A buzzing WNBA bubble that started with 12 starry-eyed teams is now down to just two. The no. 1 seeded Las Vegas Aces clawed their way to victory in a muddy yet beautiful series against the pesky seventh-seeded Connecticut Sun. Now they’ll face the sizzling no. 2 seeded Seattle Storm, who made it to the Finals by taking down the no. 4 seeded Minnesota Lynx.
You would be remiss to think this matchup will be a cliché, anticlimactic yawner. The few who wanted a Lynx-Sun Finals to match the chaos that is the year 2020 are still in for a treat. Remember, the Storm held the league’s top spot for the majority of the regular season only for the Aces to steal it in their last game. Each team came into the playoffs with an 18-4 record, but Las Vegas is 2-0 in the teams’ head-to-head matchups.
This Seattle Storm isn’t far removed from the Finals’ big stage. In 2018, Breanna Stewart was the regular season and Finals MVP; masked Sue Bird made a comeback; and Seattle swept Elena Delle Donne and the Washington Mystics on their home floor. The craziest thing is that when the Storm takes the court on Friday for Game 1, they’ll have eight out of 13 players from that championship squad. That number could have been nine, but they’ll be without sharp-shooter Sami Whitcomb, who has left the bubble to be with her wife in Australia for the birth of their first child.
The Aces’ only franchise title attempt was in 2008, back when they were the San Antonio Silver Stars. That team was led by six-time All-Star (and someone who better be an NBA head coach soon) Becky Hammon, and they lost in the Finals to the Detroit Shock, who were coached by current Aces head coach Bill Laimbeer. If Laimbeer pulls off another win this season, he’ll tie the Minnesota Lynx’s Cheryl Reeve and the Houston Comets’ Van Chancellor for the most WNBA championships with four.
It won’t be easy, though. Not only is Las Vegas without All-Star Liz Cambage and Kelsey Plum (the two combined for 24.5 points and 11.1 rebounds per game in 2019), but the team is also missing the league’s Sixth Woman of the Year, Dearica Hamby, after she tweaked her knee early in Game 3 of the semifinals. The Aces are going to need all of their pieces—hello, Carolyn Swords!—in order to have a chance at defeating this loaded Storm team. Let’s see how the key matchups could play out:
The Vets: Sue Bird vs. Angel McCoughtry
The last time Bird and McCoughtry met in the Finals, they were 10 years younger with better knees. The Storm swept the Atlanta Dream in that series despite McCoughtry averaging 26.7 points per game in those playoffs and hitting 45.5 percent from 3. The deadly duo of Bird and MVP Lauren Jackson earned their—and the franchise’s—second championship on McCoughtry’s home court. Now, 14 days ahead of Bird’s 40th birthday, they meet again.
Each time Bird has willed Seattle to the Finals, she’s won. In fact, she’s only lost one game in three trips in her 18-year career (and that was way back in 2004). She’s powered through broken noses, black eyes, and nagging injuries, but she always finds a way. This year, after playing the least number of regular-season games of her career by a long shot, Bird has the chance to snag her fourth ring, which would tie her for second most in WNBA history.
In the Storm’s semifinal sweep of Minnesota this year, Bird was cold from beyond the arc, only knocking down 29 percent of her 3s. Because of an anticipated double-team on Stewart, Seattle is going to need Bird to get hot from deep to punish the Aces’ slow weak-side rotation. We already know Bird will continue to be Seattle’s ultimate floor general (to quote Seattle’s Jewell Loyd: “If Sue isn’t worried, we’re not worried”); she’s tallying up 7.3 assists per game in the postseason. The Storm is hoping that Bird’s regular-season load management will pay off when it counts.
It’s such a blessing to go back to the finals ! pic.twitter.com/cTKRGdcN9D— Angel McCoughtry (@angel_35) September 30, 2020
I’m willing to bet a lot of someone else’s money that McCoughtry remembers that Game 3 loss to Seattle back in 2010. She reached the Finals two more times after that but came up empty each time. After an ACL tear forced her to miss last season, McCoughtry’s been on a mission to compete for a championship from the wubble’s opening tip. In Game 4, she dropped 29 points while scoring 16 in the third quarter alone. In the win-or-go-home Game 5, McCoughtry racked up 20 of Las Vegas’s 66 points. One of the biggest questions of the postseason was how this young Aces squad was going to rally around their veteran leader. She’s shooting a team-high 45.5 percent from 3, just like she did 10 years prior. To beat this Seattle team, McCoughtry must reach deep in her bag and have the vintage (and efficient) number 35 emerge.
The Shooters: Alysha Clark vs. Kayla McBride
Despite popular opinion, the 3-ball will be a key factor of this series. In their 18 regular-season wins, the Storm shot 42.2 percent from beyond the arc compared to just 28 percent in their losses. And Clark is a major part of their winning ways. The textbook 3-and-D player led the WNBA in 3-point percentage this season at a scorching 52.2 percent while drilling 80 percent of her free throws. Minnesota did a decent job running her off the line in their second-round series, as the Lynx held her to only eight attempts in those three games. The Aces will have to follow that same blueprint to deter her from heating up again.
As for Clark’s counterpart, McBride has struggled from 3 this season. Aces fans have become the epitome of the Wolverine Crush meme when it comes to McBride’s 3-point shooting confidence and capability. Remember how great this was?
That wasn’t that long ago! And last season, with Cambage and Wilson garnering most of the attention inside, McBride had good looks from beyond the arc. She made almost half of them.
In the Finals, McBride must aim to be more aggressive. McCoughtry has assisted her the most this season. A two-person game of McCoughtry driving to the basket, drawing a double team, then kicking it out will get McBride in a better rhythm offensively. Against Connecticut in the semifinals, McBride made zero unassisted 3s. If she’s struggling to create her own shot, her teammates have to set off-ball screens to get her open. The good news: She can’t shoot much worse than she did in the last round. A miserable 14.3 percent at just 2-of-14 is simply out of character for McBride. Plus, Danielle Robinson, Jackie Young, Sugar Rodgers, and Lindsay Allen didn’t help the Aces shooting slump; this group combined for only 2-of-18 from 3 against the Sun.
The Aces haven’t relied on their 3s for most of the season, but if McBride can shoot lights-out, it can only help. We know what the high-percentage Storm are capable of, but the Aces can make it rain too. Confidence will be key in this matchup; McBride has to know she can make it and channel that tenacity from that 38-point performance in the clip above to make the series competitive.
The MVPs: Breanna Stewart vs. A’ja Wilson
This is what we wanted, right? The two best teams and the top two MVP candidates battling it out for the league’s highest prize. Here’s what’s guaranteed in a Stewart vs. Wilson matchup:
- Impeccable blocked shots
- Yelling. Lots of yelling.
- Crisp midrange jumpers
- Pick-and-roll action executed to perfection
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that this is Stewart’s first season back after tearing her Achilles tendon in April of last year. She’s been dominant and leads the Storm in virtually every statistical category: points, field-goal attempts, rebounds, steals, and blocks. “You know, after sitting out last season and coming back from the Achilles injury, I’m happy that I’m able to be on this court,” Stewart said to The New York Times this week. “If I miss however many shots? That’s what I miss. But I’m still here and able to shoot them.” Well, she’s not missing many. Early in the semifinals, Minnesota’s Napheesa Collier clamped down on her on defense, blocking her shot five times in a single contest. But that only made Stewart mad. (Reader, you do not want to make Stewie mad.) She then proceeded to drop a career playoff-high 31 points to send the Lynx packing in Game 3.
Regardless of how great Stewart has been this season and in the playoffs, Wilson has been even better—she’s the league’s M’VP. The Storm will have their hands full attempting to slow down her aggressiveness and efficiency in the paint. They’ll aim to crowd her with Stewart or center Mercedes Russell, but her speedy first step is lethal. As impossible as it may seem, Wilson will have to go beyond her double-double playoff average (21.8 points and 10.4 rebounds per game) to complete this underdog narrative for her squad. In Game 5 of the semifinals, she didn’t touch the ball over the final 90 seconds of the fourth quarter—that can’t happen again. If her teammates pour all their trust in her and jump on her back, she’ll carry them to the franchise’s first WNBA title win.
During Game 5 of the Aces-Sun series, ESPN sideline reporter Holly Rowe asked Wilson how much she had left in the tank going into the fourth quarter. “I got a whole lot,” Wilson said. “I’m going to do everything I can for my team. I’m going to try to give it my all. Get some buckets, get some rebounds—anything.” And for Wilson and Co. to win this championship, it’s going to take just that: a whole lot.