W.N.B.A. Finals Storm-Aces Preview: A Battle of M.V.P.s

A rapid-fire W.N.B.A season will end with a finals collision between the league’s top two teams: the Las Vegas Aces and the Seattle Storm.

They posted the two best regular-season records, earning double byes in the playoffs. They ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in both offensive and defensive rating. They feature two of the past three Most Valuable Player Award winners, A’ja Wilson (Aces) and Breanna Stewart (Storm).

To get here, Seattle swept the Minnesota Lynx in the best-of-five semifinals, including a dominant 92-71 victory in Game 3. Las Vegas overcame a 2-1 series deficit against the Connecticut Sun, winning a tight Game 5 to advance.

The Storm are gunning for their second championship in three seasons. This finals run coincides with the return of Stewart and her fellow star Sue Bird, who both missed the 2019 season with injuries.

The Aces are in the finals for the first time since moving to Las Vegas in 2018 and for the second time in franchise history. (Their last trip was in 2008, when they were the San Antonio Silver Stars.)

Las Vegas won both regular-season meetings with Seattle, though the Storm were not at full strength for either contest. This series, which starts Friday night, has the potential to go the five-game distance.

The fact that the Aces had reached the finals visibly swept over Wilson in the middle of her news conference after Tuesday’s series-clinching win. “It’s so weird to say that,” Wilson said while chuckling.

Wilson, though, has not played as if she is overwhelmed by the moment. The third-year post player carried the dominance of her regular season over to the playoffs, twice taking control of a game down the stretch against Connecticut.

In Game 2, two aggressive and-one finishes pushed the Aces to victory. Wilson then played all 40 minutes of Game 5, and made nine of her 10 free throws, to will her team to the win after both offenses went cold.

On the other side, Stewart has been terrific in her first season back from a torn Achilles’ tendon. She has rare versatility for a post player, and she has the edge in championship experience.

Las Vegas led the league in bench scoring (35 points per game) during the regular season but got zero points from that group in Game 5 of the semifinals and just four points in Game 4.

That is partly because the bench’s biggest offensive threats are gone.

Dearica Hamby, the back-to-back Sixth Woman of the Year Award winner, is out with a knee injury. Danielle Robinson came off the bench for most of the season, but is now performing well as the starting point guard.

Las Vegas could use a lift from Jackie Young, the 2019 No. 1 overall draft pick. She went 0-for-3 from the field and committed four turnovers in Game 5 of the semifinals and missed all five of her shots in Game 4.

McCoughtry became emotional when speaking about returning to the finals. She advanced that far in the playoffs three times in 10 seasons with the Atlanta Dream. But after missing the 2019 season to rehab a serious knee injury, McCoughtry signed with Las Vegas as a free agent. “Oh Lord,” McCoughtry said. “Wow. It means a lot.”

McCoughtry looks like her old self. She posted career-best shooting numbers from the field (51.8 percent) and from 3-point range (47.1 percent) during the regular season. She is using her combination of strength and quickness to get to the rim. Aces Coach Bill Laimbeer credited McCoughtry for the team’s ability to grind out tough wins.

McCoughtry was the catalyst of the Game 4 semifinals victory, totaling 29 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds and 3 steals to help the Aces keep their season alive.

The Aces relentlessly attack the basket and draw fouls, and they led the league with 23.4 free-throw attempts per game during the regular season.

That aggressive approach was evident in the semifinals, when Las Vegas held a 22-9 free-throw edge in Game 5 and a 28-7 advantage in Game 2.

Seattle ranked sixth in the league with 18.9 free-throw attempts per game during the regular season. The Storm and Aces both made about 82 percent of their free throws.

“If we set that tone — like: ‘We want to get that same call. We’re going to go to the rim. We’re going to drive into traffic. We expect that same call.’ — that message will get there,” Storm Coach Gary Kloppenburg said.

Stewart and Bird are the Storm’s stars. But others proved they could step up when both players were out in 2019.

Jewell Loyd is a two-time All-Star and a potent scoring guard. Alysha Clark was unanimously voted to this season’s All-Defensive team, and Natasha Howard won the league’s Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2019. Jordin Canada is a starting-caliber point guard.

During the finals, the Storm will be without reserve forward Sami Whitcomb, who left the league’s pandemic bubble in Bradenton, Fla., to be with her wife for the birth of their child.

With all those weapons, Seattle presents a versatile offense and a sound defensive scheme. But, Stewart said, “to be honest, it kind of took a while” for everything to jell.

“We have no room for error in this finals series,” Stewart said.

Kloppenburg expects Las Vegas to be physical and to try to slow down the pace. To counter, Seattle wants to space the floor by drawing Wilson and center Carolyn Swords out of the paint to create drive-and-kick opportunities.

Laimbeer, who won three titles as the coach of the Detroit Shock, has the finals pedigree of a W.N.B.A. head coach.

But Kloppenburg has successfully stepped in as the interim head coach, replacing Dan Hughes, who did not coach this season because of concerns about the coronavirus. Hughes had an operation to remove a cancerous tumor in his appendix in 2019.

Kloppenburg showed his defensive skill in Game 3 of the semifinals, when he made an in-game adjustment from a trapping scheme to switching all screens. Clark praised his open communication with players throughout the season.

If somebody has an idea or concern, she said, “we can just go talk to him about it and kind of work together and hash things out.”

Bird, one of the sport’s greats, did not play in either regular-season matchup against Las Vegas because of knee issues that troubled her throughout the season. Though Canada can be electric with the ball in her hands, Kloppenburg praised Bird’s “stabilizing influence” as a passer and leader.

“We seem like we just get easier shots,” Kloppenburg said. “The floor just spaces out so much better.”

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