LAS VEGAS – This is going to be fun.
Breanna Stewart vs. A’ja Wilson.
The WNBA semifinals pairing between the No. 4 seed Storm and No. 1 seed Las Vegas, which begins at 1 p.m. Sunday at Michelob Ultra Arena on ESPN, pits the top two women’s basketball players in the world against each other in a best-of-five series that could irrevocably change the league.
“It’s good to have rivalries,” guard Jewell Loyd said. “It’s good to have that draw that gets people talking. You think about the great basketball battles like Larry Bird and Magic and what that did for the NBA. It’s good to have that kind of rivalry in the W because I feel like we don’t always have that.
“We don’t have that one-on-one matchup going into games where people are looking it up and being interested in it. I think it’s great. Those are two [of the] greatest players right now in our game internationally and nationally. Having them face off in the semifinals is good for our game. It’s the first time in a very long time we’ve had two young players this dominant – the two faces of women’s basketball – we don’t have that enough.”
This is as good as it gets.
The 28-year-old Stewart and Wilson, 26, are at the height of their powers. They’re former WNBA MVPs – Stewart won it in 2018 and Wilson in 2020 – who are practically guaranteed to finish first and second in the race for the coveted award when the winner is announced in the next few days.
Stewart led the league in scoring with 21.8 points per game while averaging 7.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.9 blocks and 1.6 steals. Meanwhile, Wilson averaged 19.5 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.4 steals.
And they are poised to be the face of the WNBA for the next decade.
“That’s what makes it so unique,” guard Sue Bird said. “Here you have two young great players at the same position meeting in the playoffs. Very rarely does that happen.”
The 41-year-old Bird, who entered the league in 2002, is Seattle’s resident historian on all matters related to the 26-year-old WNBA.
Bird likens the Stewie-A’ja matchup to the heated rivalry between former Storm star Lauren Jackson and former Los Angeles Sparks great Lisa Leslie.
“That got established in the 2000 Olympics with the ponytail thing and the Australia vs. USA thing,” Bird said. “Lauren was super young. Lisa, even though she was older than Lauren, was still very much in her prime. When they met in the WNBA for the next however many years, there was heat to the game. You could feel it.
“That’s when our fans had the ‘Beat LA’ chants going. … But just those two, they gave the game a lot more juice and more emotion.”
There was palpable animosity between Jackson and Leslie, which doesn’t exist in the Stewart-Wilson rivalry in part because they’ve teamed together on the USA Basketball team that won the 2020 Olympic gold medal.
“Nah, it’s not like that with us,” Wilson said smiling. “We compete at a very high level not because it’s a rivalry, but because we’re professional athletes and we love the game. There’s no hate or anything like that. It’s all love.
“But we go at it. Stewie and I bring something different to the table. That’s the beautiful thing about it is you’re getting a new look in every single matchup because we bring the best out of each other. I don’t think the league has seen any two players like us at our position doing what we’re doing. We’re growing the game and having fun doing it.”
In 14 head-to-matchups, they’re tied with a 7-7 record. Although Stewart is 3-0 in the postseason, including a series sweep in the 2020 WNBA Finals.
“I’ve looked past that as something I can’t take back,” Wilson said. “It’s still brewing in my heart to get swept in the bubble, but when it comes to that matchup I can’t harp on that because I would never succeed and get far if I’m still looking in the past. It’s a fresh new start.”
In the past two seasons, Wilson has dominated the matchup with a 5-2 record, including 3-1 this year. However, she believes the past is prologue and will have no bearing on this upcoming series.
“That’s gone,” Wilson said. “It was cute while it lasted, but it’s a new season now.”
That wouldn’t be the worse concept for the Storm, who have struggled to keep pace with a high-octane Las Vegas offense that led the WNBA with 90.4 points per game during the regular season.
Seattle will need to curtail a lethal attack that features high-scoring guards in Kelsey Plum (22.0 ppg in the postseason), Chelsea Gray (22.0) and Jackie Young (15.5).
“For me, it starts with A’ja because she’s in the middle of so much of what they want to do,” Stewart said. “Matching up against her is really difficult. It’s the same as if someone had to matchup against me. Having players that can do multiple things and you’re trying to take away all of them, it’s frustrating and nearly impossible because you have to give her something.”
Stewart is particularly impressed with Wilson’s newfound perimeter attack. In her first four years, Wilson attempted just two three-pointers.
However, this season Wilson has connected on 31 of 83 attempts behind the arc (37.4%).
“Every year I look to how can I improve and how can I become unguardable,” Wilson said. “This season is the year of the three. I wanted to expand and add another dimension to my game where teams are like we got to scout this too. … It was key for me to add that to my game. I’ve always had it, but it was just a matter of [new Las Vegas coach Becky Hammon] bringing in a system that’s open and I have an opportunity to shoot from outside.”
Coaches are loathe to focus too much on a particular one-on-one matchup, but Noelle Quinn understands a Stewart-Wilson pairing is a potential TV ratings bonanza.
“It provides an extra layer of fan engagement,” the Storm coach said. “I know those two are popular in the sports world so other athletes engage in our game. … You want to make it team-oriented, but these are the two best players playing at the top of their game and as a league you want to highlight that and showcase that.”
But that doesn’t mean Quinn plans to isolate Stewart on Wilson throughout the series.
“We’ll do what’s in the best interest of the team whether that’s double teams or cross matches,” she said. “Winning games comes first and foremost.”
Hammon, a six-time WNBA All-Star who played 16 years in the league, said it’s likely the superstars negate each other, and the series will be decided by role players.
“At the end of the day, more than likely both get their 20 (points) so it’s going to be those other pieces and those wild cards,” Hammon said. “Somebody is going to step up on any given night. Someone that you didn’t expect. A lot of times it’s those role players that come in and end up making a big impact on the game. Jewell can really score. Kelsey can score. Jackie can score. Chelsea has been playing out of her mind.”
Bird added: “Look, there’s a ton of strategy happening with both sides. But the fact of the matter is this, Stewie and A’ja are going to attract a lot of attention. They’re the two players that when they’re playing well, their teams do well.
“They’re the players that I’m sure are getting talked about the most in the other team’s locker room in terms of how do we want to stop them, what do we want to do and what do we want to give up. In big games, you need your superstars to show up and they understand that.”
Whatever happens over the next week or so, it likely won’t be the last time Stewart and Wilson face off in the postseason.
“We have long careers left in this league,” Stewart said. “We’re just getting started.”
— Storm forward Gabby Williams, who is in the WNBA concussion protocols, did not travel to Las Vegas and will miss Game 1. She was injured Aug. 21 after receiving an inadvertent blow to her head. Quinn did not rule Williams out for Game 2 on Wednesday. Stephanie Talbot is expected to make her second start this season.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that Jackie Young plays for Las Vegas, not Jackie Gray as originally reported.