If you haven’t been paying attention, the WNBA Playoffs have been outstanding. Both semifinals matchups went the distance (five games), with eight of the 10 games being decided by five points or less.
The end result was the top-seeded Seattle Storm slipping by the veterans in Phoenix, and the Washington Mystics using star power to topple a banged-up Atlanta Dream squad.
Seattle will be shooting for a third title, while Washington aims for its first in franchise history when the best-of-5 series begins Friday night.
It should be enough that the Storm have the likely MVP in Breanna Stewart, who finished the regular season averaging 21.8 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. The last two league MVPs have also won the WNBA Finals, so they’ve already got an advantage.
But throw in Sue Bird, the 37-year-old who went off for 14 fourth-quarter points in the do-or-die Game 5 against the Mercury, and the Storm look unstoppable.
Stewart averaged 24.0 points against the Mercury, including 28 in Game 5 and Bird handed out 34 assists to just six turnovers. It seems unlikely they’ll be stopped.
Though Seattle’s offense was shaky against a solid Phoenix defense, the fact that the Storm advanced and still have room to improve is a scary proposition. They were the league’s best offense in the regular season, they take care of the ball and they rely on (and make) 3-pointers.
Seattle has been the team to beat all season, but it needed a frantic fourth-quarter comeback to advance to the Finals.
The Storm have their imperfections, and Washington has a player who can take advantage of them. Elena Delle Donne hasn’t been the player she was in Chicago, but 20.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 49 percent from the field speaks volumes.
In five games against Atlanta she averaged 21.4 points and made all 23 of her free-throw attempts – fun fact, she’s a career 96.3% FT shooter in the postseason (105 of 109). She struggled in the closeout game but was picked up by Ariel Atkins’ 20 points, 19 from Kristi Tolliver and 17 (in 10 minutes) from Tianna Hawkins.
It’s cliché, but Washington needs a team effort to have a chance against Seattle. Delle Donne will lead the charge, but it will need Toliver and Atkins in the 15-17-point range.
Like Seattle, Washington relies on the 3-point shot early and often. Finding good looks is critical. And though Atlanta wasn’t an offensive juggernaut, Washington held them below 82 points in four of five games.
That defensive presence, led by Delle Donne and center LaToya Sanders, will be crucial to slowing down Stewart.
We’ll see what kind of mental edge Washington gets from its 23-point drubbing of Seattle last month at home. Delle Donne scored 30 points, the Mystics held Stewart to just 10 points and Sanders double-doubled in the wire-to-wire victory.
Washington doesn’t have an answer for Bird, even if Delle Donne can match Stewart shot-for-shot. But if the Storm stumble like they did in Game 3 against the Mercury, scoring 66 points, Washington is capable of pouncing on a team.
The Mystics also got some momentum after winning Games 4 and 5, so the +175 odds leave some room for optimism. All told, we’ll roll with Stewart like we have all season.
The Storm have both the WNBA’s best home and away record, and after beating a legend in Diana Taurasi they’re well on their way to hoisting the trophy.