Battle-tested Sue Bird and Elena Delle Donne lead Seattle Storm and Washington Mystics into the WNBA Finals

When Washington’s Elena Delle Donne tumbled to the ground with a knee damage through the second sport of the WNBA semifinals, most thought we would not see her once more this postseason.

When Sue Fowl needed to go away {Game} Four of Seattle’s semifinal sequence with a damaged nostril, we figured she’d return — she has donned a protecting face masks many occasions with that damage earlier than — however we could not be certain how efficient she’d be.

In each circumstances, these two WNBA and USA Basketball standouts had some success — neither damage was extreme sufficient to sideline them — and a whole lot of guts and willpower.

Delle Donne missed one sport with a bone bruise in her left knee however went via myriad remedies to permit her to play within the fourth and fifth semifinal video games towards Atlanta. She mixed for 29 factors and 21 rebounds in these two Mystics victories, placing Washington within the WNBA Finals for the primary time in franchise historical past.

And Fowl? The damaged beak barely bothered her. She placed on seemingly probably the most compelling fourth-quarter present of her illustrious 16-season WNBA profession Tuesday, scoring 14 factors within the interval to steer the Storm previous the Mercury in {Game} 5.

Subsequent up: Fowl and the Storm versus Delle Donne and the Mystics, beginning Friday at Seattle’s KeyArena (ESPNews, 9 p.m. ET). Oh, and the present WNBA MVP, the Storm’s Breanna Stewart, shall be a featured participant on this drama, too.

The Storm have performed within the WNBA Finals twice, and received each. The Mystics have by no means gotten this far earlier than. However each groups have been in a position to preserve consistency: the Storm all season, and the Mystics for the reason that All-Star break. Each have come via tough five-game semifinal sequence.

Seattle is the No. 1 seed, having had its finest regular-season file — 26-8 — since going 28-6 in its 2010 WNBA championship season. Final 12 months, the Storm made the playoffs at 15-19 however misplaced within the first spherical.

The No. Three seed Mystics have been swept within the semifinals final 12 months by eventual champion Minnesota. Their 22-12 file this season tied for his or her finest ever with the 2010 crew, however that squad was swept 2-Zero within the Jap Convention semifinals.

When this season began, hopes for Seattle have been excessive. Which may have been rather less the case for the Mystics as a result of their second-leading scorer from 2017, Emma Meesseman, wasn’t enjoying within the WNBA this summer time. Nevertheless it’s honest to say each groups have met or exceeded expectations. Seattle received the regular-season sequence 2-1.

Contemplating they have been the perfect crew all through the course of the season and have home-court benefit, the Storm are the favourite. However the Mystics, who’re 12-Three for the reason that All-Star break, simply received their semifinal sequence with a {Game} 5 on the highway.

Let’s take a look at how the groups match up:

Backcourt: Will Fowl have the final phrase?

The beginning guards for the Storm are each No. 1 picks, 13 years aside. Fowl, 2002’s prime choose, who turns 38 in October, is the league’s oldest participant. However as she confirmed Tuesday, she’s nonetheless able to taking up video games. She’s the WNBA’s all-time assists chief and the main scorer in Storm historical past. Nobody in these WNBA Finals has the form of expertise Fowl has, and that may very well be a deciding issue.

Jewell Loyd, drafted first by Seattle in 2015, is averaging 11.Zero factors within the playoffs, beneath her regular-season common of 15.5. At occasions, Loyd has appeared off her sport through the postseason. But she is able to having big scoring outputs.

Rookie Jordin Canada has had a stable season backing up Fowl and studying from her. Sami Whitcomb did not see a whole lot of time this season, however she got here up large with 11 factors for the Storm in {Game} 5 towards Phoenix.

The Mystics even have a guard with a whole lot of expertise in Kristi Toliver, who received a WNBA title with Los Angeles in 2016. She’s recognized for her 3-pointers — she made 72 through the common season and has 12 within the playoffs — however she has additionally labored laborious to assist the Mystics elevate their stage of protection.

That could be a specialty of level guard Natasha Cloud, whom Delle Donne mentioned provides the Mystics a whole lot of their general power on protection. The 6-foot Cloud, a second-round draft choose in 2015, has nice dimension and quickness on the perimeter. And whereas she’s not an enormous scorer, she has made strides along with her offense this 12 months, averaging a career-best 8.6 factors within the common season and 9.Zero within the playoffs.

The Mystics’ key backcourt sub is Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, in her sixth season in Washington. A starter the earlier three seasons, she got here off the bench in 2018 and gave the Mystics a reliable function participant who can be robust defensively.

Small ahead/wing: Rookie affect for Mystics

Storm starter Alysha Clark has averaged 35.2 minutes within the playoffs, second on the crew. Storm coach Dan Hughes says Clark is under-recognized for her defensive play, which he thinks is among the many finest within the WNBA. Clark was a top-notch scorer in faculty at Center Tennessee, however she remade herself as a professional participant, placing protection first. That mentioned, Clark can nonetheless hit large photographs; she had 13 factors in each of the final two video games towards Phoenix and added 13 rebounds Tuesday.

Her Mystics counterpart, rookie Ariel Atkins, hasn’t performed as many minutes however has had a huge effect, averaging 15.Zero factors and 4.Three rebounds within the postseason. In Tuesday’s {Game} 5 victory, Atkins led Washington in scoring with 20 factors, going 8-of-Eight from the foul line. Aerial Powers, whom the Mystics obtained in a commerce this season, had her finest efficiency of the playoffs within the sport Delle Donne missed, with 18 factors and eight rebounds.

Frontcourt: Loads of star energy

Each groups have an MVP at energy ahead, with Delle Donne for Washington and Stewart for Seattle. That Delle Donne is enjoying after her damage is a testomony to her toughness. And the boldness that she brings to the Mystics when she’s on the courtroom is big. Delle Donne led Washington in scoring (20.7) and rebounding (7.2) within the common season and is doing much more within the playoffs (21.4, 12.0). The massive concern along with her knee, she mentioned, was swelling, and he or she’ll have a cross-country flight to take care of, too, in that regard.

Fowl brings the boldness to Seattle, however the Storm want Stewart to play the a part of an MVP, as she did with 28 factors and 7 rebounds in each the primary and final video games of the Phoenix sequence. Stewart is averaging 24.Zero factors and seven.Four rebounds within the playoffs.

Beginning at middle are two gamers having their finest WNBA seasons. Natasha Howard got here to the Storm by way of commerce after profitable a championship with Minnesota as a reserve final season. A full-time starter for the primary time this season, Howard helped take a whole lot of stress off Stewart in regard to guarding opposing facilities. Howard, the WNBA’s most improved participant for 2018, averaged 13.2 factors and 6.Four rebounds within the common season, and is at 14.Zero and 6.Eight within the playoffs.

LaToya Sanders got here into the WNBA in 2008, however that is simply her sixth season; accidents, household commitments and discovering the proper match stored her away from the league for some years. However she has been very profitable abroad and by no means doubted that she might assist a WNBA crew given the proper alternative.

That has are available in Washington. Sanders performed 23 video games for the Mystics in 2015, simply 4 in 2016, and none final 12 months. However she began all this season, averaging 10.2 factors and 6.Four rebounds. Her numbers within the playoffs are 9.Eight and 6.5. And simply as Howard’s protection has been a assist to Stewart, Sanders has achieved the identical for Delle Donne.

Coaches: Finally, one will win a WNBA title

Hughes of the Storm and Mike Thibault of the Mystics have coached within the WNBA a mixed 33 years. Each try to win their first title.

Thibault is 67, and Hughes 63; each have coached women and men, and at completely different ranges. There’s nothing they have not seen.

Hughes has had his biggest success within the WNBA with two of the perfect level guards ever: Becky Hammon in San Antonio and Fowl in Seattle. With these sorts of leaders on the courtroom, Hughes places a whole lot of belief and duty on their shoulders, and he would not attempt to micromanage them.

When you see Hughes deferring to Fowl in huddles, it is not as a result of he has nothing to say. It is as a result of he is aware of how nicely the crew listens to Fowl, and in addition how in sync he’s along with her.

What Thibault has achieved in Washington is not nearly his teaching and expertise analysis, that are admired league-wide, but in addition about making a profitable tradition. He has a powerful belief issue along with his veterans, reminiscent of Delle Donne and Toliver, however he has by no means been afraid to be direct and blunt with gamers about their efficiency. The individuals who play for him at all times say they respect that.