bird was out.

Seattle finished the regular season at 18-4 – matching Las Vegas for the top record in the league – but dropped to the No. 2 seed due to tiebreaker rules. After earning the double-bye to the Semifinals, the Storm made quick work of the Minnesota Lynx, sweeping the series in three games with Stewart averaging 23.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.7 blocks in the series.

Jewell Loyd averaged 17.3 points on incredibly efficient shooting – 58.6% from the field, 53.3% from three and 90.9% from the free throw line. Of the 44 players that attempted at least 10 shots in the playoffs, no one posted a higher true shooting percentage than Loyd’s 76.8%. Bird averaged 11.3 points and 7.3 assists (2nd in playoffs) in 26.6 minutes per game.

Three Things To Watch

1. MVP vs. MVP

It’s 2018 WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart vs. 2020 WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson in a matchup of two of the top power forwards in the league. The two faced off just once during the regular season with Wilson scoring 23 points on 7-15 shooting from the field and 9-12 from the free throw line, to go with 14 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 blocks to lead the Aces to an 82-74 win. Stewart posted regular season highs of 29 points, 18 rebounds and five personal fouls in the loss, as she shot just 10-25 from the field and 2-8 from 3-point range.

Wilson does most of her work in the paint and occasionally extends out to the mid-range with a strong face-up game. During the regular season, 54.7% of Wilson’s points came inside the paint with another 19.1% on mid-range shots and 26.2% from the free throw line.

A key difference between Wilson and Stewart comes with the 3-point shot. Wilson did not attempt single 3-point shot this season and has just one attempt in her three-year career. Stewart led all bigs 6-foot-4 or taller in 3-pointers made with 35 on the season as she connected on 36.8% of her 95 3-point attempts. Stewart’s scoring is a bit more diversified than Wilson’s with 26.6% of her points coming on 3-pointers, 38.1% inside the paint, only 11.7% in the mid-range and 23.6% from the free throw line.

While they may score in different ways, both players do so with incredible efficiency as Stewart led the WNBA in efficiency rating (23.4) with Wilson right behind in second place at 23.0 during the regular season.

What will be interesting to watch is how often the two are matched up with one another. In their only head-to-head meeting this season, Wilson defended Stewart on 12 of her 25 shot attempts, with Stewart shooting just 3-12 against Wilson.

On the other hand, Stewart defended Wilson on just two of her 15 shot attempts, as the Storm used a variety of defenders against Wilson, including Natasha Howard (6 FGA), Mercedes Russell (2 FGA) and Ezi Magbegor (1). Even Alysha Clark found herself defending Wilson on four of her shot attempts, including a pair of putbacks and transition opportunities.

One item to keep in mind in this battle of the MVPs, the winner of the league Most Valuable Player Award has gone on to lead her team to the WNBA title in each of the past four seasons – starting with Nneka Ogwumike in 2016, Sylvia Fowles in 2017, Stewart in 2018 and Elena Delle Donne in 2019. Can Wilson make it five in a row, or will Stewart snap the streak and win her second WNBA title in her fourth season?

2. Missing Reserves

Each team will be without a key role player in this series as the Aces lost Sixth Woman of the Year winner Dearica Hamby to a knee injury in the Semifinals and Sami Whitcomb has left the IMG Academy in order to be with her wife in Australia for the birth of their first child.

Hamby averaged 13.0 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.7 steals this season and is one of the Aces top defenders. She may have come off the bench, but she averaged starters minutes at 28.3 per game (1st among bench players and 25th among all players) this season. As noted above, Wilson defended Stewart on 12 of her 25 shot attempts in their matchup this season; Hamby defended 9 of Stewart’s other 13 attempts.

Whitcomb made 32 3-point shots on the season (17th in the WNBA) as she shot a career-best 38.1% from beyond the arc (23rd in WNBA) in her fourth season. She has spent her entire career in Seattle and posted career-highs in scoring (8.1 PPG) and rebounding (2.3 RPG) in just 16.5 minutes per game off the bench. Whitcomb’s minutes fell to 10.7 in the Semifinals as rotations tend to get tighter in the postseason.

On the other hand, Hamby was still averaging 25 minutes for the Aces, so Vegas has more minutes to fill. In the final two games against Connecticut, coach Bill Laimbeer leaned heavily on his starters, including Carolyn Swords, who went from averaging 17.3 minutes in the first three games of the series with Hamby healthy to 29.0 minutes with Hamby out. Emma Cannon was also called upon for nearly 10 minutes per game against the Sun.

3. Which Team Can Take Away The Other’s Strengths

When examining the tale of the tape, there is not much that separate these two teams. During the regular season, the Storm finished first in offensive (108.3 points per 100 possessions) and defensive (93.3 points allowed per 100 possessions) efficiency, while the Aces finished second in both categories.

STAT LVA SEA
OFFRTG 107.3 108.3
DEFRTG 97.2 93.3
NETRTG 10.0 15.0
AST% 63.5 68.8
AST/TO 1.66 1.56
OREB% 28.6 27.7
DREB% 74.8 68.6
REB% 52.9 49.4
TOV% 15.2 17.3
EFG% 50.7 53.2
TS% 56.2 57.5
PACE/40 82.57 81.16

 

As we touched on in the MVP discussion, these two teams score efficiently but differently. The Storm score at twice the frequency from 3-point range than the Aces. Seattle averaged 21.4 3-point attempts during the regular season and have upped that mark to 27.7 in the playoffs. Las Vegas averaged a league-low 11.5 3-pointers per game and that mark has dropped to just 10 per game during the playoffs.

So how well does Las Vegas defend the 3-point shot? During the regular season, the Aces held their opponents to just 31.1% shooting from 3-point range, which was the second-lowest percentage allowed in the league. The only team better was Seattle at 30.0% allowed.

STAT LVA SEA
%PTS 2PT 64.2 53.6
%PTS 3PT 14.3 28.8
%PTS FT 21.5 17.6
%PTS PITP 48.2 41.8
%PTS 2PT- MR 16.1 11.7
%PTS FBPS 7.9 8.0
%PTS OFFTO 19.6 21.2

 

The Aces led all teams this season in percentage of points coming in the paint (48.2%) and from the free throw line (21.5%). According to Synergy, the Aces are the second-most efficient team on post ups, scoring 1.0 points per possession in the regular season and 1.045 in the playoffs.

How well does Seattle defend the paint? During the regular season, Seattle held opponents to 66.1% shooting inside the restricted area (third lowest in the league) and 33.9% shooting in the paint but outside the restricted area (lowest in the league). The Storm allowed only 30.0 points in the paint per game this season – the fewest in the league and 12.7 points below Las Vegas’ league-leading average.

STAT LVA SEA
PTS OFF TO 17.4 18.5
2ND PTS 10.3 10.3
FBPS 7.0 7.0
PITP 42.7 36.6
OPP PTS OFF TO 11.8 15.3
OPP 2ND PTS 8.9 9.9
OPP FBPS 6.6 5.8
OPP PITP 33.5 30.0

 

The Aces led the WNBA in free throw rate (0.340), which compares the number of free throw attempts a team shoots compared to the number of field goal attempts that team shoots. By comparison, the Storm posted a free throw rate of 0.278, which ranked sixth and is just above league average (0.270). During the regular season, the Aces (0.201) and Storm (0.245) ranked first and second in the league, respectively, in allowing the lowest opponent free throw rate. Both teams have been even better at limiting free throw attempts in the playoffs with Las Vegas at 0.181 allowed and Seattle at 0.215.

STAT LVA SEA
EFG% 50.7 53.2
FTA RATE 0.34 0.278
TOV% 15.2 17.3
OREB% 28.6 27.7
OPP EFG% 48.5 45.4
OPP FTA RATE 0.201 0.245
OPP TOV% 17.4 20.1
OPP OREB% 25.2 31.4

 

A final key stat to watch will be turnovers and the points scored off of those turnovers. Throughout the regular season, the Aces were the top team in the league in limiting their own turnovers with a turnover percentage of only 15.2%; the Storm ranked fourth at 17.3%. However, in the semifinals those numbers essentially flipped as the Aces turned the ball over at 17.3% (6th in Playoffs) and the Storm limited their turnovers to 15.0% (1st in Playoffs).

Let’s focus on the regular season as that offers a larger sample size. A key in the Storm’s favor is their ability to force turnovers as their opponents had the second-highest turnover rate in the league at 20.1%; the Aces on the other hand forced turnovers on only 17.4% of opponent possessions.

The Storm (18.5) and Aces (17.4) ranked second and third, respectively, in points scored off opponent turnovers during the season. A key in the Aces favor is that on the turnovers they did commit, they allowed the fewest points to their opponents at just 11.8 per game; Seattle ranked sixth at 15.3 points allowed.

As the numbers here indicate, this should be a tightly contested Finals between the two most elite teams in the league all season long. What will be the difference that separates them? Will have to see how things play out in Game 1 on Friday night and then begin the chess match of adjustments in this 200-minute series.