Since the first few weeks of the season, the Storm and Las Vegas were tagged as the favorites and set on a collision course for the WNBA title.
Three months later, the league’s top two seeds will square off in the best-of-five WNBA Finals, which begin Friday.
No. 2 seed Seattle swept No. 4 Minnesota on Sunday to advance to its fourth Finals in franchise history.
And No. 1 Las Vegas rallied from a 2-1 deficit in the semifinals and punched its ticket after Tuesday’s 66-63 victory over No. 7 Connecticut in Game 5.
“They’re going to be rested, that’s good and bad sometimes,” Aces coach Bill Laimbeer said of the Storm during a postgame teleconference call. “Sometimes there’s a bit of rust. We know them. They know us. We played each other twice. We eyeballed each other both times.”
It’s the first playoff pairing between the Storm and the Aces. Seattle is 3-0 in the WNBA Finals, with titles in 2004, ’10 and ’18, while Las Vegas is making its first Finals appearance.
Three years ago, the Aces finished last in the WNBA standings with just eight wins during its final year in San Antonio. And now, Las Vegas is three victories from the franchise’s first championship.
“It means a lot because you remember when these teams used to smack on you,” said guard Kayla McBride, the longest-tenured Aces player (she was drafted No. 3 overall in 2014). “I remember we used to go to Minnesota and get our (butts) kicked by 30. We used to go to Seattle and get our (butts) kicked by 30.
“So in the back of my mind, I always remember that we started from the bottom. I’m thankful for Las Vegas and this organization because they created something really special.”
The WNBA Finals feature a matchup between Las Vegas forward A’ja Wilson, the 2020 league MVP, against runner-up Breanna Stewart, the 2018 WNBA MVP.
Wilson scored 23 points in both games while averaging 10.5 rebounds and Stewart was equally sensational with 29 points and 18 rebounds during her one meeting against the Aces.
“For us, it’s putting stops together,” Wilson said. “That’s key against a good Seattle team that knows how to execute all the time.”
The Storm lost both regular-season games against the Aces – 82-74 on Aug. 22 and 86-84 on Sept. 13 – although Stewart didn’t play in the second game due to a left-foot injury.
Seattle also didn’t have perennial All-Star point guard Sue Bird for either game against Las Vegas.
Bird and Las Vegas’ Angel McCoughtry are making their fourth trips to the WNBA Finals. McCoughtry is winless during three previous trips with the Atlanta Dream, including a loss to Seattle in 2010.
“You just don’t know what I’ve been through when I was out,” said McCoughtry, who missed the 2019 season due to a knee injury. “It was tough. To come back and be able to contend for a championship, it’s emotional for me and it’s amazing. I thank the Aces organization for believing in me.”
Both teams will be shorthanded and without their top bench players.
Seattle is missing backup guard Sami Whitcomb, who returned to Australia to be with her wife for the birth of their first child, and is out for the rest of the postseason.
Meanwhile, Las Vegas forward Dearica Hamby, the reigning two-time Sixth Woman of the Year, is sidelined with a knee injury.
The Aces also played the entire season without All-Star center Liz Cambage and point guard Kelsey Plum, the former Washington Huskies star who is recovering from an Achilles injury.
“Dearica won’t be here and that’s going to hurt us a little bit (not having) that extra body to put on Stewie,” Laimbeer said. “But at the same time, we have what we have. … We’ve just got to find a way to be competitive and win games.”
In Game 5, Las Vegas overcame a 16-point deficit and held Connecticut to 18 points in the second half.
Wilson finished with 23 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and three blocks while playing 40 minutes in a winner-takes-all contest. The Aces also received 20 points from McCoughtry while McBride had 10.
“We just won two win-or-go-home games in a row,” McBride said. “That speaks a lot to our (ability to overcome) adversity. That speaks to who we are as people and our personality. We just don’t hang our heads. We believe in each other and we believe in ourselves.
“We’re a number-one seed for a reason. People don’t talk about that enough. They talk about everybody else. We’re still here and we’re still standing.”