Sizing Up The Backcourt For The WNBA Finals
By Chris Kwiecinski
While the superstars of this year’s WNBA Finals, such as Washington’s Elena Delle Donne and Seattle’s Breanna Stewart, will clash in a heavyweight showdown, the guard play is what sent both of these teams to the Finals in the first place.
The Storm’s Sue Bird engaged herself in a form of “Beast Mode” the WNBA has never seen before and single handedly slew Phoenix, while the combo of Ariel Atkins and Kristi Toliver overcame Delle Donne’s knee injury and rallied to beat Atlanta.
Now, these frontcourt matchups will face off as X-factors, possibly deciding who wins the WNBA Finals.
Raise your hand if you saw Sue Bird coming on Tuesday. Okay, you’re lying.
Her 14 points in the fourth quarter were the ultimate oxymoron. She was colder than the arctic, but hotter than the planet’s core.
We know Bird has been a fixture in the WNBA for years; she’s set the WNBA record for most regular season games played in 2018, and the WNBA all-time assist record in 2017. But what we saw Tuesday was total domination. And she did that without fellow guard Jewell Loyd on the floor.
The tandem of Bird and Loyd is a solid compliment to the superstar status of Stewart, who can do just about anything on the basketball court. If Bird is the apex point guard, then Loyd is a pure scoring player.
However, Loyd has expanded her arsenal in the 2018 playoffs. Her defensive rating jumped from 97.6 in the regular season to 103.1 in the playoffs. Combine that with Bird’s, rookie Jordin Canada’s and Sami Whitcomb’s defensive ratings of 105.6, 106.8 and 99.4, respectively, and the Storm guards have an apt amount of defense to go along with their offense.
That’s good, considering what they’re up against.
With Delle Donne limping off the court during game two of the Mystics’ game against Atlanta, Washington needed to replace its firepower. And the team did.
Guards Toliver and Atkins, a rookie, combined to score 80 points in games four and five against the Dream to take the series with Delle Donne coming back from her knee injury. It was an awesome showing of offense, and one that will clash with Seattle’s backcourt.
While the Mystics don’t have same the name brand of skill the Storm have, such as Sue Bird, they boast efficient offense.
The red-hot Atkins has been the surprise of this offense. After averaging 11.3 points per game in the regular season, she’s turned in on in the postseason. In five games, she’s averaging 15 points while shooting 49.2 and 45.8 from the floor and beyond the arc, respectively.
Her youthful exuberance is matched by Toliver’s veteran presence. While she doesn’t have the same stats that Atkins has, Toliver came through when the Mystics needed it most with her double-digit outings in games four and five.
Atkins and Toliver have astronomical offensive ratings of 114.9 and 107.7, and when they’re not on the court guard Natasha Cloud has an offensive rating of 101.7. This offensive is formidable, and Seattle’s defense is in for a fight.
When it comes down to separating the two backcourts, the Mystics’ penchant for clutch plays can’t be ignored here.
Toliver has a history of clutch shots. She’s hit game-winners against the Wings this year, and two more times as a Spark against the Sun in 2016 and against the Tulsa Shock in 2012. Furthermore, Delle Donne, who also plays the perimeter, and Cloud have also hit buzzer-beaters this season for the Mystics, showing Washington knows how to close out games.
Bird came through for Seattle on Tuesday with her other wordly performance, but the Storm also couldn’t pull ahead of the Mercury in game four before Brittney Griner laid in a game-winner.
It’s not about whether or not the Storm can play in the clutch, they can. But the Mystics’ guard play has done it plenty of times before this season, and will be hard to bet against if the occasion ever arrives in the WNBA Finals.