The top two seeds reached the WNBA Finals, but it took a grind-it-out 66-63 victory Tuesday by the top-seeded Las Vegas Aces over the No. 7 seed Connecticut Sun to get there. Now the Aces, who won their semifinal series 3-2, will meet the No. 2 seed Seattle Storm, who swept the Minnesota Lynx in their semifinal, in the best-of-five Finals series that starts Friday (ESPN2/ESPN App, 7 p.m. ET).
The WNBA Finals match the teams that tied for the best regular-season record (18-4) and had the top two MVP candidates. Las Vegas' A'ja Wilson won that honor, but Seattle's Breanna Stewart, the 2018 MVP, is eager to pick up her second WNBA Finals MVP. She won her first in 2018 but missed last season because of an Achilles tendon injury.
The WNBA's bubble in Bradenton, Florida, has gone from 12 teams to two. Which one will be the last standing? Let's look ahead to the Finals.
Game 1, Oct. 2: Storm at Aces | 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2
Game 2, Oct. 4: Storm at Aces | 3 p.m. ET on ABC
Game 3, Oct. 6: Aces at Storm | 7 p.m. ET on ESPN
Game 4 (if necessary), Oct. 8: Aces at Storm | 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2
Game 5 (if necessary), Oct. 11: Storm at Aces | 3 p.m. ET on ABC
Does it matter that Las Vegas swept Seattle in the regular season?
Not really. The Aces' won the first matchup 82-74 on Aug. 22, and the second 86-84 on Sept. 13, the last day of the regular season. Not to take anything away from Las Vegas, but Seattle point guard Sue Bird didn't play in either of those games, and Stewart didn't play in the second one, as both were nursing injuries.
Stewart averaged 23.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 5.7 assists in the Storm's three semifinal games. Bird's best game of the series was the clincher Sunday, when she had 16 points and nine assists. Bottom line: Seattle looked very strong in sweeping the Lynx.
But you can't discount the Aces' regular-season wins against the Storm, nor their grit in battling back from being down 2-1 in their series against Connecticut. Defense has been a key for the Aces, and they'll need a lot of it against Seattle.
The Aces are the No. 1 seed, but the Storm were the preseason favorite. Seattle has largely the same roster as 2018, when the Storm won the WNBA championship. So Las Vegas comes into the Finals a little more the underdog, regardless of seed. Aces coach Bill Laimbeer will try to use that to both take the pressure off his team and fire up his players.
How did they get here?
Neither team lost much during the shortened 22-game regular season. Las Vegas had the same starting lineup for all but one of those games, whereas Seattle didn't have Bird for 11 games.
Still, Jordin Canada (7.9 PPG, 5.5 APG in the regular season) filled in well starting at point guard when Bird was out, just as Canada did all last season when Bird didn't play. Stewart missed two games but largely was the picture of consistency in her 20 regular-season contests at 19.7 PPG, 8.3 RPG and 3.6 APG.
"Grateful to be here, grateful to be back playing at a high level," said Stewart of coming back from her April 2019 injury. "Just happy to be with my team. I think that was the biggest thing that I missed when I was out rehabbing. I'm excited for what we've done, and what we still have to do in the future."
Seattle's Jewell Loyd (15.5 PPG in regular season, 17.3 in the playoffs) is one of the most dangerous scoring guards in the league. The Storm also have Alysha Clark, a unanimous first-team all-defensive selection, and Natasha Howard, last season's defensive player of the year.
Just as Stewart was like a metronome for the Storm, Wilson was the same for the Aces: They could always count on her. She averaged 20.5 PPG, 8.5 RPG and 2.0 BPG in the regular season; those numbers have jumped to 21.8, 10.4 and 3.0 in the playoffs. Angel McCoughtry has been the team's second-leading scorer in the regular season (14.4) and playoffs (16.0). With Dearica Hamby out (more on that below), Danielle Robinson (10.2 PPG) and Kayla McBride (8.0) have been the next-best threats for Las Vegas during the playoffs.
The Storm won Game 1 of its semifinals with Minnesota 88-86 on Clark's putback with less than a second left. But they widened the margin in Game 2 (89-79) and Game 3 (92-71).
Things were tougher in the semifinals for the Aces, who lost the first and third games of their series with Connecticut, and trailed Game 5 on Tuesday by as much as 16 points. According to Elias Sports Bureau, that is the largest comeback in a winner-take-all game to advance to the WNBA Finals.
The Aces did it thanks mostly to defense in what felt like a second-half battle of attrition.
The Sun were 10-of-24 (41.7%) on contested shots in the first half, after which they led 45-39, but 5-of-20 (25%) in the second half, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Connecticut's 18 second-half points were the fewest in a playoff half since the Los Angeles Sparks had 15 in the first half of a 2008 playoff game against Seattle.
The Aces made only two field goals in the fourth quarter -- the lowest of any winning playoff team in the final quarter since the Indiana Fever made only one in beating Minnesota in Game 4 of the 2015 WNBA Finals. Wilson's free throw shooting carried the Aces; she made 9 of 10 foul shots in the game and finished with 23 points.
Holding the high-scoring Storm to 63 points seems unlikely, but the Aces know they have a strong defense.
Who is missing?
Two key reserves for are out of the WNBA Finals: the Aces' Hamby and the Storm's Sami Whitcomb.
Hamby, a 6-foot-3 forward who was the league's Sixth Woman of the Year this season, suffered a knee injury in the semifinals. It's a big loss on both ends of the court, as Hamby is one of the Aces' top defenders and averaged 13.0 PPG and 7.1 RPG in the regular season. She also averaged 28.3 minutes during the regular season and 25.0 in her three playoff games.
"It's going to hurt us a little bit; she gives us that extra body to play on Stewie," Laimbeer said of defending the 6-4 Stewart. He added that the 6-1 McCoughtry, 6-foot Jackie Young and 6-2 Emma Cannon will all spend time at the power forward position.
Whitcomb was part of the Storm's 2018 championship team. This year, coming off the bench again, the 5-10 guard played in all 25 games for Seattle, averaging 8.1 points, 2.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists in the regular season, and 5.0 PPG, 1.3 RPG and 1.7 APG in the playoffs.
Whitcomb averaged 16.5 minutes in the regular season to 10.7 in the postseason. That's not a big surprise, as rotations often get tighter in the playoffs. But Whitcomb's minutes still will be missed, along with her 3-point shooting threat (32 treys in the regular season, three in the semifinals).
A fourth title for Seattle, or a first for Las Vegas?
Seattle is looking to tie Minnesota and Houston, a defunct franchise, with four WNBA titles. The Storm have lost only one game in the Finals. They beat Connecticut 2-1 in 2004, when it was still a best-of-three series, swept Atlanta 3-0 in 2010 and swept Washington in 2018.
"I think our players understand the historical moment that they're in," said Seattle's Gary Kloppenburg, who has filled in as head coach with Dan Hughes not in the bubble for health reasons. "They really want to come out, be ready and bring a championship back to Seattle."
This is the first trip to the Finals for the Aces in that franchise's third season in Las Vegas. The Aces started as the Utah Starzz in the WNBA's inaugural year, 1997, and moved to San Antonio in 2003. The highlight for San Antonio was a trip to the 2008 WNBA Finals, but the Stars were swept by the Detroit Shock, who were coached by Laimbeer.
San Antonio's last playoff appearance was in 2014, Becky Hammon's final WNBA season. In 2015, '16 and '17, the Stars had the league's worst record, and then they moved to Las Vegas to become the Aces. The franchise got No. 1 draft picks in 2017 (Kelsey Plum), 2018 (Wilson) and 2019 (Young). Plum is out this season because of a torn Achilles tendon, and center Liz Cambage is sitting out on a medical hardship, but they were part of the Aces team that reached the semifinals last year.
With Wilson elevating to MVP level this year, the Aces are now in the Finals. It's especially gratifying for someone such as Kayla McBride, who was with San Antonio in 2014-17 and experienced three seasons in the WNBA cellar.
"You remember when these teams used to smack on you," McBride said. "I remember when we used to go to Minnesota and get our ass kicked by 30. In the back of my mind, I'm always remembering we started at the bottom. I'm so thankful for Vegas and this organization, because they've created something really special."
How important is experience?
It can't be discounted. As mentioned, the Storm are much the same as their 2018 title team; they have eight players back from that championship run (Whitcomb would have made it nine). Plus, Bird is a 17-season veteran who also started for the 2004 and 2010 Storm championship teams. But she's also not someone who will overvalue looking back.
"We reference it at times -- 'we ran this in 2018,' or 'we guarded it this way in 2018' -- just because we have the same people," Bird said. "But I feel like you can get caught up sometimes in thinking about the past. We really haven't done that. This is this team's year, this team's journey. And It won't matter if we don't finish the job anyway."
For the Aces, two players have previously been to the Finals with other teams. McCoughtry led the Atlanta Dream to the Finals in 2010, '11 and '13. But they were swept in all those series; in the first by Seattle and the other two by Minnesota. The Aces' Sugar Rodgers was a rookie on that 2013 Lynx team that beat the Dream for the title.
McCoughtry, who came to Las Vegas as a free agent this season, said it has been a long journey for her to return to the Finals. That included missing all of the 2019 season after an ACL injury she suffered late in the 2018 season.
"To come back and be able to contend for a championship, it's emotional for me," McCoughtry said. "I really thank the Aces organization for believing in me."