WNBA Finals: Aces-Storm

Breanna Stewart with basketball

The Connecticut Sun did their best to put a scare in the number 1 seed, but after a grueling 5 game series, the Las Vegas Aces will meet the Seattle Storm in the finals. The first two games between these two teams have limited utility for predicting this match up, as Sue Bird missed both games and Breanna Stewart missed the second. Also, Dearica Hamby played in both games, and will miss the finals with a knee injury. 

My prediction for this game is that the Storm win in 4. Here are 2 big questions I have for the series.

Can the Carolyn Swords survive on defense?

Swords is clearly the Aces second best big at this point. Swords is a tough player to evaluate holistically, because she has clear limitations that can overshadow her positive contributions. Swords is a skilled, professional WNBA player. She is opportunistic in her scoring, even  busting out a running hook over a smaller player in the game 5 against the Sun. Defensively, she challenges a lot of shots at the rim, even though she blocks few of them. Trying to score over 6’6” Swords and 6’4” A’ja Wilson is challenging.

She was a +29 in the Aces series with the Sun, including a team best +18 in the final game of the series. This in a series in which the Aces were outscored overall by the Sun. Some of that is an artifact of how much Jackie Young struggled and Hamby before she was ruled out with her injury, but Swords did not hurt the Aces in the series overall.

Unfortunately for the Aces, the Seattle Storm are much better set up to pick at her limitations on defense than the Sun. Jasmine Thomas and Briann January were able to scoot by Swords, and neither are nearly as dynamic offensive players as Jewell Loyd or Sue Bird. Swords really struggles guarding in space.. Especially with Natasha Howard having at least somewhat rediscovered her 3 point shot, the Storm play 4 or 5 out most of the game, which will further stress Swords’ foot speed.

Jewell Loyd may be the key to this series. She has been playing as the best guard in this series, and is the key player in this series who can both shoot 3s off the dribble and get to the rim. If the Aces hedge or trap with Swords, the Storm have too many other players who are comfortable making plays 4 on 3. Look for Loyd to attack Swords in the pick and roll over and over and over again. 

Sue Bird will not penetrate all the way to the rim often, but she can shoot a high enough percentage off the dribble from the elbow that she still demands attention from the opposing team’s center. She is also a patient, expert pick and roll passer who can let Natasha Howard either pop or roll hard to the basket, and use her speed against Swords. This may be a series in which Swords does not have a place.

If that is the case, Bill Laimbeer’s options are challenging. Credit to the Aces making it this far, but they missed on the margins before the season at the back end of the bench. They could have had Beatrice Mompromier instead of Avery Warley-Talbert, and Mompromier would be a better fit in this series. Any positive minutes from Emma Cannon would be huge.

Moving Angel McCoughtry to the four could work. Wilson could guard Breanna Stewart and McCoughtry can handle guarding Howard. That forces Laimbeer to dig deeper into his wings and guards than is ideal. If Jackie Young got going, that would help, but more Sugar Rodgers is not the answer, unless she gets going from 3.

Can anyone on the Aces shoot well for 3 games?

For the Aces to win they will need shooting for 3 games. Ideally 3s, but even long 2s will help. Angel McCoughtry and Kayla McBride did just enough to beat a Sun team that was also starved for offense at times. The Seattle Storm are a team that is not starved for offense. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Sun were 10th in offensive rating at 100.1, while the Storm were the best offense in the league at 108.3. Oh, and the Storm also had the best defense in the league. 

If McCoughtry can play 34 good minutes a game, as she did in the final 2 games in the semifinals, the Aces will have a chance. McCoughtry has had her best season ever shooting the ball, and has not lost much athleticism, if any. She will have to be the second or third best player in this series for the Aces to win.

Unfortunately for the Aces, McBride had her worst shooting season this year, and has only gotten worse in the playoffs. Jewell Loyd may not be the defender Briann January is, but Loyd is a good defender. McBride has shot 14% from 3 so far in the playoffs. She has been too good of a shooter for too long for this to continue indefinitely, but the Aces will need her to start making some in this series. 

If McBride continues to struggle, and Jackie Young gives the Aces nothing, Sugar Rodgers is the only possible adjustment. She has yet to make a 3 in the playoffs, but has the ability to hit them. This is where the Aces miss Kelsey Plum even more than they miss Liz Cambage

In a vacuum, Liz Cambage is a more accomplished WNBA player than Kelsey Plum. But for this current iteration of the Aces, Plum’s presence would be more beneficial. Her combination of shooting and ability to attack the rim is simply something no one else on the roster possesses. Whereas A’ja Wilson has shown that she can carry the load in the paint ,and if anything, has benefited from not having to alternate possessions with Cambage.

That makes for an interesting subplot to watch in these playoffs and going forward. Until Wilson starts shooting 3s, her MVP season and Cambage’s absence will hang over this team, unless they are able to make another run to the finals next year.

But for now, a hopefully competitive series is here. Storm are the favorites, but the Aces have been surprising me all year, and maybe they can do it one last time.