The matchup between the Seattle Storm and Washington Mystics was the most anticipated first-round series, with nearly everyone predicting it would go the full three games. Instead, the Storm managed to sweep the Mystics and take care of business without ever leaving Seattle.
They narrowly won Game 1, escaping with a three-point win thanks to some late-game heroics from Jewell Loyd. Game 2 was less dramatic, as they pulled away in the second half for a comfortable double-digit victory. Now, they'll advance to the semifinals where they'll face the No. 1 overall seed Las Vegas Aces.
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Ahead of the action, here's everything you need to know:
(4) Seattle Storm defeat (5) Washington Mystics, 2-0
- Game 1:
- Game 2:
Players to watch
Storm: Breanna Stewart. This one is obvious. Fully healthy once again after offseason surgery on her Achilles tendon, Stewart has returned to her place atop the league's hierarchy. She won her first scoring title this season, and averaged 21.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.6 steals per game. As per usual, she's a leading candidate for MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, and could wind up winning both awards. She is extremely versatile on both ends of the floor, and the Storm's success starts with her.
Mystics: Elena Delle Donne. After playing just three games in the last two seasons combined due to various back ailments, Delle Donne returned this season on a limited basis. The Mystics were extremely cautious with her workload, and she often skipped road trips to ensure she remained healthy for the playoffs. Though the plan may have cost the Mystics a better seed, it did work. Delle Donne was terrific when she played, putting up 17.2 points and 6.3 rebounds on 48 percent shooting, and will be ready to go for Game 1.
Three keys to the series
1. New format will be put to the test
Prior to the season, the league announced a new playoff format. First-and-second-round byes have been eliminated in favor of a traditional postseason bracket. The first-round series will be best-of-three, while the semifinals and Finals will both be best-of-five.
There is still one quirk to the league's new system, however. In the first round, the higher-seeded team will host Games 1 and 2, while the lower seeded team will host Game 3, if necessary. That gives the higher seed a chance to sweep the series at home and take care of business without having to travel. However, if the lower seeded team is able to steal just one of the first two games, it will then have a winner-take-all game at home.
In more lopsided series, such as the 1 vs. 8 matchup between the Aces and Mercury, that will be a big benefit to the higher seed. However, the format will be put to the test in more competitive series like this one between the Storm and Mystics. If the Storm don't sweep the first two games, then their work to win home court will be for naught.
The 2-1 format makes sense from a travel and financial perspective, but a 1-1-1 format would be much better for competitive balance. Hopefully in the future that can be arranged, or the first round can just become best-of-five as well.
2. Extended schedule should help Delle Donne
The Mystics' main priority this season was to keep Elena Delle Donne healthy. She was put on a comprehensive load management plan that included skipping multiple road trips and limiting her minutes in games where she did play. All told, she played 25 games and averaged 27.8 minutes.
They were 18-7 when Delle Donne played and 4-7 when she sat, so the caution likely cost them a better seed, but it did keep her healthy. She made it through a full season and is healthy for the playoffs for the first time since 2019 -- the season she led the Mystics to their first and only championship.
With Delle Donne ready to go, the Mystics may be a darkhorse title contender. Though she won't receive any honors this season due to her lack of games, she is still one of the best players in the league, and the Mystics had a plus-12.3 net rating when she was on the floor.
The question, though, is whether she can withstand the rigors of the playoffs. Washington no longer has the luxury of resting her, especially in short series. At least for the first round, however, there shouldn't be any trouble. Delle Donne has had four days off since the final regular-season game, and the 2-1 format with an extended schedule should help. Even if the series goes the distance, it will be three games in the span of seven days with one flight.
3. Mystics' elite defensive backcourt vs. Loyd
The Mystics finished the regular season with the best defense in the league, allowing just 96 points per 100 possessions. Their success on that end of the floor started with their backcourt, which features two potential All-Defensive First Teamers in Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins.
When the action begins later this week, those two will be tasked with slowing down Jewell Loyd, Seattle's All-Star guard. The Storm's second-leading scorer, Loyd put up 16.3 points per game this season and shot 38.5 percent from 3-point land. She was inconsistent at times, however, and highly inefficient inside the arc, where she shot a career-low 40.3 percent.
In a series where the two teams are so evenly matched from a statistical perspective, this backcourt battle may decide who advances to the semifinals. For the season, the Storm are 14-6 when Loyd scores more than 15 points, and 8-8 when she gets 15 or fewer. They are a top-loaded offense and need Loyd to produce in order to have success. If she gets loose and puts up a few big games, the Storm likely win the series. On the other hand, if Cloud and Atkins are able to stifle her, the advantage should swing to the deeper Mystics.
Each team has a former MVP leading the way, each team has an elite defense and each team could easily win the series. This is an exceptionally tough call, especially with the new first-round format that could result in a deciding Game 3 in Washington. With very little separating either side, we'll lean toward the team with the best player, and that's Seattle. Pick: Storm in 3