The top two teams in the league will meet in the WNBA Finals, which open Sunday (ESPN, 3 p.m. ET). Elena Delle Donne, the 2019 MVP, and the top-seeded Washington Mystics have home-court advantage in the best-of-five series, and will host Games 1, 2 and, if necessary, Game 5.
The No. 2 seed Connecticut Sun won the regular-season series 2-1, but the teams haven’t played each other since June 29. This is the first WNBA Finals since 2011 in which both teams are seeking their first title.
So which team is the favorite? And what — or who — is the X factor in the championship series? (Editor’s note: Rebecca Lobo and LaChina Robinson opted not to predict a winner.)
Sean Hurd, The Undefeated
When healthy, the starting lineups for Washington and Connecticut yield high-powered scoring presences, phenomenal backcourt leadership and players who can light up the court from beyond the arc. Each core group also dominates in different ways: the Mystics move the ball well and execute and efficient offense, and the Sun’s suffocating defense can disrupt an opposing team’s offensive rhythm.
So the difference will come from the sixth player on down. What will Washington receive from its bench, some combination of Aerial Powers, Kristi Toliver, Tianna Hawkins and Emma Meesseman, each of whom have shined during key parts of the Mystics’ run? What will Connecticut draw from players like Brionna Jones and Bria Holmes, who have given the Sun big lifts during their own respective run. If Layshia Clarendon returns to the lineup and is able to contribute, that could become crucial for the Sun. The edge for this series could come from the scorer’s table.
Pick: Mystics in four.
Rebecca Lobo, ESPN analyst
Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas and Washington’s Emma Meesseman will be the keys to this series.
Up to this point, Thomas has been the toughest “dog” in the fight. She has been the most physical player in the playoffs and imposed her will every minute she has been on the floor. Which Mystics player will guard her and can they slow her down?
Meesseman’s fourth quarter in Game 4 against Las Vegas is the biggest reason the series didn’t go to a Game 5. But she has been efficient all season for Washington, and has finally become comfortable shooting the ball at a higher volume. When Meesseman plays alongside Elena Delle Donne in the smaller lineup, the offensive spacing becomes a nightmare for the defense.
Pick: This will be a more competitive Finals than 2019. As long as all the key players stay healthy, we’re in for close games and a long series.
D’Arcy Maine, espnW.com
The Sun and the Mystics met three times this season, with Connecticut winning two of those matchups. However, Washington made a statement in its lone win, handing the Sun their biggest loss in franchise history with a 102-59 drubbing. If the Mystics are to win this series, they probably will want to look at what they did on that night in June and recreate it as best they can with strong shooting (they were 53% from the field), plentiful looks from beyond the arc and capitalizing on free throws (the team was a perfect 21-for-21), as well as shutting down the Sun on defense and getting the team out of its rhythm. The Sun have been hotter than, well, the sun lately, so the Mystics must find a way to disrupt their momentum and soaring confidence — and also remember just how bad losing in the Finals stung last year.
For the Sun, it’s going to come down to — wait for it — its “role” players doing what they’ve done best all season long, and not letting their lack of collective Finals experience or nerves get in the way. The team has used the same starting lineup every game this season, and the core five, as well as the key reserves, will need to keep creating plays, pounding the glass and stifling the Mystics with their lockdown defense. One of the Sun’s greatest assets is its chemistry among the players — when one player gets hot, everyone seems to feed off of it — and that could be what carries them across the finish line this year for the first time in team history.
Pick: Sun in four. (And yes, this is in small part because I don’t want to cause any disrespeCT or be publicly shamed by the team’s Twitter account.)
Kevin Pelton, ESPN.com
Connecticut’s offensive rebounding will be key. The Sun dominated the offensive glass in their semifinals sweep of the Los Angeles Sparks, rebounding 36.6% of their missed shots, according to WNBA Advanced Stats and breaking the Sparks’ will by preventing them from finishing stops with a defensive board. The Mystics managed to beat Las Vegas despite being at an even greater disadvantage on the defensive glass (the Aces rebounded 37.7% of their own misses), so they don’t need to rebound well to win. If Washington is competitive on the defensive glass, however, this could be a sweep.
Pick: Mystics in four. As in the last series, the Mystics’ size disadvantage in the middle will pose problems, but ones they can overcome with their elite shooting.
LaChina Robinson, ESPN analyst
Curt Miller and Mike Thibault are two great coaches who are going to take away what their opponent likes to do best from players 1-5, and that is where players 6-8 become important. Who can come off the bench and give their team a shot of adrenaline and do the little things to stop a run or build momentum?
Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
There will be so much attention, understandably, on the forwards in this series. But the defense of Washington guards Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins could be a big lift to the Mystics’ title hopes. Connecticut’s Jasmine Thomas and Courtney Williams both had strong performances in the semifinals against Los Angeles, including a 29-point game from Thomas and a 25-pointer from Williams. If Cloud and Atkins are able to limit the Sun’s perimeter offense, that puts more pressure on the rest of Connecticut’s attack. Cloud and Atkins are both strong and quick, and they bring a lot of energy defensively. They’ll need all that against Thomas and Williams.
Pick: Mystics in five games. Earning home-court advantage should serve the Mystics well, because this series could go the distance. It’s odd that the schedule worked out that these teams haven’t played each other since June 29, so we don’t have a recent matchup to look toward. Plus, the Mystics’ Elena Delle Donne missed the first meeting on May 25, as she was still dealing with some knee pain. And Washington’s Emma Meesseman missed the other two meetings in June as she was with her Belgian national team. For most of the semifinal series with Las Vegas, Delle Donne and Meesseman proved to be difficult for the Aces to contain, and that could be the case again against the Sun.
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