By Jeffrey Newholm
After the best preliminary playoffs seen yet in the new format, the Seattle Storm and Washington Mystics advance to the WNBA finals, tipping off Friday night. Behind MVP Breanna Stewart and veteran legend Sue Bird, Seattle clinched the top seed. The Storm then outlasted playoff mainstay Phoenix in a full five games. The Mystics received a huge scare when the superb Elena Delle Donne crumpled to the ground untouched in game two against Atlanta. But the Blue Hen flew to a greater altitude in a game four blowout preceding the clincher in Atlanta. While previous finals pitted long-successful franchises, the 2018 edition provides a fun matchup between cities not used to being good.
True, Delle Donne is a 96% free throw shooter in the playoffs. But would she blink when hacked with the Mystics only up one with the shot clock off? In my mind there was no doubt, but surprisingly there was some in hers, as she recounted after the horn. “Those were a little nerve-wracking, I’m not going to lie. But I just did my same routine, trusted in the process and let it fly”. She swished both, and Washington regained possession after a very poor attempt at a Dream three. Mystics hearts may have skipped a beat on a near jump-ball on the inbound, but the official, anticipating a foul, mercifully whistled it. Delle Donne added two more charity throws to clinch the franchise’s first ever appearance in the finals.
While Washington has never made it this far, the team definitely won’t flop due to the lame “happy just to be here” mentality. Coach Mike Thibault won more games than any other WNBA coach, leaving him, as he stated in an interview, rather sated. Except for one small omission: a league title. Similarly, there’s little to criticize Delle Donne for. Apart from some bad injury luck, the 2015 MVP is unquestionable a 2010’s Mount Rushmore talent. She now has a much better fit in Washington (rather than with the troubled Sky). That’s because she plays closer to her family and with a balanced contributing cast. “Now or never” is too pessimistic for most breakthroughs, but there’s never been a better opportunity than 2018 for Washington.
Holding a 2-1 series lead and a 17 point lead in game four, the Storm seemed destined to reach its first finals in eight years. And then tragedy slammed into Sue Bird’s face in the form an nose-breaking elbow. Nope, not from a crazed fan or dirty Mercury player. It was friendly fire from Stewart. A rather rattled Storm squad managed to completely blow the lead. While the deciding tilt was in Seattle, the Mercury controlled the first three quarters. (Re)enter Bird, broken nose be darned. Bird scored 14 fourth quarter points as the #5 seeded Mercury finally tired. Much like fictitious heroes Rocky and Indiana Jones, Bird never seems to run out of inspiration. While she my not dodge boulders, basketball drama in Seattle is now second to none (who needs the Sonics?)
Basketball, at is best, is about a whole that supersedes any individual. And that’s what makes this Storm team so beautiful. After a few clunky years after drafting Stewart and Jewell Loyd, Dan Hughes demonstrated astute acumen in 2018. Key Arena now hosts a buzzed fanbase that cheers a scoring threat. Seattle shot a league-best 46.8% from the field with a leading 9 threes a game. Stewart added 1.4 swats a game and that wasn’t even best on her own team, as Natasha Howard was second in the WNBA with 2. Some have speculated that the Storm will win multiple titles with this group of players. If so, that’s all the more reason to relish this year, because the first triumph is always the best.
Ratings are multiplying faster than NBS’s Twitter count, and there’s plenty of reasons to maintain focus as the season concludes. The first ever Storm-Mystics final offers all the superstars and competitive spirit any fan could ask for. Unfortunately two games will be up against the NFL executioner. But it’s time to join Seattle and Sue and give football the Bird, because women’s hoops has never been in a more admirable position.