Is Sundays Seattle Storm-Las Vegas Aces game a preview of 2021 WNBA Finals?

The trouble with two of the league’s top teams playing twice in the first five days of the 2021 WNBA season is the lengthy wait before we see them together again on court. But the Seattle Storm and Las Vegas Aces — who met in last season’s WNBA Finals — face off Sunday (4 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App).

Currently the two best teams in the league, the Storm and the Aces split back-to-back games in Seattle in mid-May. The Storm won the season opener for both teams, 97-83. Three days later, Las Vegas won 96-80.

The league-leading Storm (12-3) had won five consecutive games before falling at home Tuesday against the Washington Mystics. Seattle remains unbeaten on the road (7-0).

The Aces (10-3) currently hold second place in the WNBA standings and ride a five-game winning streak into Friday’s matchup at the Minnesota Lynx.

Which team do we think will win Sunday? How have both teams gotten better since they last met? And are they headed toward another clash in the WNBA Finals? Our panel — ESPN.com’s Kelly Cohen, Dana Lee, Mechelle Voepel and Kevin Pelton, and The Undefeated’s Sean Hurd — previews one of the biggest games on the schedule before the WNBA pauses its season for the All-Star Game and Olympic break.

How have both teams evolved since they played in the opening week of the season?

Kevin Pelton: When these teams met over a month ago, Noelle Quinn was still an assistant to Dan Hughes, whose midseason retirement created the opportunity for her to become head coach. Seattle was still sorting through options to replace Natasha Howard at center, and Mercedes Russell wasn’t yet one of them — she was still quarantining after returning from her international play in Turkey. Now, Russell has firmly established herself as the Storm’s center as Quinn defined a rotation during the Storm’s recent 5-0 road trip.

Kelly Cohen: To start the season, the Storm were playing well — but primarily on offense. In six games in May, they ranked eighth in the league in defensive rating (100.0). Through nine games so far in June, Seattle tops the WNBA with a 93.3 defensive rating. The Storm are 5-1 in their last six games, holding opponents to an average of 73.0 PPG. Seattle now looks ready to defend its WNBA championship on both sides of the ball.

The Aces started the season strong on both offense and defense, and have even turned it up a notch. Liz Cambage (15.0 PPG, 8.5 RPG) and A’ja Wilson (18.5 PPG, 8.1 RPG) are leading the team night after night offensively, but when players like Dearica Hamby, Kelsey Plum and Riquna Williams are contributing consistently, Las Vegas feels even more unstoppable.

Mechelle Voepel: We knew it would take a little while for Seattle’s defense to adjust after losing two premier defenders in Howard and Alysha Clark. As Kelly said, the Storm have done that. In their nine games in June, they’ve allowed over 75 points just twice, including in Tuesday’s rather surprising 87-83 loss to Washington, which has been playing well despite its injuries.

For the Aces, point guard Chelsea Gray hit the ground running even back in May in her first season in Las Vegas. But the impact of one of the league’s best point guards — and soon to be an Olympian — continues to grow. The Aces could have used Gray last year when they made it to the WNBA Finals but then got swept. They’re glad they got her as a free agent this year; she’s second in the league in assists (6.4) to the Chicago Sky’s Courtney Vandersloot (8.6).

What or who is the X factor in this third and final regular-season meeting?

Pelton: Las Vegas’ 3-point shooting. Naturally, that’s not the first thing we think of with the Aces, but as long as they can make a few 3s they’re usually in good shape. Las Vegas is 10-1 this season when making at least four 3-pointers, with two of the Aces’ three losses coming when they made just three (in the season opener in Seattle) and none (at Connecticut). In the second game against the Storm, the Aces knocked down six 3s.

Sean Hurd: Going off what Kevin said, I think maybe it’s the play of Riquna Williams. If we’re talking about the Aces’ 3-point production, Williams is at the front of that conversation. She leads the Aces with 2.0 made 3-pointers per game (attempts a team-high 5.3) and shoots 37.7% for the season. In Las Vegas’ loss to Seattle — Williams’ debut with the team — she had just two points on 1-of-6 shooting, including a 0-for-3 effort beyond the arc. In their second matchup, she had 10 points, went 4-of-7 from the floor and hit two of her four 3-point attempts.

Voepel: The Aces got to 100 points or more in their two victories last week against New York, and in the latter, Hamby had her second double-double of the season. She has the ability to impact games in multiple ways off the bench, and in this case her rebounding work might be key. There’s also the fact that she didn’t get to play against the Storm in last year’s WNBA Finals due to injury, which might still be some extra motivation for her this season.

What has been the biggest surprise — good or bad — this season when it comes to Seattle and Las Vegas?

Pelton: For the Aces, I’d say Kelsey Plum’s comeback from an Achilles rupture. Because Plum was away from the team for the FIBA 3×3 Olympic Qualifying Tournament, her 32-point game against the Liberty makes up a heavy percentage of her season totals. Still, she had a 32-point game, a new career high. For Seattle, it’s Sue Bird threatening a 50/40/90 season in season 18 in the WNBA. Bird merely needs to make her next six free throw attempts to be there.

Hurd: The play of Las Vegas’ Jackie Young. I don’t know if we can necessarily call this a surprise since Young showed what she can do on the floor late last season when she scored at least 17 points in five of the Aces’ final seven regular-season games. But I think we’ve seen the next level of her game this year. On a roster as all-star studded as Las Vegas, Young being the third-leading scorer behind Wilson and Cambage is impressive. Equally impressive are the multiple occasions in games this season in which Young has been Las Vegas’ best player on the floor. According to the WNBA, Young also ranks third in defensive win shares among players who average at least 15 minutes per game.

Voepel: As important as Angel McCoughtry was to the Aces last year, I have been a little surprised that they haven’t seemed to miss her a great deal yet this season as she sits out with an ACL injury. Maybe that’s because her voice and enthusiasm are still there on the bench, and of course it helps to have Plum back and additions like Gray and Williams this season. As for Seattle, I thought maybe we would see a little more from center Ezi Magbegor in her second season, but she’s also just 21 years old and, as Kevin said, Russell has played very well.

Which scenario is more likely: A WNBA Finals rematch between the Storm and Aces, only one of them reaching the Finals or an entirely different matchup in the championship series?

Pelton: I’m going with a Finals rematch. Thanks to Connecticut Sun star Jonquel Jones’ absence for EuroBasket, the Storm and Aces have the inside track on the top two seeds, allowing them to advance directly to the semifinals and host those best-of-five series. Since the WNBA moved to this format, top-2 seeds are 9-1 in semifinals series, with the Mystics pulling the lone upset in 2018.

Dana Lee: I don’t see any other team getting past these two, and honestly, we’d be lucky if that’s the case in October. In the league’s history, we’ve only seen a rematch of the previous year’s Finals twice — in 1999-2000, between the Comets and Liberty; and the Sparks-Lynx in 2016-17. The storyline becomes even more compelling when you consider how different the Storm’s roster looks this year compared to when they won in 2020. When the Storm celebrated their title in a pregame ceremony in May (coincidentally they were playing the Aces that day), only five players on the active roster received rings. Think of this year’s potential Storm-Aces championship as a fraternal twin to 2020 — similar, but different.

Hurd: I agree that Seattle and Las Vegas are the two best teams in the league and wouldn’t be surprised if we ended up getting a Finals rematch. But with that being said — and I’m singling out the Storm here specifically — teams have played Seattle close this season. The Dallas Wings (7-8, currently vying for a No. 6 seed) has played Seattle three times and has lost two very winnable games in the final moments. The Storm lost to a Mystics team without Natasha Cloud and Myisha Hines-Allen (and Elena Delle Donne and Emma Meesseman). Even the 1-15 Indiana Fever came within three points of the defending champs as late as six minutes left in the fourth quarter on June 17.

And if we want to take a look at Vegas, the Aces have dropped two straight to Connecticut. I think I’m scared to call either team a lock at this point, though beating either team in a playoff series seems steep.

Cohen: As I’ve written this season’s WNBA Power Rankings, I’ve monitored each team for the past six weeks — everything good, bad, great and ugly. Seattle and Las Vegas remain the two teams that have not had any issues besides a close loss here and there. So far, they remain injury-free, too. As we’ve seen this season, injuries or players being away from the team due to FIBA play or COVID-19 protocols have caused a handful of teams to struggle. If Seattle and Las Vegas continue to stay healthy, I can’t see any other teams touching them. Though I won’t lie — how fun would it be for a team like the Wings or the Mystics to play them closely in the playoffs? We love a Cinderella team and we love buzzer-beaters!

Voepel: As Kevin said, the fact that these two seem headed again to the double-bye into the best-of-five semifinals means everything. It’s not like the old playoff format where the semis were best-of-three, and there was a greater chance for upsets. The idea of any other teams beating either Las Vegas or Seattle three times seems unlikely at the moment. But we’ll see how healthy everyone is in a couple of months.

Which team will win Sunday, Seattle or Las Vegas?

Voepel: It is difficult to pick the Aces to lose at home, but the Storm will be extra-motivated to not lose their second game in a row, and Las Vegas has another game before facing Seattle. The Aces play at Minnesota on Friday, while the Storm will be preparing for Vegas. So I give a slight edge to Seattle.

Pelton: I think these two teams are close enough for home-court advantage to be the swing factor, so I’d favor the Aces in Las Vegas.

Cohen: After that loss to the Mystics earlier this week, I can see Seattle coming out strong. Speaking of that loss, Washington was able to win that game thanks to a monster night from Tina Charles. And the Aces have many players who can have the same type of game in order to get a win. I see it being a close one, but I think Las Vegas wins this one at home.

Hurd: Las Vegas has been playing great as of late. It’s hard to pick against the Aces if they can maintain this momentum.

Lee: Normally I’d agree with Kevin on home-court advantage, but the Storm have been freakishly good away from Everett — they’re 7-0 and the only team still undefeated on the road. That can obviously change on Sunday, but after returning from a five-game road trip earlier this week, the Storm had tied the league’s record by winning 14 consecutive away games, including playoffs. The last team to do it was the Los Angeles Sparks in 2002-03. Right now, Seattle hasn’t given reason to believe they can’t top that record this Sunday.

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