Against the rest of the WNBA world sequestered in the bubble in Bradenton, FL, the Seattle Storm is 21-2, including a three-game playoff series sweep of the Minnesota Lynx. Against the opponent in the Finals, the Las Vegas Aces, the Storm is 0-2.
The Storm, it would seem, has a point to prove.
“These are the best players in the world. We have a chance to become the best team in the world this year,’’ coach Gary Kloppenburg said this week via videoconference. “I think they really want to come out and be ready and bring back a championship to Seattle.”
If they do win the title — its fourth, following 2004, 2010 and 2018 — it likely will be because, for the first time against the Aces in this truncated season, stars Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird will be together and healthy on the floor.
When the teams first met Aug. 22, Bird’s sore knee didn’t allow her to play, and the Storm lost by by eight. In a rematch Sept. 13, Bird and Stewart both rested, and the Storm lost by two.
They won’t miss the 4 p.m. tipoff (ESPN2) Friday in the best-of-five championship.
The Storm also has the advantage of a semifinal sweep while the Aces were extended to five games by Connecticut.
Las Vegas coach Bill Laimbeer, a two-time WNBA coach of the year and a four-time NBA All-Star from his days as a “Bad Boy” with the Detroit Pistons 30 years ago, is confident his team is up for a matchup with the healthy Storm.
“They’re going to be rested,’’ Laimbeer said of the Storm. “We know them. They know us. We played each other twice and eyeballed each other both times.
“The mental toughness of our club this year, compared to the last couple years, the mental toughness of this ball club is outstanding.”
The Aces were also 18-4 in the regular season, and granted the No. 1 seed by virtue of the sweep of the Storm. They also have the league’s Most Valuable Player, A’ja Wilson, edging out Stewart, the 2018 MVP.
“A’ja knows her responsibility. She has matured tremendously as a person and a basketball player,” Laimbeer said of Wilson, who averaged 20.5 points in her third pro season out of South Carolina. “You can’t say enough about her growth. And her year three is phenomenal.’’
Stewart sounded excited for the match-up.
“Obviously, Vegas has a great team. A‘ja has had a dominant season,’’ said Stewart, who scored 31 points in the final game against the Lynx. “We’re going to continue to be prepared to play our best basketball.
“We’re back in the finals. I’m excited.’’
Both clubs enter the finals absent a key reserve.
Storm guard Sami Whitcomb, a former University of Washington star, returned this week to her home in Australia, where her wife is having their first baby.
“We’re sad to have her go because she’s had an impact on this team,’’ Stewart said. “What we will miss from her is her energy. When she comes in a game, she comes in ready. She is a competitor. She is loud and active whether she is in the game or on the bench.’’
The Aces, who are in their first finals in their third year in Vegas, will miss forward Derica Hamby, a two-time WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year, who injured a knee in the semifinals.
Kloppenburg, in his first year as head coach after taking over for Dan Hughes, who took a medical leave, sees a lot of Laimbeer in the Aces.
“They’re a very aggressive team,’’ Kloppenburg said. “They are a power team that tries to pound you inside. They try to put it down on the deck.
“Our first line of defense is to be solid and stay vertical on all their actions inside, all their shots to the rim. Then we have to be aggressive at the other end. If we set that tone, we will go the rim.’’
Wilson says the Aces are also defense-first.
“Our defense is the best when we’re just moving,” she said. “We’re just in it, we’re in a groove. It’s tough at times when we get out of rhythm.
“It will be a key against a good Seattle team that knows how to execute all the time. It will be tough, and we will forget stuff, but we won’t let up. It’s key to making sure that we get rebounds. We pride ourselves on defense.’’
Kloppenburg knows Seattle is going in with the pressure of the favorite.
“Obviously for the fans our expectations are high,” he said. “Everyone expects us to win. But we know nothing is a given. We’re playing a really good team. We know we have to prepare, we now we have to come out extremely hard and execute super aggressively.’’
Guard Jewell Loyd has seen a season of contributions from throughout the roster.
“We know that every single night, someone else can step up and make a good play and that can be the difference in winning or losing,” she said. “That is something we have come to really embody.
“We know that we have that toughness, that perseverance, for this series.’’