These two teams are the epitome of the Spider-Man pointing meme and therefore are a perfect first-round matchup. Seattle took the season series 2-1, but each game was a hard-fought battle. Both teams have done some things exceptionally well all season. These two franchises combine for 10 of the top 25 players in the league in defensive win shares. They each have one player (Elena Delle Donne and Breanna Stewart) in the top 10 in points per game (PPG). Of the players averaging at least 25.0 minutes per game, these two squads combine for eight of the top 20 players in defensive rating (DRTG) in the league. Yes, they are both independently good, but what’s been the scariest part is just how aligned they are in the specific good and not-so-good stats, making this perhaps the most intriguing—and certainly the most difficult-to-predict—matchup of the first round.
It’s such a mystifying storm of circumstances that Winsidr has enlisted its Mystics and Storm reporters, Matt Cohen and Hunter Hames, respectively, to cover this preview. We’ll break down various factors of the series and try to garner as much clarity as we can on who may move on in the WNBA playoffs.
For context, these two teams are fairly even on the offensive side. Both have a superstar offensive fulcrum (Stewart and Delle Donne), a superb facilitating floor general (Sue Bird and Natasha Cloud), and a diverse supporting cast that offers a collection of three-point wizards, rebounding powerhouses, and scoring aficionados. Playing against either of these well-rounded teams is a tall task for even the most durable of defenses.
Seattle averages 82.5 PPG to Washington’s 80.2 PPG, both middle of the pack. The Storm have an offensive rating (ORTG) of 102.6 to the Mystics’ 101.4, sixth and seventh in the league, respectively. The Storm missed having the best assist percentage, or total buckets assisted on, by a fraction of a point at 74.2 percent. The Mystics finished not far behind with a fourth-best 69.1 percent. Both teams do an excellent job at playing clean, mistake-free ball. The Storm sport a second-best 16.7 percent turnover percentage, while the Mystics come in at fourth-best in the league with 17.3 percent. When it comes to the player impact estimate, or PIE, the Mystics lead with 54.0 (fourth in the league) compared to the Storm’s 53.1 (fifth in the league).
Hunter: What do you feel about this matchup? In your gut, what are you thinking?
Matt: It’s so tough because these two teams are so close in so many places. I feel like the Storm are a better team offensively. I feel like they have more weapons and can play in a variety of different ways. When the Mystics’ offense is clicking, which has been few and far between this season, I feel like they can match up well with anyone because they can go inside to Delle Donne and can shoot from the perimeter. It’s just so tough to know what you’re going to get from them offensively in any given game.
Hunter: Yeah, I was thinking the exact same thing. Looking at the matchup, I like the Storm’s offense better in those one-on-one matchups. The Storm can take Elena Delle Donne away and make everyone else try to score, whereas if you take Stewie away, Jewell Loyd is more than capable of being that go-to scorer. However, Loyd has been so hit or miss this season. She had a great game against the Sky but had one point against the Aces in the game prior. There have been a couple of games this season where she went really quiet when the Storm needed her to pick up the offensive load. Hopefully, we don’t see that version in the playoffs. Ezi told Winsidr this week that Washington is an “energy team,” which is always tough to play against, but she added that “we are a running team,” so look for Seattle to push the pace and get out on the break more in this matchup.
Matt: I agree. Even if you take Stewie out of the game offensively, you have Sue [Bird] who can still facilitate. You have Tina [Charles] who can still get the ball in the post and be the top scoring option. You have Gabby [Williams] who can hit threes, so this offense feels like it comes at you in waves and feels deeper and somewhat more consistent than what the Mystics can run out there offensively. It makes it so tough to stop the Storm, but if any team is equipped to do it, it’s the Mystics because they have that depth.
Hunter: Yeah, I mean Ariel Atkins has been one of the Mystics’ top scorers every time the Storm have played them. I think she always gets really tough matchups from the Storm. Something to observe is the Storm’s inability to slow down aggressive playmakers at the guard position, like Chelsea Gray and Kelsey Plum with the Aces or Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi with the Mercury. They have struggles against speedy guards who take advantage of Sue as the primary defender. Maybe that isn’t the Mystics’ game, but I wonder if that’s the way to attack this team: attack Sue defensively. We talked with [Mystics head coach Mike] Thibault, and he’s talked about just how similar these two teams are, so it’s going to be a battle for sure.
Both teams excel on the defensive end, which not only prevents the other team from operating effectively but also can spark their own offense. The Mystics give up the fewest opponent PPG in the W, allowing only 75.9 PPG. Third on the list are the Storm at 78.4. The two teams are also third and fourth in the league in percentage of their points off turnovers, with the Storm slightly ahead (20.9) of the Mystics (20.7). The Mystics have the best DRTG in the league at 96.0. However, the Storm are not far behind with 97.4, good for third best. Both squads limit the number of quality looks the opponent gets with aplomb, illustrated by the Mystics being tied for third in the league with a 48.5 percent opponent effective field goal percentage. Who are they tied with? You guessed it—the Seattle Storm. Lastly, both force turnovers exceedingly well. The Storm force 15.6 per game, third in the league, and the Mystics come in at 15.3 per game, tied for fourth in the league.
Hunter: Sue said it this week: “It’s playoffs. The margin of error is slim thin, razor thin.” Bird talked about just needing to clean up the Storm’s side of the game—clean up the turnovers, clean up the offensive possessions. I looked at all three of the games against the Mystics, and it seems like the team that has the most turnovers has lost the game each time. So even as we talk about how close the matchup is, who can execute their game plan better and limit those turnovers on the offensive end, but force them on the defensive end, will have an edge.
Matt: Right, and for two teams who are top five in turnover percentage, it’s not going to be 17 or 18 turnovers in a game, but it might be who has eight or nine turnovers that will lose the game. So I think you’re right. It’s going to come down to who has that cleaner game and who is better able to adapt and execute their game plan better. I think it’s also who can better force the other team into continuous mistakes. How can the Storm force the Mystics into snowballing one turnover into others and get on a run and vice versa? Both are so tough defensively and have such good defensive players, like Ezi [Magbegor], Shakira [Austin], Elizabeth [Williams], and Gabby [Williams]. It’s going to come down to whoever can capture momentum better from the defensive end of the floor. I think that is what’s really going to separate these two in this series.
Clutch Time and Intangibles
Both teams don’t do exceptionally well offensively during clutch time (the last five minutes of a game when the score is within five points), but they do a phenomenal job on the defensive end. Because of their prowess at stopping the other team’s clutch time attack, it leaves their own team in a sound position to hold a lead or ride the wave that could potentially spill over to the offensive end. During clutch time, the Mystics and Storm are neck and neck, with the Mystics edging the Storm’s DRTG 97.0 to 96.9, good for fourth and fifth in the league.
It’s going to be fascinating to watch the battle between Storm head coach Noelle Quinn and Mystics head coach Mike Thibault in these crucial points of the game and to see how these teams respond to the task in front of them as well as the emotion of the crowd.
Hunter: I think the crowd has the possibility of being a factor. The Storm have played really well at home, so having the first two games at Climate Pledge Arena could make a huge difference. I don’t really think the Storm mind going on the road in the playoffs, but I almost feel like the margin of error here is so thin that maybe the crowd could be the difference in this one. I just don’t know what that differentiating factor is going to be.
Matt: For me, those are some of the intangibles—playoff atmosphere and Sue’s last season. It’s going to be insane. Also, Noelle Quinn’s inexperience versus Thibault’s long tenure and experience winning a championship as a head coach. What adjustments will be made by the coaches? If Seattle is up 1-0 or down 0-1 in the series, how does Quinn make the right adjustments to stay up or come back in the series? For Thibault, the pressure of having to get up early isn’t as high. Obviously, he wants to win game one, but he also knows that this team is full of vets who can come back in a series and won’t be fazed by being down 0-1, and he knows every type of possible move to make. Does Quinn? Can she play the chess match against Thibault effectively? We’ve joked about these two teams being so similar, but does the coaching factor tilt this series in favor of the Mystics? Those will be some of the important intangibles that I’m really excited to see play out.
Slowing Down the Stars
Matt: Let’s look at how to stop Elena versus how to stop Stewie. Based on what you’ve seen this year, how do you stop Stewie? What’s worked in slowing her down?
Hunter: I feel like what Stewie does well is she doesn’t give the defender a lot of time to react. When the Storm swing the ball around, she’ll throw up the shot quickly, and then it either goes in or she’ll follow her shot to collect the rebound. She’s always moving, so it makes it really tough to pin her down and make life difficult for her. But I feel like the teams that have had success are the ones that have been able to body her up early and often. The physicality has a way of slowing her down. So when the ball is moved to her within the offensive sets, she’s often double-teamed, and while she’s generally successful at kicking out from that, it does limit her effectiveness. Getting into her space and not letting her set up from her spots on the floor are important. There have been some tough, physical guards on her this year that just didn’t let her get a clean pass or get that clean look at the basket, and Washington has the guards to do that and limit her ability, so you have to try and tire her out. It’s the only way.
Matt: Exactly, and it’s what makes her so good. What’s so funny is that it’s the same for Elena. The only real way to slow her down this season has been fatigue, but a lot of that same game plan for Stewie works for Elena. Getting physical with her and preventing good looks on the left block where she likes to set up shop or coming in with a long forward who can front her or push her off her spot off a screen are the ways to get her out of her rhythm. Often, however, it just doesn’t matter. These two players are just so talented. But consistent physicality seems like the best bet to slow these two down.
Hunter: Ezi and Tina. Ezi will come in off the bench, and Tina is going to start in that spot opposite Shakira. I think that’s a spot where there’s a matchup advantage here for the Storm. Ezi was able to destroy Shakira on the pick-and-roll in that first matchup in June, but I think Tina has a different game and the ability to hit a three, so she will pull Shakira out of the paint, which could thin out the paint for other Storm players to attack. I think the metrics call for Ezi to play more against the Mystics. She’s been so good and has matched up well against the Mystics this season. She’s adjusted fairly well to the new bench role with Tina on the team, but she plays such a critical role—especially defensively—that having her match up against Shakira will be interesting to watch.
Matt: For me, it’s the Mystics’ bench, specifically Myisha Hines-Allen. When she’s being the physical, offensive force that she is, this team has a dynamic that not many can stop. She can punish you in the paint and hit a three in stride, and that to me gives this team diversity on the offensive end that most teams just don’t carry on their benches. If she can be as good as she’s been in spurts, I think this Mystics team has a really good chance at taking out the Storm.
Stat To Watch
Matt: So is there a stat you are focused on that you think will be the biggest determiner in the series?
Hunter: The Storm have won some games without leading in rebounding, so I think they are content in not needing to win the rebounding game. I think it’s about executing the game plan, so steals and turnovers are going to play a major role in this series. Whoever plays the cleanest game will win.
Matt: I agree on the turnovers and think the three-point percentage will also be a key piece. While these aren’t stats, the depth of the Mystics and what they can contribute off the bench will be huge. They don’t necessarily have to show up on the scoreboard, but the bench players being able to contribute in the energy, hustle, and defensive toughness department allows for less pressure on Cloud, Atkins, and Alysha Clark in carrying the defensive load for this team. The experience/pedigree of both squads is also going to be huge. Both have players who’ve won it all before, so it’ll be about who can step up when needed most. But, to actually answer my own question, the rebounding numbers draw my attention. You mentioned that the Storm don’t rebound well, so is there a way the Mystics can exploit that into two wins? This will be something I’ll be following for sure.
Hunter: I think if it goes to three and goes back to Washington, I don’t like the feel of that for the Storm, so I’m going Storm in two really close games.
Matt: Wow. Interesting. I was going to go Storm in three. I feel like the Mystics come out and take game one, playing an almost-perfect game. Storm come in and are like “no, you won’t do this on our court” and take game two and the momentum. So you’re sticking with Storm in two?
Hunter: Yeah, Storm in two only because I think they really need to do it here, and with the sellouts for Sue’s last games, I think it’ll motivate them to get this done in Seattle. I don’t think we travel extremely well, as we went .500 on the road this season, and it just makes me nervous to see them having to get it done in Washington in a game three. So Seattle in two just so I’m less stressed.
All stats through 2022 regular season. Unless otherwise noted, all stats courtesy of WNBA.com.