The Seattle Storm won each of the first two WNBA Finals games against the Las Vegas Aces by a margin of 13 points, but what really shined was the left side of the equation: how they assembled each victory.
The anchors of the Game 1 win Friday night were world-beater Breanna Stewart and explosive guard Jewell Loyd. Stewart, stunning this year in her return from an Achilles tear, put up a Finals-record 37 points and 15 rebounds. Loyd added 28 points of her own, a performance slightly overshadowed by Sue Bird’s playoff-record 16 assists. The coefficients changed in Sunday’s Game 2, but to no different result. Stewart played a mortal’s first quarter and Loyd receded. In their place, Seattle starters Natasha Howard and Alysha Clark, gifted on both ends but quiet in Game 1, came alive. The two combined with Stewart for 64 points on 68.6 percent shooting from the floor.
Welcome to this year’s Seattle Storm, where there is no carrying and no being carried. Everyone chips in what they can. This machine runs not on heroics but on equipoise. Throw a wrench into its gears and expect only a few seconds of sputtering before the team recollects and hums on. Just one win away from their fourth championship, the Storm do not look beatable.
That’s true even though the Las Vegas Aces have been playing pretty well, all things considered. (Those things being considered, for those just joining, are that the Aces were wearied by a competitive semifinal series against the Connecticut Sun and that they are without Liz Cambage, Kelsey Plum, and bench engine Dearica Hamby.) Winning a Finals game without your All-Star center or best scorer is a tall order—just ask the Miami Heat—but neither contest has felt totally out of reach for the Aces. In each, Vegas mustered an impressive run right around the third quarter to tie the game or take a small lead. Veteran guard Angel McCoughtry, never much of a three-point shooter, went 5-of-6 from outside in Game 1. Kayla McBride, an All-Star prone to slumps and given too few chances to break out of them, looks to be regaining confidence after some dismal showings in the series against the Sun. In a funnier revelation, very much keeping the Aces alive in Game 2 was the 31-year-old forward Emma Cannon, who signed with the Aces a month ago and—seriously—has not played a regular-season WNBA game since 2017.
But the Aces’ math is not as flexible as the Storm’s. Shooting marginally better from three is cool, but it only makes a difference when everything else works exactly as it needs to. As Vegas head coach Bill Laimbeer has admitted all season long, this rickety team has a narrow path to winning: A’ja Wilson must dominate in the paint; she and the Aces must draw enough fouls to surmount their opponent’s shooting advantage; and against a team as steady as Seattle, Las Vegas must not make any mistakes.
The Aces are straying from that path, or more accurately, Seattle is shoving them off it. Wilson’s right-to-left spin move, her most potent weapon, is fooling the Storm’s shrewd defenders with diminishing frequency. In Game 2, Seattle won the free throw battle, 15 to 5, to Laimbeer’s extreme distress. “Make no mistake, we had no favor from the referees today,” he said postgame. “They go to the free throw line more than us and they’re jump-shot shooters? Please. That makes no sense.”
The Aces are blundering, too, in ways they cannot afford. If Las Vegas repeats the errors of Game 2 with another 16 turnovers in Game 3 Tuesday, the series is over. It might be over even if they don’t. Those third-quarter Vegas runs were promising flashes, but honestly I regarded them with the same credence I do third-quarter Lions leads, ephemeral trinkets to spice up the games, but not indicative of anything more. That reflects no particular distrust of the Aces, just some (merited) inability to imagine the Storm being overtaken while Bird is conducting the offense as well as she has been.
Heading into the fourth quarter of Game 1, with the Aces down two points, Stewart went on a blur of an 11-point solo run: pull-up jumpers in transition, corner threes, all high-percentage shots because she was the one taking them. It felt electric, and then, kind of inevitable. By all indications, there’s only one more game left to experience that strange emotion provoked by watching Stewart and the Storm, of Holy shit subsiding and mellowing into Yes, that seems about right.