WNBA Finals 2020 Roundtable — Predicting who wins Aces-Storm and why

They had matching 18-4 regular-season records, but there’s not much else that’s very similar about the Las Vegas Aces and Seattle Storm, who meet in the WNBA Finals starting Friday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App). One franchise has been in three cities and finally seems to have found its best home on The Strip, and now seeks its first championship. The other is a three-time champion in the Pacific Northwest who has benefited from back-to-back No. 1 picks in 2001-02 and 2015-16, three of whom are currently starting.

The Aces, led by MVP A’ja Wilson, got the top seed because they won both regular-season matchups against the Storm: 82-74 on Aug. 22 and 86-84 on Sept. 13. But with Breanna Stewart missing one of those games and Sue Bird both, the Storm weren’t quite themselves in those matchups, which they’ll try to prove now.

Seattle’s most recent championship, in 2018, was a dominant sweep of the Washington Mystics, who were making their first Finals appearance. Much of the Storm’s personnel is the same this year, and they’ve had the favorite tag all season. Coach Bill Laimbeer came to the Aces when they started in Las Vegas in 2018, believing they could be a championship team in just a few years.

ESPN analysts Rebecca Lobo and LaChina Robinson and ESPN.com’s Kevin Pelton and Mechelle Voepel discuss the series that will close out a season in the bubble in Bradenton, Florida.

What prevails in this series: Las Vegas’ grind-it-out strength or Seattle’s spread-it-out shooting?

Angel McCoughtry is averaging almost 6 minutes more per game in the playoffs than in the regular season, and brings 16 PPG to Las Vegas in the postseason. Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Lobo: The outcome of each game of the Connecticut-Las Vegas series was determined by the team that imposed its will and brought more toughness defensively in the paint. Seattle’s spacing and shooting presents a completely different challenge for the Aces’ defense. But Las Vegas forward/guard Angel McCoughtry’s increased minutes will put pressure on Seattle’s perimeter defenders as well. She had 13 points and 14 rebounds in only 22 minutes in the first meeting. I’m eager to see what she can bring in this series while playing 30-plus minutes per game.

Pelton: The Aces got the better of the stylistic contrast twice during the regular season, but I think a full-strength Storm squad can present more challenges in this series with Sue Bird providing more floor spacing than Jordin Canada did starting in her place in those two games. Dearica Hamby’s absence — the 6-foot-3 forward, the WNBA’s Sixth Woman of the Year the past two seasons, was averaging 13.0 points and 7.1 rebounds when she suffered a season-ending knee injury last week — figures to loom large here. She provided a happy medium between Las Vegas’ big starting lineup and smaller units with McCoughtry at power forward and Wilson at center.

Voepel: Wilson said the Aces’ defense is at its best when “We’re just moving, we’re in a groove, it’s like we’re all on a string. It’s tough at times; you can get out of rhythm. But for us, it’s just putting stops together, and I think that’s going to be key against a good Seattle team that knows how to execute.”

That wraps up the style battle. As Rebecca said, Seattle brings a different challenge, but the way Las Vegas needs to respond is similar. You have a team that’s good at 3-point shooting (the Storm had 30 treys in three playoff games) vs. a team that isn’t (the Aces had 10 in five), so the possession battle is crucial for Las Vegas.

A combined five former No. 1 draft picks will be on the court (a sixth, Aces guard Kelsey Plum, is out this season with an Achilles tendon injury). What player matchup other than Breanna Stewart-A’ja Wilson will have the biggest impact on the series?

Robinson: I think the performance of the Aces’ backcourt will decide the series. Can Danielle Robinson and Jackie Young hit enough shots to keep the defense honest on Wilson? Can any combination of Vegas’ backcourt contain Seattle’s Jewell Loyd and make life tough for Bird? What role will Aces guard Kayla McBride play, and can Laimbeer figure out a way to maximize her skill set in this series?

How well Seattle’s Alysha Clark, a unanimous pick for the WNBA’s all-defensive first team, guards Las Vegas’ Angel McCoughtry is expected to be an X factor in the WNBA Finals. Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Pelton: I’m going with Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Alysha Clark defending McCoughtry. Asked about that matchup on Wednesday, Clark highlighted McCoughtry’s ability to get hot, something the Seattle forward experienced first-hand in the 2016 playoffs when McCoughtry went for 37 points in a first-round victory over the Storm. Clark has improved defensively since then and has a lot more help behind her on the league’s best defense, but McCoughtry remains equally flammable at age 34 after ACL surgery: She went for 19 of her game-high 29 points in the second half of the Aces’ Game 4 win over the Sun.

Voepel: LaChina and Kevin have covered a lot of the key matchups. But I will be interested to see how the two “true” 6-foot-6 centers — Las Vegas’ Carolyn Swords, who starts, and Seattle’s Mercedes Russell, who comes off the bench — do when both are in the game. This was not the year of the center in the WNBA: The Minnesota Lynx’s Sylvia Fowles was hurt most of the season, the Phoenix Mercury’s Brittney Griner left the bubble for personal reasons in August, and Las Vegas’ Liz Cambage didn’t play due to a medical exemption. Cambage’s absence opened the door for Swords to come back after her very brief retirement following last season, and how glad are the Aces that she did? Both Russell and Swords know exactly what their roles are, but both have played a little more and a little better in the postseason than the regular season. Will the big women have a big impact? “Big” is stretching it. But if Swords didn’t defend and rebound like she did in Game 5 vs. the Sun, Connecticut might be in the Finals. And without Russell’s 10 points and six rebounds in Game 1 vs. Minnesota, that series wouldn’t have been a sweep for the Storm.

What’s the biggest thing you’re watching as MVPs A’ja Wilson (2020) and Breanna Stewart (2018) lead their teams into the WNBA Finals?

Lobo: In the teams’ first regular-season meeting (Stewart did not play in the second), Wilson guarded Stewart — but Stewart did not match up with Wilson, instead defending Swords. Since Hamby’s absence, Wilson played all 40 minutes of both Games 4 and 5 (she averaged 31.7 MPG in the regular season). I’m wondering if she can continue to be an effective ironwoman for Las Vegas while chasing Stewart out to the 3-point line. And can Seattle’s Natasha Howard and Russell slow down the MVP on the other end?

Center Carolyn Swords briefly retired and joined the Aces staff as a marketing specialist in February. Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

Robinson: I am looking forward to the 4 vs. 5 matchup between Las Vegas’ Wilson and Swords and Seattle’s Stewart and Howard. Teams often attack Swords by putting her in pick-and-rolls and forcing her to guard pick-and-pops or drives to the rim. Seattle’s inside game has the face-up skill to capitalize on that.

On the plus side for Vegas, Swords and Wilson wore down Connecticut’s interior game down the stretch because they are so big and physical. It might not often show up on the stat sheet, but Swords has had an incredible impact over the past two games for Las Vegas without Hamby.

Pelton: Whether the Storm can keep Wilson off the foul line. The Aces are a perfect 7-0 this season when Wilson attempts at least 10 free throws, including their head-to-head win over Seattle with Stewart on the court back in August. In the kind of low-scoring, defensive series Las Vegas presumably wants to drag the Storm into, those points loom large.

Voepel: Stewart doesn’t have to say it, but you know she’s got to be a little peeved not winning MVP this year. Wilson definitely earned it, but Stewart was also right there. This series is her chance to make a statement. Interestingly enough, Wilson might be thinking somewhat the same thing, too.

They were both really good in their regular-season matchup on Aug. 22, when Stewart had 29 points and 18 rebounds while Wilson had 23 and 14. Stewart won the 2018 title in her third year in the WNBA, and now Wilson is trying to win a title in her third season. They’re two superstar-level performers close to the same age — Stewart is 26 and Wilson 24 — so it’s exactly the kind of matchup you love to see in any series.

What (or who) is the biggest X factor that will play a part in deciding the winner?

Lobo: With Sami Whitcomb no longer with Seattle, Epiphanny Prince could play a big role off the bench for the Storm. While Canada is the first guard off the bench, she isn’t a 3-point threat. Prince is. When Las Vegas ramps up its paint defense and forces Seattle to shoot from the perimeter, Prince could have an impact.

For Vegas, Young could bounce back nicely in this series. She played only a combined 19 minutes in Games 4 and 5 in the semifinals, going 0-for-8 from the field in those games. But her size could be disruptive on the defensive end against Seattle. And her ability to see over some of Seattle’s long traps and doubles on the perimeter could help her reverse the ball or get it inside to Wilson.

Robinson: Pace will be the biggest X factor. Las Vegas needs to make life hard defensively on Seattle with its physicality, stop the Storm’s transition offense, limit ball movement and force them to play in the half court. If this were the regular season, I would say the Aces need to play with pace on offense — but they have found a different type of success in the playoffs with a lower-scoring grindfest because of the personnel available to them. This also allows them to play through an unstoppable Wilson in the half court. Fast-break opportunities are the exception, with Robinson or McCoughtry leading the way.

Pelton: I think it’s Robinson, who excelled against the Storm’s trapping defense during the regular season, averaging 14.5 PPG in the two meetings — most against any opponent this year. In particular, Robinson was able to drive too easily when she caught the ball on the perimeter. In this series, the Storm must be more disciplined about closing out short to Robinson and making her beat them with jumpers rather than layups.

Voepel: If Loyd is really “on,” she can take over games and frustrate defenses. A big series from her should mean a championship for Seattle. For the Aces, McCoughtry has tasted the Finals three times but never won a game. If nothing else, she wants to end that streak. At 34, she has been on the court more in the playoffs than she played in the regular season, but she’s embracing it and relishing the moment.

What’s your prediction?

Pelton: I’m going with Seattle in four games. As well as Canada played in her stead, the Storm were a different team with Bird on the court this season. They scored 15.6 more points per 100 possessions when she played according to WNBA.com/Stats. So provided Bird can make it through the series healthy, this is a better Seattle team than Las Vegas faced in the regular season. I also wonder if fatigue will become an issue for the Aces at some point. They had to grind out a difficult five-game series against Connecticut while the Storm dispatched Minnesota in three games. Add in Laimbeer relying more heavily on his starters without Hamby available and I think the Storm can wear down Las Vegas over the course of the series.

Voepel: I don’t think it will be a sweep. But I can’t quite say I know how the Aces can stretch this to five games, for all the reasons Kevin lists. With Hamby, it would be possible. Without her, it’s going to be tough. So I will say Seattle in four games, too — unless the Aces win Game 1. Then I think there’s a greater chance we go to five. Ultimately, with Bird this close to another title at age almost-40 (she hits that milestone this month), I can’t see her being denied.

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