2018 WNBA Finals Preview: Seattle Storm vs Washington Mystics

The 2018 season comes down to two very talented teams. Which will prevail as WNBA Champions?

Tuesday night proved to be one of the most exciting nights in WNBA Playoff history, and now it has come down to two of the best teams in the league battling it out for the 2018 WNBA Championship.

The Seattle Storm rallied back after a bad first half (as well as their first back-to-back losses of the entire season) thanks to Sue Bird's 4th quarter heroics to beat the very tough Phoenix Mercury in an instant classic; meanwhile the Washington Mystics relied heavily on the play of rookie forward Ariel Atkins to survive and advance against the #2 seeded Atlanta Dream. The question, now, is how these two teams stack up against one another, and who will prevail to become WNBA Champions?

Let's first look at each team's overall performance this year.

Expectations Met for Seattle

The Seattle Storm have met the expectations that many had at the beginning of the playoffs. They earned the #1 seed and a bye into the semi-finals, as well as home court advantage throughout the playoffs. They earned the best record in the regular season at 26-8, and were by many measures the best team in the league. So no one is surprised to see them in the Finals. But most fans probably didn't see it that way at the start of the season, and they continued to exceed expectations as the season progressed. I myself saw this team making the playoffs, and maybe battling their way into the semis. I certainly did not predict them ending up with the best offense and the second or third best defense in the league. And I did not expect Breanna Stewart to be named MVP. I knew the duo of Jewell Loyd and Stewart was going to be strong, and they have continued to develop and grow as players and teammates the past 3 years, right on schedule it would have seemed. But I did not see the leaps and bounds they would both make this season. Stewart has obviously had the better year, but both players have really starred in some big moments and have had some fantastic games. I also did not predict Natasha Howard coming in and becoming arguably the second best player on the team, as well as winning the Most Improved Player Award. I didn't see Sue Bird having such a great season at age 37. But here we are, 4 months later and the Storm are going the Finals looking for their third WNBA Championship. The team is not without its weaknesses, however: the overall play by much of the bench, the inconsistent play of Jewell Loyd, and the defense at times are all concerning. More on that all in a bit, but now let's talk about the Mystics.

Perseverance is Key for Mystics Playoff Push

The 2018 Washington Mystics serve as a reminder to all teams everywhere: When you get knocked down, you gotta get back up and keep fighting. Year one with Elena Delle Donne in 2017 was ultimately disappointing for the Mystics because of the many injuries that the team suffered throughout the regular season. It only hurt more once they got bounced by Minnesota in the Semifinals 3 games to none. Then came the news in the offseason that Emma Meesseman would be sitting out the 2018 season to rest and focus on the Belgian National team's run at the World Cup. That seemed at the time to be a huge blow to the Mystics chances of climbing any higher in the playoffs this year. Where would their inside scoring come from? Who would defend Brittney Griner, Sylvia Fowles, or Liz Cambage? I looked at the team's lack of height and wondered if their 3-point shooting and small ball style of play could compete in the league this year. But then LaToya Sanders stepped in and filled the void that Meesseman had left. As the regular season came to a close, the Mystics in their own way, like every team that made the playoffs, looked dangerous. Elena Delle Donne, an MVP Candidate, Kristi Toliver a deadly assassin, especially from behind the 3-point line, Natasha Cloud with her improved play and strong defense, standout rookie Ariel Atkins with her scoring, and Sanders with her fantastic play in the paint all added up to a team nobody wanted to see in the playoffs. And thus far, no team that has played them have been able to outlast them. This team has continued to push past last season's disappointments and injuries and has found success with the league's winningest coach Mike Thibault. So the question is: Which team will end up winning what should be a very competitive Finals series? Perhaps the statistics can tell us who's going to win it all.

A Look At the Numbers

Seattle was the highest rated offense in 2018, while the Mystics were the third highest, according to Basketball-Reference.com. So we can give the advantage to Seattle. The margin in the offensive rating was less than a point though, so let's look at shooting percentages. The Storm were the best field goal shooting team in the league in 2018, with a 4% better rate than the Mystics who ranked seventh. And in 3-point shooting, one of the strongest aspects of both teams, the Storm again shot slightly better. Seattle were the team with the highest 3-point shooting percentage in the league at 37.6%, which put them about 2% better than the fifth-ranked Mystics at 35.8%. In the rebounding department, the Seattle Storm win that battle as well, as they ranked fifth overall with 35.4 rebounds per game, while the Mystics ranked eleventh with 32.6. Looking at assists, the Storm are the far better passing team, as they ranked second with 21.2 assists per game, while the Mystics averaged 17.8 per game, good for only second to last in the league. According to WNBA.com's Advanced Stats, the Storm had the best offensive and defensive rating differential in the league at 9.4, while Washington was third at 4.2. Both teams were top 4 in the league in true shooting percentage as well as effective field goal percentage, but Seattle gets the slight edge in both categories. Seattle also get the win in the assist to turnover over ratio department, as they tied the Aces for the best ratio with 1.58, while the Mystics were ranked fifth with 1.46.

On paper and in the standings, the Storm have been the better team, and they have the better overall starting five, but the Mystics have the edge in a very important area: they have the better bench. Tianna Hawkins, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, and Aerial Powers have been a better rotation off the bench than the Storm's Jordin Canada, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Sami Whitcomb, Crystal Langhorne, and Courtney Paris have been. With that said, there have been games all season long where individual players have come off the bench and really played well for Seattle. We simply haven't seen the consistency that I believe the Mystics rotation of bench players provides. With that said, I still give the nod to the Storm as the overall superior team on both ends of the floor.

Throw the Regular Season Out of the Window

Even though Storm were the better regular-season team with the better stats and the better starting five, that was the regular season, and this is the WNBA Finals. This is a whole different type of basketball. The Phoenix Mercury took it to the Storm hard for five grueling games. Phoenix showed Seattle, for most of the series, exactly what a battle-tested, experienced, and highly talented group of players can do come playoff time. The Storm's relative lack of playoff experience really showed, especially in the 4th quarter of every game except game 5, where Sue Bird's wisdom, leadership, and experience pushed the Storm past the Mercury and into their first Finals in eight years. But Washington has been a very good looking team so far in the playoffs. Right now, they are posting an offensive/defensive rating differential of 11.6, while the Storm are putting up a differential of -0.7. That is scary if you are a Storm fan. If we look at the Mystics, Delle Donne has been injured, but she has shown she can fight through her knee injury to provide important minutes, leadership, and points. Toliver struggled with her shot mightily against Atlanta, but found a rhythm in Game 5 and helped them close out a huge road win. Ariel Atkins provided the kind of spark that young players and role players often do come playoff time. She showed up in a big, big way against Atlanta, and I expect her to continue to bring it against Seattle. Natasha Cloud and LaToya Sanders can provide crucial support on defense, but they can also rebound and score on the offensive end as well. Hawkins and Pratt will need to continue to provide solid minutes, and one of them may really need to have a breakout game if Delle Donne still isn't 100 percent. If we throw out the regular season, not even counting that the Mystics destroyed the Storm in their final regular-season meeting, the Mystics right now are looking like a very strong, very tough match-up for Seattle. But let's look at the individual match-ups and see where each team may have the edge.

Elena Delle Donne vs Breanna Stewart

According to our Hashtag Basketball Player Rankings, Breanna Stewart and Elena Delle Donne were the two overall best players in the WNBA this season. I would agree with that assessment entirely. These two players represent the future and the now of basketball. They both possess extreme length, they both can play any position, they can score from inside and out, they can block, rebound, steal, pass, shoot the three, run, and lead. They are both a combination of Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki, Andrei Kirilenko, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Lauren Jackson. No I am not kidding. They inherit all of the qualities, abilities, and talents of this long lineage of NBA and WNBA talent because the game of basketball now demands it. The spacing, the move to more 3-point shooting, the defensive switching, the way the game is changing means that if you want to win in the WNBA, you have to have a player like Stewart or Delle Donne on your team. And now both league MVPs will battle it out to see who can win an WNBA Championship first. With Delle Donne's likely nagging knee injury, I give Stewart the edge in this match-up, but even if Delle Donne were injury-free, I'd still pick Stewart with a slight advantage.

Sue Bird vs Natasha Cloud

As long as the mask doesn't bother her like it seemed to in the first half of Game 5 versus the Mercury, Bird should easily outplay Cloud on both ends of the floor. That is not to say Cloud won't be a good match-up against Bird, I suspect she will play some very good defense in stretches. But ultimately, if Bird stays healthy, her experience and leadership is going to run circles around Cloud. Sue Bird gets the big edge in this one.

Natasha Howard vs LaToya Sanders

Two former Minnesota Lynx having breakout seasons? Count me excited for a low-post match-up between two players that have really become two of the most important starters on either team. Howard can score big numbers, but Sanders is no slouch and has shown several times throughout the season she can put up lots of points. Sanders can also rebound and blocks shots. One weakness of Howard's is her fouls, as she led the league in total fouls this season with 126, 16 more than second place Brittney Griner. She will need to stay out of foul trouble if she wants to be able to help her team win. Howard gets the edge in this match-up.

Jewell Loyd vs Kristi Toliver

Loyd, as mentioned earlier, is having a pretty darn good season as one of the best young guards in the league. She was Rookie of the Year in 2015 and has only gotten better as each season has come and gone. But she has been somewhat inconsistent with her scoring and her shooting throughout this summer. I don't know if she feels like she is being overshadowed by Sue Bird or the excellent play of Howard, but her streaky play really worries me, especially in a pressure-packed Finals series. She could well be called upon to take over a game if someone else in the starting lineup is hurt, and she is going to have to put any jitters or pressure behind her and play as well as she has shown that she is capable. Kristi Toliver has also struggled a bit in the playoffs, but she has the experience as a veteran of the league and a championship already under her belt. That, in my opinion, gives her the edge over Loyd in this series.

Alysha Clark vs Ariel Atkins

Clark had a very good Game 5, posting 13 points and 13 rebounds. But like Loyd, she is streaky at best on the offensive end. She will have her hands full if she expects to win the battle between her and Atkins. Clark's defense is really her strongest asset, and I expect her to be very motivated to disrupt Atkins' offensive flow. If Atkins can play as well as she has been, however, moving well with and without the ball, I expect her to win this individual match-up and I give her the edge in this series.

Bench vs Bench

The benches of each team look to be primed and ready to play their roles in this series. I have questions about Jordin Canada's offense, as well as Paris and Mosqueda-Lewis' outside shooting. I think Whitcomb will rise to the occasion, but don't be surprised if she struggles during a game or two. For the Mystics, Ruffin-Pratt and Hawkins look very motivated to win and are playing very solid during the minutes they are getting. Aerial Powers has been spotty, not unlike Canada for Seattle, but I think she likes to battle and has a passion the lends itself well to big moments like we are used to seeing in the Finals. Again, I have to give the Mystics bench the edge in this series.

Final Answer

After looking at all the numbers and individual match-ups, this series really comes down to two players handling the pressure of the WNBA Finals: newly minted MVP Breanna Stewart and her teammate Jewell Loyd. They have been pushed and promoted as the most promising young duo in the league, they were back-to-back Rookies of the Year, and I think they are in the Finals sooner than they or any of their fans expected. Was Stewart a 4-time NCAA Champion and won basically every award imaginable? Yes, but we saw what crunch time can do to her game, particularly if she gets rattled like we saw in game 4 after her elbow took out her teammate Sue Bird. If they can handle the pressure and out-duel Toliver and Delle Donne, they win the series. Will Sue Bird's or Delle Donne's injuries make a big difference? I think Bird pushes through and plays just fine, but I think Delle Donne's knee could be what keeps them from ultimately hoisting the trophy this year. I don't think the pressure of the Finals will get to her, though, like it might with Stewart or Loyd. Stewart has to outplay and outsmart Delle Donne, and Loyd has to find a way to score and get assists despite Toliver and Cloud's defense. If they can play their best and they get the help expected from their teammates, this could be the first of several WNBA Championships for Loyd, Stewart, and the Seattle Storm.

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