After their weeks-long battle to decide the No. 4 seed in the 2022 WNBA playoffs was settled by a tiebreaker, the matchup between the Seattle Storm and Washington Mystics was seen as the most intriguing and competitive first-round series. Through one game, it has lived up to the hype.
They battled right down to the wire on Thursday night in a game that featured 11 ties and 15 lead changes. The final one came with 38.1 seconds remaining, as Jewell Loyd hit a pull-up jumper to put Seattle in front for good. A few possessions later, the Storm escaped with a thrilling 86-83 victory to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three series.
Loyd, who struggled for most of the game, finally caught fire in the fourth quarter and carried the Storm down the stretch; she finished with 16 points and three assists. The real star of the show for the Storm, however, was none other than Breanna Stewart, who received MVP chants from the crowd after going for 23 points, 12 rebounds and four assists.
Elena Delle Donne was terrific for the Mystics in defeat, scoring 26 points and dishing out five assists on a highly efficient 11 of 17 from the field. The Mystics also got 16 points a piece from backcourt mates Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins, but they just couldn't come up with enough answers in the final few minutes.
Game 2 of this series is set for Sunday afternoon in Seattle. The Storm will have a chance to sweep and advance to the semifinals, while the Mystics will look to keep their season alive and force a winner-take-all Game 3 back in Washington.
Here are some key takeaways from the game:
Stewart, Delle Donne duel in battle of former MVPs
Getting a series between two evenly matched teams is great; said series featuring a showdown between two evenly matched former MVPs who play the same position is the stuff basketball fans dream about. Breanna Stewart and Elena Delle Donne did not let the fans down on Thursday night, as they delivered an instant classic duel.
Stewart went for 23 points, 12 rebounds and four assists on 8 of 17 from the field, while Delle Donne countered with 26 points and five assists on 11 of 17. Combined they either scored or assisted on 80 of the game's 169 points (47.3 percent), and they did so while often guarding each other on the defensive end. It really doesn't get any better than that.
The fact that we got a game like this after everything Delle Donne and Stewart have been through with injuries in the past few seasons only makes it sweeter. Stewart has had major surgery on both of her Achilles tendons, and missed all of 2019 and last season's playoffs; Delle Donne has had multiple back surgeries and only played three games in 2020 and 2021 combined. With Delle Donne, in particular, there was no guarantee she would get back to this level, and the Mystics had to coax her through the season with an extensive load management plan.
We can only hope that the rest of this series is just as memorable.
Loyd shows up in the clutch
While Stewart versus Delle Donne stole the headlines, there were a number of fascinating subplots heading into this series. One of them was how Jewell Loyd, the Storm's uber-talented but often inconsistent shooting guard would fare against the Mystics' elite defensive backcourt of Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins.
For most of the night, Cloud and Atkins were winning the battle. As the clock ticked under five minutes in the fourth quarter, Loyd only had four points and had still not made a basket from the field. Then, all of a sudden, she flipped a switch. With the Storm down by five, Loyd controlled up top and waited for a screen from Tina Charles, which held up Cloud just enough for Loyd to get a clean look at a 3-pointer. It went down, and over the next four-plus minutes she poured in 12 points to drag the Storm over the finish line.
She hit the go-ahead jumper with 38.1 seconds remaining, and later two cold-blooded free throws to push their lead up to three with 24 seconds on the clock. It was fitting that those two free throws gave Loyd 16 points on the night and helped secure the win. For the season, the 15-point mark had often been the deciding line for Loyd and the Storm. When she scored 16 points or more, they were 14-6, and when she scored 15 or fewer they were 8-8.
First-round format to be put under microscope
The league finally got rid of byes and single-elimination rounds in the playoffs, and moved to a traditional bracket format this season. That was a step in the right direction, but there are still some issues to solve. In particular, no one is a fan of the first round set up.
First of all, it's only a best-of-three, and it is being played under a 2-1 format, with the higher seed hosting Games 1 and 2, and the lower seed hosting a deciding Game 3, if necessary.
"I think we'd all prefer home-away-home,". "I understand it's to minimize travel... I don't know there's an advantage, just depends on how you approach it. This isn't what I'd like long-term, [but] I think we're on the right path."
This series, in particular, will put the format under a microscope. After winning Game 1, the Storm now have a chance to sweep the series and send the Mystics packing before the latter even got to play a game at home. Conversely, if the Mystics steal Game 2 they then get to host a winner-take-all Game 3 despite being the lower seed. Neither outcome is fair. Furthermore, it's a shame such an even series featuring two all-time talents will only be, at most, three games.
Starting next season, the first round should be changed to a best-of-five like every other series.