Not all 18-4 records are built the same.
The top two teams in the WNBA ' the Las Vegas Aces and Seattle Storm ' reached the finals by varying degrees of difficulty. While the Aces swept the two games in the "wubble" between the teams to claim the No. 1 overall seed, the Storm played short-handed on both occasions.
Las Vegas is now the team without a key player heading into Game 1 on Friday night, and this clash of two contrasting styles offers plenty of intrigue in addition to what could be the first chapter of a superstar battle for years to come in the league.
The Aces, led by WNBA Most Valuable Player A'ja Wilson, needed the maximum five games to beat back the seventh-seeded Connecticut Sun in the semifinals. Wilson showed that MVP mettle in Tuesday's series-deciding 66-63 victory, totaling 23 points and 11 rebounds as she hit 9 of 10 free throws in the fourth quarter.
"Knew it was my time to put the team on my back," Wilson told The Associated Press after the Aces franchise reached the WNBA Finals for the first time since 2008 when located in San Antonio. "Thought I was in cruise control throughout the whole season. When the fourth quarter came had to flip the switch. Felt like I did that. The job still isn't done."
Angel McCoughtry, who was on three losing finals teams with the Atlanta Dream before joining Las Vegas this season, added 20 points. The Aces are still transitioning to playing without two-time Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby, who was lost for the season with a knee injury suffered in Game 3.
Hamby averaged 13.0 points and 7.1 rebounds but also was a thread of sorts in which the offense retained its identity around her. McCoughtry scored 49 points in Games 4 and 5 versus the Sun, but fellow reserve Jackie Young must contribute from the perimeter if Las Vegas is to win. Young, who averaged 11 points and 3.0 assists, had just two points in the final two games while missing all eight of her shots in the field over 19 minutes.
"These games are so draining mentally when they go down to the wire every game," McCoughtry told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "It's physical. You get beat up out there. It's not an easy thing, but you have to be mentally tough. We could have easily said this is over, I'm going home, but we kept fighting."
The Aces have played the entire season without starting center Liz Cambage, who did not report to the "wubble" with a medical exception and point guard Kelsey Plum, who suffered a torn Achilles in June.
Seattle played without point guard Sue Bird in both defeats to Las Vegas, while 2018 MVP and 2020 runner-up Breanna Stewart ' who missed last year with a torn Achilles ' sat out the second meeting with tendinitis in her left foot. But the Storm, trying to win their second title in three years, looked every bit the championship by disposing of the Minnesota Lynx in three games.
Stewart and Bird played key roles in Sunday's 92-71 romp to clinch the series, with Stewart matching a postseason franchise record and setting a playoff career high with 31 points and Bird chipping in 16 points and nine assists. The Storm did a significant amount of damage on the perimeter, hitting 30 3-pointers in sweeping Minnesota, and that trend may continue against an Aces team that has a dominant inside game even with the absences of Cambage and Hamby.
"When we have that Stewie on the floor, it allows all of us to relax," Bird said. "We're still on this journey to getting to where we can be ' it's not going to be easy. "That's why you're in the Finals, it's always going to be a grind."
Stewart showed little rust after being sidelined for 2019, ranking fourth in points (19.7), sixth in blocks (1.3), ninth in steals (1.7), and 10th in rebounds (8.3).
While these two teams led the league in terms of offensive efficiency, the Storm made nearly double the amount of 3-pointers as the Aces (185-93) and were second in the league in 3-point shooting at 39.4 percent. They were also the top two teams in defensive efficiency, with Seattle (95.9) edging out Las Vegas (99.0) in points per 100 possessions.
The one game where Wilson and Stewart were on the court together this season was a memorable one as Wilson had 23 points and 14 rebounds to help offset Stewart's 29 and career-high 18 in an 82-74 Aces victory Aug. 22. McCoughtry had 13 points and 14 rebounds as Las Vegas held Seattle to 37.3 percent shooting.
Game 2 is scheduled for Sunday.