The No. 1 Las Vegas Aces and No. 2 Seattle Storm flew above the rest all season long while the WNBA completed its season at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. It took them meeting on the league’s final day to determine the top seed. And now they’ll face off in a best-of-five series for the championship.
The WNBA Finals begins Friday between the two squads that each finished the season 18-4. It will pit the two favorites for MVP against each other in the Aces’ A’ja Wilson, who earned the honor, and the Storm’s Breanna Stewart, the 2018 winner who returned this year from an Achilles tear.
Here’s how to watch, what to watch for and the history that is at stake this October.
When are the WNBA Finals on TV?
It is one of the most nationally friendly TV schedules in the history of the league with two Finals games scheduled for ABC, including Game 5 if necessary. It’s the first time either of those have happened, per ESPN.
Game 1. Friday, Oct. 2 | Storm at Aces, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2
Game 2. Sunday, Oct. 4 | Storm at Aces, 3 p.m. ET on ABC
Game 3. Tuesday, Oct. 6 | Aces at Storm, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN
Game 4 (if necessary). Oct. 8 | Aces at Storm, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2
Game 5 (if necessary). Oct. 11 | Storm at Aces, 3 p.m. ET on ABC.
Storm stacked after 2018 title run
The Storm have 2018 Finals MVP Stewart, 11-time All-Star Sue Bird and a nearly full team that won the ’18 title together. Their bench, especially point guard Jordin Canada, has starting experience from last season when Stewart (Achilles) and Bird (knee) missed time. And they’re coming off a dominating sweep of the Minnesota Lynx in the league semifinals.
The Storm ranks first in offensive rating (110.4) and in defensive rating (95.9). The team had the only unanimous All-Defensive First Team selection in forward Alysha Clark. The 6-foot-4 Stewart was also named to the team. And Natasha Howard was the 2019 defensive player of the year.
Facing the Seattle offense is like a game of Whac-a-Mole that’s on level 10; someone is going to step up and successfully take the reins when a teammate is locked down. Jewell Loyd did that in the first two games against the Lynx. She scored 25 and 20, respectively.
When the Lynx zoned in on her, Stewart stood up with 31 points in Game 3. She averaged 23 points, 8 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.7 blocks in the three-game series. She’s shooting at a clip (45.5 percent) on par with her career playoff average, but hasn’t hit as well from behind the arc (4 of 14). Expect that to change as she continues to shake off rust from a more than seven-day layoff prior to the semifinals.
The key loss is Sami Whitcomb, who left the bubble this week to return home to Australia for the birth of her first child. Whitcomb came off the bench in all 25 games, averaging 8.1 points in the regular season and 5.0 in the postseason.
Aces rely on Wilson, go without Hamby
Las Vegas was not supposed to be here, at least that was the thought at the beginning of the bubble season. Now the Aces are three wins from a WNBA title playing behind the league MVP in Wilson, a 6-foot-4 forward. They won a tight, but at times sloppy, defensive battle versus the Connecticut Sun in Game 5 of the league semifinals.
The Aces are right behind the Storm in offensive rating (109.6) and defensive rating (99.0). They’re a team built inside the paint and rely on free throws (averaging 23 per game) to make up for the lack of 3-point shooting. Las Vegas took the fewest attempts from behind the arc (253) of any team in the league by more than 100 shots.
The downside is that the Aces advanced because of Wilson. Period. Full stop. McCoughtry, who missed 2019 with an ACL injury, had an incredible Game 4 and she is the reason Las Vegas got to a Game 5 and ultimately the Finals. But otherwise, it’s been Wilson carrying the load and that’s just not going to work in a Finals series against a star-studded offensive powerhouse. If a few more of the Sun’s shots had fallen in that final game, the Aces would be back in Vegas.
In five postseason games, Wilson is averaging a double-double of 21.8 points and 10.4 rebounds along with 3.0 blocks. The regular season leader in free throw makes and attempts is 27 of 38 in the postseason. McCoughtry is averaging 16 points thanks to 20-plus point outings in Games 4 and 5. She’s shooting 45.5 percent (5 of 11) from behind the arc. Otherwise there hasn’t been much help.
They Aces are without back-to-back Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby. Hamby will not play again this season after tearing a ligament in her right knee. She’s a presence the Aces value on both the offensive and defensive sides and Aces coach Bill Laimbeer said on a call with media before the series it will hurt not having the extra body on Stewart.
The 6-foot-3 forward averaged 13.0 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.7 steals in the regular season. In three playoff games she shot 52.9 percent and averaged 8, 3 rebounds and 2.3 assists points in 25 minutes.
Danielle Robinson, Kayla McBride and Jackie Young, who came off the bench in all five games, will need to meet the moment.
Head to head: Aces win both, but with Bird out
The Aces have yet to face a fully loaded Seattle Storm squad this season. Bird did not play in either game, both of which were Las Vegas victories, and Stewart did not play in the finale.
Game 1 (Aug. 22): Aces 82, Storm 74
The Aces went on a 11-2 run in the second quarter to put the game away behind Wilson’s 23 points and 14 rebounds. As usual, she made double-digit trips to the line and made 9 of 12 shots. The team won it on the boards, 44-34.
The Storm had a poor shooting day, going 37.3 percent overall including hitting 7 of 26 3-point attempts. Stewart scored 19 points and had 18 rebounds.
Game 2 (Sept. 13): Aces 88, Storm 86
It came down to the final minutes in the second matchup and the Aces kept hold of the No. 1 seed with the win. Wilson and Hamby each scored 23 points. The team was 18 of 27 from the free throw line. Without Bird or Stewart, it was Loyd who stepped up and scored 30 points for the Storm.
History on the line
It will again be a WNBA Finals with history at stake. The Aces are going for their first WNBA title in franchise history and so is Team USA member McCoughtry, who ranks sixth all-time in points per game with 18.8. If the Las Vegas wins, it will be the fifth consecutive year the regular season MVP has led their team to the championship.
The Aces started as the Utah Starzz in the league’s inaugural 1997 season and moved to San Antonio in 2003. The 2008 team reached the WNBA Finals, but was swept by Laimbeer’s Detroit Shock. After three consecutive seasons as the worst in the league (2015-17), the franchise moved to Vegas for the 2018 season.
McCoughtry, in her 11th season, led the Atlanta Dream to the 2010, 2011 and 2013 Finals during her decade there. They were swept by the Storm and Lynx, respectively.
The Storm are well versed in titles and are playing for the other end of history. A championship would pull Seattle into a tie with the Lynx and Houston Comets for most all-time. The Lynx dynasty won four titles between 2011 and 2017. The Comets, which folded in ’08, won the first four championships in league history.
Seattle has lost only one Finals game in franchise history. It beat the Sun, 2-1, in the best-of-three 2004 series. Then it swept the Dream in the new best-of-five format in 2010 and the Washington Mystics in 2018. Bird, the No. 1 draft pick in 2002, has been there for all of them. The oldest player in the league turns 40 on Oct. 16.
More from Yahoo Sports: