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The Seattle Storm Have Been Here Before. Can The Las Vegas Aces Break Through?

Depending on the lens you use when looking at the WNBA Finals, with Game 1 between the Seattle Storm and Las Vegas Aces set for Friday night, any of these statements can be true:

Las Vegas is the favorite (top seed, won both regular-season meetings). Or Seattle is the favorite (2018 champs, largely intact after a 2019 missing key pieces). Or this is a true toss-up (featuring the league’s two best offensive and defensive ratings) with a pair of dramatically different playing styles.

To hear UConn’s Geno Auriemma tell it, the duo of players he coached over several generations, Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart, offers the ultimate edge for Seattle in this best-of-five series.

“They are the two best players at their positions right now,” Auriemma said. “So that helps. But that doesn’t account for all of it. They know when it’s winning time. They know how to win big games. They’ve played in so many of them. And because they’ve been so successful and in so many of them, they walk into every big game knowing they’re going to win.”

If there is a difference between these two teams, it comes down to what Auriemma said: One side has done it before.

That’s not to dismiss Las Vegas’s ability to break through, however. This Aces team, powered by 2020 MVP A’ja Wilson, had long ago circled 2020 on the calendar. When Bill Laimbeer — no stranger to WNBA championships himself, having won as head coach of the Detroit Shock — took the job with the Aces in 2018, he described his process to reporters as a three-year plan. That placed title expectations squarely on this season. In a year when so little else has gone according to plan, that’s a little reassuring sense of normalcy.

So for the two 18-4 teams this year, getting to this point has meant dramatically different shapes to their games. The Storm took 31.5 percent of their field-goal attempts from beyond the arc, almost double Vegas’s rate of 16.8 percent. And that gap only expanded further in the playoffs, 39.7 percent for Seattle, 15 percent for Las Vegas.

While the Storm rely on Bird and Stewart first offensively, the Aces use Wilson, a brutally effective power forward, and Angel McCoughtry, the longtime Atlanta Dream small forward and top option refashioned as Wilson’s sidekick.

Wilson made an All-Star team in her rookie year of 2018, concluding the season as Rookie of the Year. But Laimbeer said she has improved significantly over even that high initial standard.

“She knows her responsibility,” Laimbeer said after the Aces’ 66-63 win over the Sun on Tuesday to earn this trip to the WNBA Finals. “She has matured tremendously as a person and as a basketball player. In the first half, you watch them try to double- or triple-team her, and she found the right people. She didn’t have that last two years — she has it now: her patience.”

As for McCoughtry, the decision to come to Las Vegas was with a championship in mind. Accordingly, she has played fewer minutes than she did during her tenure as the center of Atlanta’s attack, but her efficiency has improved, with a 61.1 true shooting percentage and win shares per 40 of 0.288 representing the highest marks of a career that, let’s remember, includes five All-Star team selections and two Olympic gold medals already.

Her mentality is a microcosm for this Aces team now.

“I kept saying, over and over in my head, ‘Win the game. Win the game. Win the game,’” McCoughtry said after Game 5. “Just figure it out. Win it. I don’t care how it is done.”

That’s what the Aces did to advance, holding the Connecticut Sun to 18 points in the second half of Game 5. Laimbeer said he didn’t change much tactically, and the Aces didn’t even play at their typical frenetic pace. They just managed to slow the Sun attack to a crawl.

“For us, it’s just putting stops together,” Wilson said. “And I think that’s going to be key against a good Seattle team that knows how to execute all the time.”

The Storm’s season is really three seasons, to hear both Bird and the numbers tell it. Overall, the Storm posted a net rating of 15, the best in the league since the Houston Comets back in 2000. Over the last 10 regular-season games, though, the Storm’s net rating fell to 9.5 — still elite but virtually tied with Las Vegas’s 9.4, and during a period the Aces beat the Storm twice.

Still, the latter of those two victories came against a Seattle team missing both Bird and Stewart, and in Seattle’s playoff series against a talented Lynx team, the team’s net rating rebounded to 12.5. (Interestingly, Las Vegas, in their five-game slugfest against the Sun, actually posted a negative net rating despite winning the series.)

Most encouragingly for Seattle was Game 3, when the Storm swept the series behind vintage performances from both Stewart (31 points, seven assists, six rebounds, no turnovers) and Bird (16 points, nine assists). After it was over, Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said that Stewart “imposed her will on the game.” And both players acknowledged that after fighting off late-season injuries, they felt more like their typical selves, freeing them physically to capitalize on knowing when winning time was.

“Stewie missed the last two regular-season games, and then we had a week, and then we had a little bit of a delay, that first game being postponed,” Bird said. “So it was a long time to not play basketball for Stewie, for myself, for really all of us, and all that does is get you out of your rhythm a little bit.”

Even so, this is not simply the Seattle Storm from 2018, back to reclaim what is theirs. For one, they’re without their head coach-in-exile, Dan Hughes, after he wasn’t approved, for medical reasons, to enter the bubble. The capable Gary Kloppenburg, who has served as assistant in Seattle since 2017 amid a long career coaching, has kept the Storm playing at an elite level in Hughes’s stead.

In many ways, they are even better, with contributors like center Mercedes Russell developing, newcomer Ezi Magbegor providing effective minutes at the 4, and Jordin Canada, who was more rookie change-of-pace guard than effective game manager back in 2018, now serving as a point guard who would start for many other teams. (And she’s still fast.) The loss of Sami Whitcomb, a combo guard and champion who has left the bubble to be with her wife as she gives birth, is the only discordant basketball note heading into this series for Seattle.

“I think this year, towards the end of the season, we’re really starting to hit our stride,” Canada said, expressing the belief that this team is better than the 2018 champions. “We’ve got a couple of different pieces for this team, and I think everything’s coming together at the right time.”

But Las Vegas, too, has players who are eager to prove they know when winning time is, from veteran point guard Danielle Robinson to shooting guard Kayla McBride, both of whom spent time with this franchise before it moved from San Antonio to Las Vegas.

“Nobody really expected us to be here,” McBride said. “I’m talking to Danielle Robinson, remembering that San Antonio group. We won seven games one season. … We believe in each other, trust each other at both ends of the floor.”

And who is the favorite? Asked point-blank, McBride offered a response just short of a guarantee. “I believe in my teammates,” she said. “I believe in who we are.”

Howard Megdal is editor-in-chief of The Next, a women’s basketball site, and founder of the women’s sports newsletter The IX.