The WNBA Finals are here, and there are plenty of storylines surrounding this years’ matchup.

After an unpredictable 2020 season, the WNBA Finals are here! The top two seeds stand at the final step of the league’s podium, ready to duke it out in a best-of-five Finals series that tips off Friday on ESPN 2 at 4 PM PST.

The season was unpredictable, but the playoff results weren’t as much of a rollercoaster. The Seattle Storm and Las Vegas Aces dominated throughout the regular season and now sit on top of the league in the Finals. 

The Aces, though, didn’t have the prettiest road. It took a slugfest for the Aces to beat the Connecticut Sun — the series going the full five games. The Aces were able to sneak out of the semifinals with a 66-63 victory, largely behind the heroics of the regular season MVP, A’ja Wilson.

The Storm, on the other hand, swept their opponent, the Minnesota Lynx, and now are coming into the final series with a four-day rest period. 

The teams tied the regular season with identical records, the Aces holding the tiebreaker. While Wilson won the regular season MVP, the Storm has the 2018 league MVP and Finals MVP Breanna Stewart ready to reclaim her throne after missing the entire 2019 season with an Achilles tear.

There are plenty of storylines that brought us from 12 teams to two, and we are going to dive into those and more as we take a look into the 2020 WNBA Finals matchup.

The journey through the wubble

The WNBA regular season took place in Bradenton, Florida, within a camp format that limited outside visitors, included frequent COVID-19 testing, and accelerated gameplay as games took place every other day. The common term for a setup like this is a bubble, but the women of the WNBA named their COVID season facility the “wubble.”

And the wubble was as much of a rollercoaster ride as 2020 has been as a year. Big names players, like reigning MVP Elena Delle Donne, withdrew from play – many citing COVID-19 concerns as well as social justice initiatives. In fact, the players decided to dedicate the season to social justice, particularly towards the killing of Breonna Taylor. The women of the WNBA led the fray in social justice messages, being the first league to introduce wearing victim’s names on the back of their jerseys, placing “Black Lives Matter” on their courts, and leaving the court during the national anthem. The league also took a stance against a team owner for bashing the Black Lives Matter stance that the players collectively decided to take.

And that’s a summary of the events that took place off the court. On the court, injuries piled up from all teams across the league. Players routinely had to exit the wubble for personal reasons, and a few games were postponed in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake.

All of this to say, the two teams remaining played through a lot of unprompted circumstances and played through them extremely well.

Neither team did much losing in the condensed 22-game regular season. The Aces, the young breakout team of the wubble, had the same starting five for each of their 22 regular-season games. Seattle, on the other hand, didn’t have Sue Bird for 11 games – Bird playing in her 18th season at age 39.

While Seattle is statistically a better team with their future Hall of Fame point guard on the court, they are still an elite team with her sideline. That is thanks to their impeccable bench, led by the pride of UCLA, Jordin Canada.

Canada averaged 7.9 ppg, 5.5 apg in the regular season, which may not stand out much on the stat sheet, but was a complementing factor to Stewart’s 19.7 ppg. 

With Canada at the point position, with their usual starters of Alysha Clark, Jewell Loyd, Natasha Howard, and Stewart, the Storm shot 41% from the field and 34% from three, according to Second Spectrum.  

Loyd averaged 15.5 ppg in the regular season and 17.3 in the playoffs. The Storm also have Alysha Clark, a unanimous first-team all-defensive selection, and Natasha Howard, last season’s defensive player of the year.

When their starting unit plays more than 10 minutes, the Storm are statistically the best offensive team in the league, holding a win percentage of 78% dating back to 2018. That lineup shoots 45% from the field, 95% from the line, and 39% from the three.

The Storm have a lethal lineup dependent on the 2018 MVP, Stewart.

What the Storm call on Stewart to be for them, is what the Aces need out of  Wilson, who was the 2020 regular season MVP. And just like Stewart, Wilson answers the call time and time again. She averaged 20.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg and 2.0 bpg in the regular season. In the playoffs she stepped it up, averaging 21.8 ppg, 10.4 rpg and 3.0 bpg.

The Robin to Wilson’s Batman this season has been Baltimore’s very own, Angel McCoughtry. After leading the Atlanta Dream to three WNBA Finals, McCoughtry decided to take her talents to Las Vegas and has been the veteran presence on the young Las Vegas team. She has been the team’s second-leading scorer in the regular season, averaging 14.4 ppg and 16.0 ppg in the playoffs. With the Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby out, the Aces’ point guard Danielle Robinson’s 10.2 ppg and All-Star shooting guard Kayla McBride’s 8.0 ppg have been the next-best threats for Las Vegas during the playoffs.

The Storm won Game 1 of the semi-finals at the buzzer, then widening the margin to ten in the final game of the series. 

The Aces’ had to claw their way through their series, losing the first and third game of the series. In the winner-take-all Game 5, the Aces came out sluggish, falling behind by as much as 16 points. According to Elias Sports Bureau, that is the largest comeback in a winner-take-all game to advance to the WNBA Finals. The Storm will have to stay efficient, as the Aces are a strong second half defensive team.

Regular season implications

While the Storm are the statistically better offensive team, the Aces won both regular season matchups. It is worth noting that the Storm’s Bird did not play in those games, and Stewart didn’t play in the second matchup of the season.

Stewart put up 23 ppg and 8 rpg in Seattle’s semifinals, while Bird dropped 16 points with nine assists in the series clincher. More so, the duo of Bird and Stewart have the highest plus-minus of any duo in the WNBA dating back to 2018.

Bottom line: Seattle is a better team with Stewart and Bird on the floor together. The Aces didn’t face that team. 

This is not to discount the Aces, though. This team is built on defense, modeled by head coach and former Bad Boy Piston Bill Laimbeer. If there is one thing about a Laimbeer team, it is that they will play defense, and they will play it well.

The Aces are the top seed in these playoffs, but the Storm were the preseason favorites to win it all. The Aces have the league MVP. The Storm, the last time Bird and Stewart played a regular season, won a title in convincing fashion.

Experience vs moment

Much of Storm’s prior experience and the play of Stewart and Bird have been laid out. While Las Vegas is in the Finals and the record-wise favorites, the Storm’s experience can not be overlooked.

They have eight players returning from their 2018 championship team. Bird is a two-time champion who rested the majority of this season for this moment.  

Stewart is coming off of an injury that made many people question how good she will be once she returns. 

Loyd, Howard, Clark, and Canada gained tremendous experience in the 2019 season, having to take on bigger roles with Bird and Stewart missing from the lineup. Canada, now in her third season, learned how to run a WNBA offense while becoming an elite defender. Clark was forced to take contested jump shots as a main option in the offense. Howard was forced to be the team’s Robin while still anchoring the team’s defense. Loyd was forced to be Batman. And each one did their role and did well. This season, with Bird and Stewart back, they are stronger as a unit compared to 2018. The confidence each player gained from the new roles they were forced to take in 2019 is evident in 2020.

The Aces’ have two players who have been in the finals, though each player didn’t leave the mark they would’ve liked in their finals appearance. 

McCoughtry led the Atlanta Dream to the Finals in 2010, 2011, and 2013, but were swept in all three of those series.  Aces’ Sugar Rodgers was a rookie on the 2013 Lynx championship team but didn’t see much floor time. 

This Aces team will have to live in the moment. They must let the momentum of being in the Finals motivate them to rise to the occasion. Their head coach will no doubt preach that sentiment as he is a two-time NBA champion with a historic team in the Bad Boys Detroit Pistons.

Missing in action

The wubble was a season led by injury and early departures due to the COVID-19 pandemic and accelerated playing schedule. Both teams are victims of these circumstances.

The Aces’ Hamby suffered a knee injury in the semifinals, after averaging 13.0 ppg and 7.1 rbg in 28.3 mpg. Hamby has been the spar off the bench for the Aces and a key player for Las Vegas in the closing minutes.

Hamby’s 6-foot-3 frame is an ideal candidate for defending the Storm’s Stewart and neutralizing the Storm’s bigs on the boards. Now that burden will fall on McCaughtry and Wilson, two players who are already expected to score the ball.

The Storm will be without sharpshooter Sami Whitcomb, as she has exited the wubble to be with her wife during the delivery of their child.

Whitcomb was a member of the Storm’s 2018 championship team, playing a key role off the bench, her presence prevents teams from sending doubles down low to Howard and Steward and also opens the lane for Canada and Loyd, who are both limited three-point threats.

History in the making

At the end of the day, each storyline and factor leads to the question: what’s going to happen? Both teams have the chance of being the first WNBA team to win a championship during a pandemic. Aside from that, there are historic implications for both franchises as well.

This series is Seattle’s chance to tie the Minnesota Lynx and Houston Comets a defunct franchise for the most WNBA titles at four. This series may also be the last playoff series WNBA fans get to see Bird play in, as she has frequently spoken about retirement.

On the other hand, this is the Aces’ first Finals appearance since moving to Las Vegas a move that took place three years ago. Prior to locating to Las Vegas, the Aces made one trip to the WNBA Finals as the San Antonio Stars.

The Stars were led by current NBA assistant coach Becky Hammon’s masterful three-point play, but fell short, being swept by the then-Laimbeer coached Detroit Shock.

In Hammon’s final playing season, she led the Stars to the playoffs, breaking the record highest regular-season free-throw percentage, shooting 100% from the line for the entire regular season. Hammon went on to join Greg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs, becoming the first female coach to win a summer league title.

On the other hand, the Stars became the worst team in the league, having the worst record in 2015, 2016, and 2017. The team relocated to Las Vegas in 2017 and hired Laimbeer to begin the franchise’s fresh start. The franchise drafted three number one picks Kelsey Plum, Wilson, and Jackie Young, in consecutive seasons. Now, in their third year in Las Vegas, they have a chance to bring a championship to the city of lights. 

This year has been one that no one could’ve predicted. From unexpected celebrity deaths, a global pandemic and a quarantine summer, 2020 has been a year for the books. The WNBA played a season in spite of the extraordinary circumstances, and they played that season well. The final teams standing not only will make history as the first champions to win during a pandemic, but they will also make history for their respective franchises.

Game 1 of the WNBA Finals starts Friday at 4 PM PST on ESPN2.