Five things to watch for in these 2018 WNBA Finals between the Washington Mystics and the top-seeded Seattle Storm:
1. Mystics switching grinding possessions to a halt
Washington has been quite successful this season switching on-ball actions, thanks to their size on the perimeter and with Elena Delle Donne and LaToya Sanders cleaning up messes around the basket.
In this series, look for the second switch that occurs away from the ball to get a smaller guard off of a big — something often referred to as a kickout switch. Examples of this in practice between these two teams can be drawn from their regular season matchups.
The Storm and Mystics squared off three times in the regular season. Seattle won the first meeting in late May as Washington played without three starters, so we’ll draw from Seattle’s home win on July 8 and Washington’s 23-point win on August 9 in D.C.
More from WNBA
- Bet $5 on Sparks vs. Sky, Win $150 Instantly with Limited-Time DraftKings Promo
- Cash in for Over $2,000 With WNBA Promo Bonuses from FanDuel & Caesars
- FanDuel WNBA Promo Code Gives You $2,500 Bonus for ANY Game Tonight!
- Unlock $200 GUARANTEED With Crazy DraftKings WNBA Promo
- Unlock Over $4,500 Bonus With 3 Best WNBA Sportsbook Promos!
In that earlier meeting, Washington forced Seattle into two contested jumpers. The Mystics were willing to switch a guard onto Breanna Stewart, but either came with help or kicked out that guard when Stewart tried to take them down into the post.
The common thread in Washington stops and most Seattle scores against these kickout switches: nothing easy for Stewart rolling to the rim or in the post against much smaller players.
As the Mystics lock in on Stewart, several key issues have popped up. For starters, Washington has not shied away from leaving Alysha Clark open beyond the arc. Clark is a 35.7 career 3-point shooter but has never attempted more than three attempts per game across her seven-year career. Two plays from the July 8 meeting illustrate the balance Washington needs to strike if they are going to still be willing to help off of Clark.
Sagging off of Clark as seen in the first clip allows them to clog the lane, eliminating cuts by Seattle’s big away from the ball. More on those later. In the second clip, the Mystics have Sanders back on Storm center Crystal Langhorne. Help comes anyway, leaving Clark alone in the opposite corner.
2. Storm counters to beat the kickout switch
Natasha Howard, Seattle’s nominal starting center, has been the pivotal piece reading the defense throughout the season once a kickout switch occurs. With both bigs up top, Howard created instant confusion by simply diving hard to the rim.
The guard in that scenario wants to stay high, but Howard’s decisiveness to cut hard left little time for the defense to react.
With two bigs that can shoot on the floor together, hanging out near the paint then popping out or spacing around a post up led to wide open triples for Howard.
In the first clip, Howard’s defender is switching onto the roller and kicking out that guard. Howard pops quickly to the wing and the ball arrives to Howard before the defense has time to react. In the second clip, Stewart attempts to post up a switch, and Howard spots up one pass away at the top of the key. Whether the defense wanted a switch out or just got caught over-helping, Howard gave Stewart enough space to draw that extra attention.
As Stewart walked a smaller defender down into the post, Howard flashed to the nail for an easy drive right as her defender switched onto Stewart.
Howard hung out just long enough under the basket, almost baiting her defender into that switch before bolting to the open real estate near the foul line.
In the next clip you’ll see Howard post a much smaller guard after the kickout switch occurs to deter Stewart from doing the same.
The guard recovering to Howard had to travel across the lane, so Howard set up shop early to keep that defender on her high side, opening the door for an easy lob entry.
And in perhaps Howard’s best trick to date against this tactic, she feints toward a teammate as if she’s going to set a screen on the back side only to slip to the rim instead as her defender switches onto Stewart.
By stepping toward Clark’s defender, Howard kept her body inside that player before bolting to the rim at just as her defender slid across the lane.
3. Seattle double drag to a flare
The Storm flashed a fun double drag look — a pair of screens for a ball handler in semi-transition — in Game 3 of the semifinals against Phoenix with Bird at the controls. Option one: have Howard step in to set a flare screen to free Stewart for an open three.
Howard stepped in to hit Stewart’s defender, who is more likely to hang back a beat to make sure the ball handler doesn’t turn the corner into the lane, with a screen to free her up to flare out to the right wing area.
In Game 4, Phoenix reacted in time to take away the open three for Stewart. But as Howard dove to the rim drawing some help, Jewell Loyd hit Bird’s defender with a flare.
4. More Seattle screening action
Bird, Loyd and Stewart were the only trio of teammates to each hit 60+ threes in the regular season. They often get each other open with flare screens — some opportunistic, some that appear to be of the more scripted variety.
In the first clip, Bird popped to the top after screening to get Stewart going toward the basket. Langhorne stepped in to set the flare for Bird. Langhorne’s positioning in this play made it likely her defender would react to Stewart’s cut, eliminating potential help to contest Bird’s 3-pointer.
In a simple twist on the off-ball flares that freed Loyd and Stewart above, those two players can reverse roles.
Both defenders were watching the ball. Bird ran right into Stewart’s defender, who had sunk toward the middle of the paint.
5. New wrinkle from Bird/Stewart
This last screening action, though it didn’t result in a shot, was a very interesting twist on appeared to be a simple curling action. Rather than curling to receive a pass, Bird immediately turns inward to screen the screener.
Both defenders bolted out to Stewart at the 3-point line, leaving Bird alone at the rim. Tip of the cap to Ben Falk for noticing this one. As far as I can tell, that is the first time we’ve seen that action from Seattle all season.
Seattle gets the most out of its shooters by having them do much more than spot up and wait for the next pass. The variety of both scripted and reactionary cutting and screening leads to more open threes and layups, keeping defenders on their toes even when their player is not involved in the main action.
Much of this has been Storm-centric. We don’t know what things will look like for Washington yet. Will Delle Donne be close to full strength, able to take on her typical steady diet of isolations and post ups? If so, she may look to feast on switches herself, draw double teams, and throw it out to open teammates.
If not, the series will likely come down to how consistent Seattle is in tracking Kristi Toliver and running her off the 3-point line.
By the end of the weekend, we’ll already be through two games and the series will shift to the east coast. This may not be the matchup many of us anticipated, but there’s no doubt that these teams have been playing some of the best basketball in the league this season.