WNBA SEMIFINALS: FOR KEYS TO STORM-ACES, LOOK BEYOND A’JA WILSON AND BREANNA STEWART

WNBA SEMIFINALS: FOR KEYS TO STORM-ACES, LOOK BEYOND A’JA WILSON AND BREANNA STEWART

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When the No. 1 seed Las Vegas Aces and the No. 4 seed Seattle Storm square off Sunday for the opening game of their best-of-five semifinal series, all eyes will be on A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart.

And for good reason: The two former No. 1 draft picks (Stewart in 2016 and Wilson in 2018) are the leading candidates in the MVP race, with very similar stat lines. Wilson is averaging 19.1 points and 8.4 rebounds per game, while Stewart is averaging 20.3 points and 8.6 rebounds per game.

“Everyone always talks about the matchup between Stewie and I,” Wilson said. “We love it. We get better every single possession we guard each other, so we are going to give the people what they want, which is a good series, and we are going to have some fun while doing it.”

The teams played four times during the regular-season, with Vegas securing three of four victories. And while Stewart and Wilson may be the most eye-catching matchup, it’s far from the only storyline.

“I feel like this matchup with the Storm is going to be good no matter what,” Wilson said. “You have phenomenal players on both sides in this series.”

Here are four keys to the series:

JEWELL LOYD

The former Notre Dame guard is one of seven No. 1 draft picks in this semifinal series, and she’s arguably the most important for the Storm.

Loyd has been absolutely dominant against the Aces this season in all but one contest. In three of their meetings, the guard put up 38, 24 and 19 points, at least keeping them within striking distance and once leading them to a victory.

But she isn’t unstoppable, and in the fourth matchup, the Aces managed to hold her to just 1 point in an 89-81 Las Vegas win on Aug. 7.

Loyd already has been crucial to the Storm this postseason, scoring 19 points in Seattle’s first win over the Mystics and 16 in the second. The Game 2 performance was especially important, as Loyd scored 12 of her points in the final five minutes of play to propel her team into the semifinals.

Loyd’s ability to step up in key moments could be the difference for the Storm against the top-seeded Aces this time around.

CHELSEA GRAY

Gray has been consistent for the Aces all season, but in the second half she’s taken her game to another level. She was key in Las Vegas’ win over Phoenix in the opening round, posting 17 points, four rebounds and four assists in Game 1, and 27 points, eight assists and three rebounds in Game 2.

The Storm saw her heightened play firsthand when she poured in 33 points, nine assists and seven rebounds to lead the Aces past Seattle in Sue Bird’s final regular-season home game.

As Loyd is for Seattle, Gray is the X-factor for Las Vegas. The Aces will need big games from her, while the Storm will seek to slow down the skilled point guard.

BALANCE

One of the reasons the Aces have been so tough to beat this season is their balance. They have four players who consistently put up big numbers: Kelsey Plum (20.2 points per game), Wilson (19.5), Jackie Young (15.9) and Gray (13.7). That trend showed itself in their four games against Seattle, as the Aces had four double-digit scorers in two games and five in the other two.

One knock on Las Vegas this season has been its lack of bench production, but the team has managed to make it work thanks to consistency in its starting five.

However, with Dearica Hamby (9.3 ppg and 7.1 rpg) out with a knee injury, the Aces are missing a crucial piece. They got past the Mercury without her, but Kiah Stokes will have to perform well in her absence in order to fend off the Storm.

On the other side, Seattle needs to find a way to shut down one of Las Vegas’ big four. If those players are all scoring at a high clip, the Aces become nearly impossible to stop.

FREE THROWS AND 2-POINTERS

The Aces spent a lot of time at the line during the regular-season matchups, with 72 attempts to Seattle’s 52. The Aces have capable scorers at every position, and stopping them is hard enough without giving them extra attempts. Seattle will need to defend without fouling to gain an edge.

These teams are also two of the best in the league at 3-point shooting. The Aces are second in the WNBA with 343 makes on the year, while Seattle slides in at third with 333.

The Storm have made more long-range shots in all four matchups this season, but that means Las Vegas has dominated from inside the arc. The Aces will look to continue that trend while also defending better at the 3-point line, while Seattle needs to find a way to lock up Las Vegas in the paint and the mid-range.

PREDICTION: LAS VEGAS IN 5

When Wilson says this will be a good series, take her word for it. I’d be surprised if it goes any less than five games, but in the end, the Aces will win out.

The best-of-five WNBA semifinal series between the Storm and the Aces tips off at 4 p.m. ET Sunday.

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