WNBA 2022 playoffs: Seattle Storm vs. Washington Mystics first-round preview, series keys, players to watch

In the final weeks of the season, the battle between the Seattle Storm and the Washington Mystics for the No. 4 seed was one of the tightest and most dramatic playoff races. Although the No. 4 seed no longer gets a first-round bye under the new playoff format, it does mean home-court advantage in the first round.

In the end, the Storm finished fourth via the tiebreaker. Both teams finished the regular season with a 22-14 record, but the Storm were 2-1 in the duel. That slight edge could prove decisive in what should be an exciting first-round series.

Before the action, here is everything you need to know:

(4) Seattle Storm vs. (5) Washington Mystics

(all Eastern times)

  • Game 1: mystics to the storm | Thursday, August 18, 10 p.m. | TV: ESPN 2 | Flow: fuboTV (try for free)
  • Game 2: mystics to the storm | Sunday, August 21, 4 p.m. | TV: ESP | Flow: fuboTV
  • Game 3*: Storm at Mystics | Wednesday August 24, to be determined | TV: To be determined | Flow: To be determined

*If necessary

Players to watch

Storm: Breanna Stewart. This one is obvious. Healthy after Achilles tendon surgery in the offseason, Stewart has regained his place at the top of the league 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 usual, she’s a top contender for MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, and could win both awards. She’s extremely versatile at both ends of the floor, and the Storm’s success begins with her.

Mystics: Elena Delle Donne. After playing just three games in the last two seasons combined due to various back problems, Delle Donne has returned this season on a limited basis. The Mystics were extremely careful with her workload, and she often skipped road trips to ensure she stayed healthy for the playoffs. Although the plan may have cost the mystics a better seed, it worked. Delle Donne was terrific when she played, with 17.2 points and 6.3 rebounds on 48% shooting, and will be ready to play Game 1.

Three Series Keys

1. The new format will be tested

Prior to the season, the league announced a new playoff format. First- and second-round passes were eliminated in favor of a traditional postseason bracket. The first-round series will be best-of-three, while the semi-finals and finals will both be best-of-five.

However, there is still a quirk in the new league system. In the first round, the higher-ranked team will host Games 1 and 2, while the lower-ranked team will host Game 3, if required. This gives the top seed a chance to sweep the series home and take care of business without having to travel. However, if the lower-ranked team is able to steal just one of the first two games, then they will have a win-win match at home.

In more lopsided series, like the 1v8 match between the Aces and Mercury, this will be a big advantage for the top seed. However, the format will be put to the test in more competitive series like this one between the Storm and the Mystics. If the Storm don’t sweep the first two games, then their work to win home ground will be in vain.

The 2-1 format makes sense from a travel and finance perspective, but a 1-1-1 format would be much better for competitive balance. Hopefully this can be fixed in the future, or the first round will also become best of five.

2. An extended schedule should help Delle Donne

The Mystics’ main priority this season was keeping Elena Delle Donne healthy. She was put on a comprehensive load management plan that included skipping several car trips and limiting her minutes in the games she played. In total, she played 25 games and averaged 27.8 minutes.

They were 18-7 when Delle Donne played and 4-7 when she sat down, so the caution probably cost them a better seed, but it kept her healthy. She’s gone 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 set to go, the Mystics could be a contender for the Darkhorse title. Although she received no 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 ground.

The question, however, is whether she can withstand the rigors of the playoffs. Washington no longer has the luxury of resting it, especially in the short series. At least for the first round, however, there should be no problem. Delle Donne has had four days off since the last 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 seven days with a steal.

3. The Mystics’ elite defensive backcourt vs. Loyd

The Mystics finished the regular season with the best defense in the league, allowing only 96 points per 100 possessions. Their success at this end of the field started with their backcourt, which includes two potential all-defensive first teams in Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins.

When action begins later this week, these two will be tasked with slowing Jewell Loyd, Seattle’s All-Star guard. The Storm’s second-leading scorer, Loyd, has 16.3 points per game this season and is shooting 38.5% from 3-point range. However, she was at times inconsistent and very inefficient inside the arc, where she bottomed out at 40.3%.

In a series where both teams are so statistically evenly matched, this backcourt battle may decide who advances to the semifinals. For the season, the Storm are 14-6 when Loyd scores over 15 points and 8-8 when she has 15 or fewer. They are a top offense and need Loyd to produce in order to be successful. If she lets loose and puts together a few big games, the Storm will likely win the series. On the other hand, if Cloud and Atkins are able to snuff it out, the advantage should go to the deeper mystics.

Prediction

Every team has a former MVP in mind, every team has an elite defense, and every 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 separation on either side, we’ll be leaning towards the team with the best player, and that’s Seattle. Choose: Storm in 3

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