What does a fifth championship mean in the WNBA?
It means you’re tied with Rebekkah Brunson for most rings accumulated by an individual player in league history. For Sue Bird, who has won her four championships so far as either the second- or third-best player on her team, it would mean surpassing Brunson, who won all her championships as either the fourth- or fifth-best player on her team, as the greatest WNBA champion of all-time in many people’s minds.
Bird’s Seattle Storm are in a position to compete towards getting her that fifth championship in this, her final season in the league. First up for the 4th-seeded Storm in the 2022 playoffs are the 5th-seeded Washington Mystics.
This is the most highly-anticipated first-round series as it is the only one without a heavy favorite. The Storm (22-14) and Mystics (22-14) are both seen as championship contenders. Seattle has the best player in the world and a former MVP in Breanna Stewart, while the Mystics have a two-time MVP in Elena Delle Donne, who just three years ago was considered to be Stewart’s equal. Back issues have complicated that, but Delle Donne’s 17.2 points per game this year are undeniable and perhaps she will give the Storm nightmares.
The Storm fought hard to secure home court advantage in the first two games of this series, winning the tiebreaker because of a 2-1 record against the Mystics this year. They are perhaps slight favorites because of their top-end talent of Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Tina Charles, but the Mystics have the best defense in the league, an underrated supporting cast surrounding Delle Donne and one of the greatest coaches of all-time in Mike Thibault. This is not going to be an easy series for Seattle.
Here’s a preview of it from the Storm’s perspective. For a preview of this series from the Mystics’ perspective, click below:
Game 1: Thursday, Aug. 18 at 10 p.m. ET vs. Washington Mystics (ESPN2)
Game 2: Sunday, Aug. 21 at 4 p.m. ET vs. Washington Mystics (ESPN)
Game 3: Wednesday, Aug. 24 at TBD at Washington Mystics (if necessary)
Regular-season series (Storm won 2-1)
This was before Tina Charles arrived in Seattle. A key defender in Elizabeth Williams was missing for the Mystics.
Back-to-back threes from Delle Donne and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough cut Washington’s deficit to two with 7:07 to go and the Mystics cut it to two again at 5:55. But the Storm followed that with a 9-0 run and would lead by at least nine the rest of the way.
Stewart had a near-triple-double with 19 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. Loyd and Ezi Magbegor had 22 and 20 points, respectively and Bird had 12 points, eight helpers and three steals. Loyd was 6-of-8 from three.
Delle Donne led Washington with 20 points, while Myisha Hines-Allen, Alysha Clark, Ariel Atkins and Shakira Austin all contributed a decent amount of points and rebounds. Clark led that group with four assists and Natasha Cloud dished out eight, but was held to just three points.
The Storm won field goal percentage 45.6 to 37.1 and 3-point percentage 46.2 to 30 (12 made threes to nine). The Mystics received four offensive rebounds from Austin, winning that category 11-5 and winning second chance points 17-7.
Both teams were at full strength.
The Mystics led for most of the first half, but were unable to pull away by more than nine points. The third quarter was incredibly close and then the Storm reached their largest lead of 15 with 6:28 to go in the game. A Clark three cut it to one with 25.6 ticks left, but Stewart closed it out with free throws.
Stewart (18 points, four assists), Loyd (17 points, two steals) and Charles (16 points, nine rebounds) led the way for Seattle. Bird was held to four points but had seven helpers. Stewart was 9-of-10 at the line.
Delle Donne had 22 points and three blocks. Cloud (10 points, 11 assists) and Austin (10 points, 10 rebounds) had double-doubles and Hines-Allen nearly had one (eight points, 10 rebounds). Delle Donne was 7-of-7 at the line. Atkins was 3-of-6 from deep with 13 points.
Seattle won field goal percentage 42.6 to 41.8.
Both teams were at full strength.
The largest lead for either side was nine (Mystics). Bird cut it to two with a layup at 39.4 seconds remaining, but Stewart and Gabby Williams both missed threes to tie in the final five seconds.
Stewart had 23 points and three assists, Loyd had 15 points, three assists and four steals and Bird had 12 points and seven assists. Stewart was 9-of-12 from the field and 3-of-4 from long range.
Atkins was 4-of-9 from distance for 23 points, Delle Donne had 17 points and six boards, Cloud had 11 points and 10 assists and Austin had nine points and nine boards.
The Mystics won field goal percentage 44.8 to 44.1, 3-point percentage 35.3 to 29.6 (six made threes to eight), rebounds 34-26 and points in the paint 34-20.
The Storm won points in the paint by two in their two wins combined and lost by 14 in their loss.
Delle Donne scored well in all three games, but the Mystics’ high score was 78, which is what the Indiana Fever’s No. 12 offense averaged on the season. So the Storm did their job defensively and when they scored in the 80s, they won. They’d like to score more than 75 and if they don’t they could be in trouble. Offensive has been their issue all season long.
Seattle let Washington cut a 14-point lead to two on June 23 and let it cut a 15-point lead to one on July 30 — albeit both Storm wins. They need to avoid getting complacent.
Stewart has played up to the level of a three-time MVP like Lauren Jackson, Lisa Leslie or Sheryl Swoopes; she just hasn’t come away with three trophies — yet. It was hard, but I didn't vote for her this year and could very well see her coming up just short yet again. But Stewie is Stewie — she’s the best player in the world. People say that about her more than they say it about A’ja Wilson because of her agility. It really is unmatched among 4s in the league. Stewart is the best scoring option in the WNBA and has a scoring title this year to back that up.
Stewart’s season-low in scoring was 12. I think we’re all still trying to get over Loyd’s one-point performance in Bird’s final regular-season home game. But then there’s the career-high 38 she put up this past Sunday. Loyd came in at No. 5 on our preseason Top 30 player list. She probably wouldn’t still be that high if we voted again now, but she is still one of the best Robins in the league. Her clutchness throughout the 2021 season never got put to the test deep in the playoffs, but this year could be different. Could she be taking some last shots instead of Stewart? Could she even challenge for the Finals MVP award? She was on that track last year before Stewart’s injury took the team out of contention.
Charles is one of the greatest players in WNBA history (No. 18 according to ESPN in 2021). Who else is going to be in the top two in two of the “big three” categories (points, rebounds and assists) when their career is all said and done? Actually, we’re talking about that happening like next year. Bigs don’t last as long in basketball as guards and Charles is 33, but she won the scoring title last year and still has a lot more to give in the scoring column during this Storm playoff run.
The point guard GOAT is fighting to extend her farewell tour beyond Sunday. She was sixth in the league with six assists per game this year and was 0.2 off from being alone in fourth and 0.5 ahead of seventh-place Skylar Diggins-Smith. She also shot 38.9 percent from three with 1.8 makes per game. Her longevity has to be taken into consideration when you rank the greatest players of all-time because it’s not just about having the best few years; something needs to be said about playing 19 years at a really high level.
Seattle X factor
Her addition mid-season got people excited about the Storm in a way they weren't before and they were already pretty excited. A 27 and 15 game and a 23 and nine game stand out so far during her time in Seattle. In one of those games (27 and 15) Stewart and Loyd were both off their season average in field goal attempts by a few with 13 and 10, respectively. In the other they were pretty much dead on at 16 and 14. Seattle doesn’t want Stewart and Loyd sacrificing attempts, but if other members of the Storm are that’s OK. They brought in Charles to score, just not at the expense of two players in particular.
- Defense (99.7 defensive rating, 3rd)
- 3-point percentage (36.1, T1st)
- Free throw percentage (82.5, 1st)
- Taking care of the ball (12.8 TOV per game, T3rd-least)
- Forcing turnovers (14.4 per game, 3rd)
- Opponent field goal percentage (43.4, 4th)
- Opponent 3-point percentage (32, 1st)
- Defensive discipline (15 FTA allowed per game, 1st-least)
- Getting to the line (15.1 FTA per game, 11th)
- Defensive rebounds allowed (27.9, 11th-least)
Mercedes Russell (non-basketball injury)
Russell is out for the remainder of the season as she recovers from a procedure meant to help her with an atypical headache syndrome. Her absence was considered a big deal early in the season as she was expected to be a key player for the team. Charles’ addition has added frontcourt depth.
Natasha Cloud (right knee bruise)
Probable for Game 1. Led the league in assists per game this year and is an emotional leader for the Mystics.
Tianna Hawkins (left hip)
Questionable for Game 1. Averaged 4.9 points in 12.8 minutes per game this year.
I think Washington takes Game 2 because Atkins, Hines-Allen, Clark and Austin have big games, showing that the team is more than just Delle Donne. Winning Game 3 in DC will be a tall task, but I think the Storm get the job done with 20-plus points coming from Stewart. She has just been too consistent this year.
Seattle in 3.