If you haven’t been watching the WNBA playoffs, you’ve been missing out. So far there have been buzzer-beaters, controversial no-foul calls, plenty of trash talk, and questionable coaching decisions. (Speaking of: Derek Fisher, why in the world did you bench the starters who got you to the semifinals, especially when one of them is future Hall of Famer CANDACE PARKER?! OK, moving on.)
Now we’re down to just two teams remaining, as the no. 1 seed Washington Mystics and no. 2 seed Connecticut Sun will square off in a best-of-five Finals that starts Sunday. Despite the fact that the Mystics are making their second consecutive Finals appearance, neither franchise has won a title. There is plenty to analyze about this matchup, which is shaping up to be a classic bout between the league’s top offense and its top defense. So buckle up as we break it down, because this will be one hell of a series:
Regular-Season Record: The Sun Took the Series 2-1
It’s only fitting that these teams’ seasons should end how they started. The Mystics and Sun played their first games of the season against each other, and Connecticut capitalized on Washington’s being without superstar Elena Delle Donne, who was out with a knee injury. The Sun won 84-69. When the two teams met again in Week 3, the Sun were sitting in the league’s top spot, and they handed the Mystics another L. But in their last matchup at the end of June, six Mystics players scored in double figures and Washington won by an astounding 43 points.
It’s been about three months since these teams last faced off, and that type of blowout isn’t likely to happen again. The Sun have a ton of momentum coming into the Finals. They’re fresh off a 3-0 sweep of the Los Angeles Sparks, and they won two of those games by 20-plus points. They have posted the best rebounding percentage out of any team in the playoffs so far (58 percent) and hold the top spot in defensive rating too. And it shows. From their starters to their crucial sparks off the bench, the Sun are peaking at the right moment.
The Mystics, on the other hand, haven’t had such a smooth ride. They’re coming off a gritty 3-1 semifinal series win over a tough Las Vegas Aces team, and their post players are likely still icing the bruises gifted to them by Vegas center Liz Cambage. The team did find a necessary spark in Game 4’s 94-90 win, though, and seemed to catch a second wind. Now, Washington is finally focused on getting over its Finals hump. The Mystics came up short last year against the Seattle Storm, losing the series 3-0, but they were without forward Emma Meesseman, who sat out last season for rest. In the team’s three wins over the Aces, Meesseman scored 27, 30, and 22 points while shooting an astonishing 64.3 percent from the field and going 4-for-4 from 3-point land. I think it’s safe to say she’s been a difference-maker. The Mystics are going to need all that and then some to successfully fight off the fearless Sun.
Key Matchup: Natasha Cloud vs. Courtney Williams
Cloud and Williams are pure fireballs of energy. Both players find joy in doing the dirty work, and both can shift the momentum of a game. When they’re hot, their confidence overflows onto their teammates, and they somehow seem to be able to will their teams to victory. And, of course, they are both clapback queens. Now they’ll be charged with keeping each other in check—and their success (or failure) could swing the series.
Cloud, the Mystics’ all-time assist leader, has been one of the key complementary pieces of this deep Washington lineup. The five-year vet played all 34 games in the regular season, averaging nine points and 5.6 assists a game, and throughout the semifinals, those numbers improved to 11.5 and 7.3, respectively. When she finds her flow, she’s more than capable of going on a double-digit run by herself or dishing passes inside to Delle Donne, Meesseman, and LaToya Sanders. The Mystics are at their best when she’s pushing the tempo and attacking the rim. Cloud will need to dig deep into her playmaking bag to propel this Washington group.
But if this series comes down to a fight, Williams has the advantage. The 5-foot-8 guard is a self-proclaimed bucket. She averaged 19 points (a team high), 8.7 rebounds, and five assists against the Sparks; I can only imagine the numbers she’ll put up knowing there could be a ’ship waiting for her at the end of this. Williams took it personally when ESPN’s John Brickley said in mid-September that Connecticut doesn’t have a “main-attraction star,” and that the team is composed of a bunch of “role players.” After her team’s semifinal sweep, she responded: “Tell ’em a bunch of role players did that!” No doubt she’ll keep that chip on her shoulder against Washington.
In a one-on-one battle, expect Williams and Cloud to trade baskets since each of them can score feverishly. Per 100 playoff possessions, Williams is averaging 28.1 points while Cloud isn’t far behind with 16.7. Both of them have also been playing hefty minutes in the postseason (averaging 33.0 and 33.8 minutes per game, respectively), so this will be a game-long battle—cockiness included. Have your popcorn at the ready.
Coaching Keys to Victory
There’s a lot the Mystics and coach Mike Thibault can take away from their series against the Aces. Washington struggled in close games in that matchup because, frankly, they hadn’t played in many close contests this year—just seven of their 26 regular-season wins came by 10 points or fewer. Vegas absorbed their runs and countered with ease, putting Washington on its heels. This Sun team will do the same. Thibault—who coached the Sun from 2003 to 2012—and Co. must find answers during dry spells and use the team’s tenacious defense to generate offense by giving the team extra possessions and easy buckets on forced turnovers:
Quick transition 3 from ☁9️⃣ pic.twitter.com/x9J9GRTsJC— Washington Mystics (@WashMystics) June 15, 2019
The Mystics will have to get blocks, jump the passing lanes, and use double-teams in the low post. With Sanders, their starting center standing at only 6-foot-2, the 6-foot-8 Cambage presented a big challenge in the paint in the last series. Now they’re faced with an athletic and skilled 6-foot-6 Jonquel Jones, who can also step out and drill 3s. Not to mention she’s lethal inside.
On the opposite bench, Sun coach Curt Miller will have to figure out the most effective way to deploy defensive stopper Jasmine Thomas. In the Sparks series, he matched her up against Chelsea Gray, and she held Gray to well below her season points average (10.5 compared to her standard 14.5). Thomas can be smothering, and now she’ll likely set her sights on Mystic guard Kristi Toliver, who has been shooting lights-out in postseason play.
The Finals MVP Will Be …
It has to be Delle Donne. She has been unstoppable all season, and the playoffs have been no different. After last year’s loss to Seattle, she said, “Run it back!”—and she has. Delle Donne won the MVP this season, becoming the first player in WNBA history to win the award on two separate teams, and she also became the first to join the 50-40-90 club. She’s been filling up the stat line in the playoffs, averaging 21.3 points per game on 45.7 percent shooting, and collecting seven boards. Expect more of the same against the Sun. In their regular-season series, Delle Donne averaged 16 points. Connecticut will most likely have their 4 position matched up against her. If that’s the case, look out for a lot of off-ball movement and attacking her defender off the dribble.
We already know Delle Donne can do it all, and she’ll have to in order to secure the Mystics their first championship. Washington has been here before; the Sun have not. The masked MVP will strike again, and this time she won’t return to D.C. without adding “champion” to her lengthy résumé. Mystics in four.