The WNBA is at the pinnacle of what might be its best season in 22 years of activity. There was a fantastic race to get into the playoffs that saw multiple teams in the hunt for the final spot, we saw great early rounds where legends retired at the hands of their foes, and two Conference Finals that went the distance.
The Finals match-up will feel like a new era for the league. No longer will the wizened Minnesota Lynx be battling the veteran Los Angeles Sparks in a grudge match. Instead we have the current MVP in her third year, taking on a former MVP in her sixth year, as Breanna Stewart’s Seattle Storm play Elena Delle Donne’s Washington Mystics for the crown.
Storm on offense
Head Coach Dan Hughes might sometimes look like he’s taking a back seat in these playoffs, but when you have a player like point guard Sue Bird, who knows the game better than almost anyone, you start to understand.
Still, Hughes is quietly an offensive savant. His after timeout plays, and basic out of bounds sets, almost always create a good shot. On the occasions where someone will miss the open jumper or a drive to the rim, there is usually a player, most likely Natasha Howard, positioned to pick up the offensive rebound.
Aside from the set plays, Hughes favours a free-flowing game, which plays right into the hands of his roster. It has led to them scoring the second most points in the league this year, and the Storm finished with the best record.
Seattle has a great selection of ball handlers. Bird is obviously a dream point in the mould of a Phoenix Suns-era Steve Nash or a prime Connecticut Sun-era Lindsay Whalen. Despite being the oldest player in the league, Bird is ultra fit and doesn’t seem to stop. She pushes the ball almost every possession, make or miss.
MVP Breanna Stewart will occasionally bring the ball up on set plays or as a relief in a press, Sami Whitcomb can dribble with confidence (especially in a half court game), Jewell Loyd has turned into a great player and a competent ball handler, and Alysha Clark averages the fewest turnovers for anyone on the team playing heavy minutes.
But a real X Factor is Jordin Canada. This back-up point guard is one to watch for the future. She has brilliant speed, the best handles of any young player in the W, and has upped her scoring during the playoffs, from 5.7 points per game in the regular season to 8.2.
Canada still rushes slightly, but that will ease off once she gets past this rookie year, especially if she’s learning from someone like Bird.
During its regular offense, Seattle keeps it simple. Bird plays pick and roll with any of her teammates but is usually most effective with Stewart, as the forward can pop out, roll to the rim or post-up the switch to score with great efficiency: 41% from three, 57% from the field, and 82% from the line, which she got to five times per game in the regular season.
Expect to see the ball being passed from Bird or Canada to a roller like Howard, or a shooter like Kaleena Mosquada-Lewis, Clark or Loyd.
Storm on defense
Seattle has two elite defensive players in Stewart and Howard. It is always more difficult to quantify the impact a single player’s defense has on a team, but the stats that we have back up the eye test.
Howard allows just 96 point per 100 possessions when she is patrolling the Storm’s defense, while Stewart allows just 97. Stewart and Howard sit in third and fourth place, respectively, for defensive win shares and the latter was named to the WNBA All Defensive Team for 2018.
But beyond those two, the team defense is something to marvel at. The timings of double teams and strong-side weighting are reminiscent of the Boston Celtics when Tom Thibideau was at his apex as a defensive specialist.
These tactics aren’t used exhaustively, but during the right moments in games, it can turn a deficit into a lead, or throttle any attempts at a comeback and secure a win.
Defense and quick baskets won the game for @seattlestorm last night in the second half. Look how aggressive they were here, essentially playing four defenders against two offensive players. It changed the game. They are locked in to championship mode #WNBA pic.twitter.com/a83T45MujV
— Huw Hopkins (@coach_huw) August 4, 2018
This was on show when Seattle played Minnesota at the start of August. The Lynx were up going into the second half, but midway through the third quarter the momentum changed once the Storm started loading onto one side of the floor defensively, halting the two-player offense of Maya Moore and Sylvia Fowles, and ultimately winning the game.
The main focus in the Finals will be guarding Elena Delle Donne. The duties will fall to the Storm’s better defenders, with Stewart likely having the majority of the workload. Looking back on the previous series against Phoenix Mercury, Howard took on the tall task of Brittney Griner while Stewart played DeWanna Bonner. Delle Donne’s game is more similar to Bonner’s – they work outside-in rather than inside-out, despite their height – but Delle Donne will be a bigger task, literally. The Mystic is only one inch taller but 15 pounds heavier and is physically stronger when making her way to the rim.
While Washington is deep and doesn’t lose much when they go to the bench, the majority of the offensive production comes from Delle Donne. The way her team reached the Finals was thanks to nearly every player increasing their output. Kristi Tolliver averaged 14 points this season but managed 19 in the win-or-go-home Game Five. Ariel Atkins averaged 11 and 2 rebounds but scored 20 and grabbed 7. Tianna Hawkins typically scores 6 points but damn near tripled this effort and went for 17.
This was key to victory, especially with Delle Donne hobbled thanks to a severe bone bruise in Game Three. But if that scary slip can’t stop Delle Donne then nothing will. In which case, the Storm should let the 2015 MVP do as much as she is able, and just focus on locking down the others.
Expect a full team effort from Seattle to stop the Washington Mystics.
Mystics on offense
Let’s not do a disservice to Washington. The team has offensive weapons outside of Delle Donne. Only three people hit more threes than Kristi Toliver this season, she also got to the free throw line three times per game and hit 91% of them. Her performance earned her an All-Star appearance and she is a good second fiddle to Delle Donne’s lead violin.
But that’s not all. When High Post Hoops studied the rookies coming into this season, Ben Dull said: “The Mystics will need strong two-way play from more of their perimeter players in support of Elena Delle Donne to advance beyond the semifinals in 2018.”
Well, Washington has advanced, and Ariel Atkins is a big reason why. While Atkins only averaged 15 points at college in Texas, she did so on 53% shooting. She took a few weeks to get acclimatised to the professional game, but the Mystics learned to trust her, and the 11 she averaged during the regular season has been upped to 15 whilst pulling down 4 rebounds – not dissimilar to the college performance that saw her drafted seventh overall, and plenty good enough to be a third cog in the Washington offense.
But ultimately, the system is built around Delle Donne. At 20 points per game, with 7 rebounds, 2 assists and going to the line 4 times per game (a career low) but shooting more than 4 threes (a career high), the Mystics need the Delle Devil (shouts to Shea Serrano for that nickname) at full strength.
here's the play elena delle donne got hurt on and man it's sad pic.twitter.com/xkePG8rlsf
— Matt Ellentuck (@mellentuck) August 29, 2018
But herein lies the problem. Delle Donne is struggling right now. The bone bruise was pretty terrifying and she has been rehabbing, as much time in between games is essential for her recovery. There’s no doubt her playing provided an emotional lift to her teammates but they will be looking to her to supply more than the 14.5 points per game she managed against Phoenix in those two post-injury games.
A few surprise performances from players like Tierra Ruffin-Pratt’s in Game Four’s loss, and Hawkins’ in Game Five’s win will be essential if Delle Donne can’t provide.
Mystics on defense
Seattle isn’t the only Finals team with an All-Defensive player, as Atkins’ impressive performance made it onto the second team, a rare achievement for a rookie. She fights and hustles for every ball, on offense or defense, and saved the Mystics’ season on several occasions in that do-or-die semi-final match-up against Atlanta Dream.
But the team works brilliantly as a defensive unit and allowed just 79 points per game during the season, good for the third best defense in the W.
Players like Hawkins work their butts off and can guard post-ups and recover quickly to the perimeter on close-outs. And the Mystics’ opponents field goal percentage was not too shabby during the regular season – a middle of the pack 44.7%.
But they face some struggles securing stops. The Mystics were dead last in defensive rebounding during the season, despite possessing a top-15 rebounder in Delle Donne. She even managed to keep this up following her injury in the last round, managing 11 and 10 boards, respectively.
The problem Delle Donne faces is she is often pulled away from the basket on defense, and that will be an issue against the Storm. She will likely be guarding Breanna Stewart, who can stretch the floor to shoot from behind the arc at a 41% clip. The better option will be to match up with Natasha Howard, who is less of a threat, only shooting 1.5 threes per game at 32%. She is, however, an elite offensive rebounder, finishing fourth in the league, which makes neither player an easy task for someone who will need energy on offense as much as defense.
If Washington can find some help for Delle Donne on the boards, they may stand a chance.
Featured photo – via Washington Post / Seattle Times / Double Clutch illustration