Battle-tested Storm and Mystics ready to meet in WNBA Finals

Breanna Stewart and Seattle were 2-1 against Elena Delle Donne and Washington in the regular season. The Mystics won the most recent meeting, on Aug. 9, and didn't have Elena Delle Donne when the teams first met on May 29. Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire

When Washington's Elena Delle Donne tumbled to the floor with a knee injury during the second game of the WNBA semifinals, most thought we wouldn't see her again this postseason.

When Sue Bird had to leave Game 4 of Seattle's semifinal series with a broken nose, we figured she'd return -- she has donned a protective face mask many times with that injury before -- but we couldn't be sure how effective she'd be.

In both cases, these two WNBA and USA Basketball standouts had some good fortune -- neither injury was severe enough to sideline them -- and a lot of guts and determination.

Delle Donne missed one game with a bone bruise in her left knee but went through myriad treatments to allow her to play in the fourth and fifth semifinal games against Atlanta. She combined for 29 points and 21 rebounds in those two Mystics victories, putting Washington in the WNBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

And Bird? The broken beak barely bothered her. She put on likely the most compelling fourth-quarter show of her illustrious 16-season WNBA career Tuesday, scoring 14 points in the period to lead the Storm past the Mercury in Game 5.

Next up: Bird and the Storm versus Delle Donne and the Mystics, starting Friday at Seattle's KeyArena (ESPNews, 9 p.m. ET). Oh, and the current WNBA MVP, the Storm's Breanna Stewart, will be a featured player in this drama, too.

The Storm have played in the WNBA Finals twice, and won both. The Mystics have never gotten this far before. But both teams have been able to maintain consistency: the Storm all season, and the Mystics since the All-Star break. Both have come through difficult five-game semifinal series.

Seattle is the No. 1 seed, having had its best regular-season record -- 26-8 -- since going 28-6 in its 2010 WNBA championship season. Last year, the Storm made the playoffs at 15-19 but lost in the first round.

The No. 3 seed Mystics were swept in the semifinals last year by eventual champion Minnesota. Their 22-12 record this season tied for their best ever with the 2010 team, but that squad was swept 2-0 in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

When this season started, hopes for Seattle were high. That might have been a little less the case for the Mystics because their second-leading scorer from 2017, Emma Meesseman, wasn't playing in the WNBA this summer. But it's fair to say both teams have met or exceeded expectations. Seattle won the regular-season series 2-1.

Considering they were the best team throughout the course of the season and have home-court advantage, the Storm are the favorite. But the Mystics, who are 12-3 since the All-Star break, just won their semifinal series with a Game 5 on the road.

Let's look at how the teams match up:

Backcourt: Will Bird have the last word?

The starting guards for the Storm are both No. 1 picks, 13 years apart. Bird, 2002's top pick, who turns 38 in October, is the league's oldest player. But as she showed Tuesday, she's still capable of taking over games. She's the WNBA's all-time assists leader and the leading scorer in Storm history. No one in these WNBA Finals has the kind of experience Bird has, and that could be a deciding factor.

Jewell Loyd, drafted first by Seattle in 2015, is averaging 11.0 points in the playoffs, below her regular-season average of 15.5. At times, Loyd has seemed off her game during the postseason. Yet she is capable of having huge scoring outputs.

Rookie Jordin Canada has had a solid season backing up Bird and learning from her. Sami Whitcomb didn't see a lot of time this season, but she came up big with 11 points for the Storm in Game 5 against Phoenix.

The Mystics also have a guard with a lot of experience in Kristi Toliver, who won a WNBA title with Los Angeles in 2016. She's known for her 3-pointers -- she made 72 during the regular season and has 12 in the playoffs -- but she has also worked hard to help the Mystics raise their level of defense.

That is a specialty of point guard Natasha Cloud, whom Delle Donne said gives the Mystics a lot of their overall energy on defense. The 6-foot Cloud, a second-round draft pick in 2015, has great size and quickness on the perimeter. And while she's not a big scorer, she has made strides with her offense this year, averaging a career-best 8.6 points in the regular season and 9.0 in the playoffs.

The Mystics' key backcourt sub is Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, in her sixth season in Washington. A starter the previous three seasons, she came off the bench in 2018 and gave the Mystics a dependable role player who is also strong defensively.

Small forward/wing: Rookie impact for Mystics

Storm starter Alysha Clark has averaged 35.2 minutes in the playoffs, second on the team. Storm coach Dan Hughes says Clark is under-recognized for her defensive play, which he thinks is among the best in the WNBA. Clark was a top-notch scorer in college at Middle Tennessee, but she remade herself as a pro player, putting defense first. That said, Clark can still hit big shots; she had 13 points in both of the last two games against Phoenix and added 13 rebounds Tuesday.

Her Mystics counterpart, rookie Ariel Atkins, hasn't played as many minutes but has had a huge impact, averaging 15.0 points and 4.3 rebounds in the postseason. In Tuesday's Game 5 victory, Atkins led Washington in scoring with 20 points, going 8-of-8 from the foul line. Aerial Powers, whom the Mystics obtained in a trade this season, had her best performance of the playoffs in the game Delle Donne missed, with 18 points and eight rebounds.

Frontcourt: Plenty of star power

Both teams have an MVP at power forward, with Delle Donne for Washington and Stewart for Seattle. That Delle Donne is playing after her injury is a testament to her toughness. And the confidence that she brings to the Mystics when she's on the court is enormous. Delle Donne led Washington in scoring (20.7) and rebounding (7.2) in the regular season and is doing even more in the playoffs (21.4, 12.0). The big concern with her knee, she said, was swelling, and she'll have a cross-country flight to deal with, too, in that regard.

Bird brings the confidence to Seattle, but the Storm need Stewart to play the part of an MVP, as she did with 28 points and seven rebounds in both the first and last games of the Phoenix series. Stewart is averaging 24.0 points and 7.4 rebounds in the playoffs.

Starting at center are two players having their best WNBA seasons. Natasha Howard came to the Storm via trade after winning a championship with Minnesota as a reserve last season. A full-time starter for the first time this season, Howard helped take a lot of pressure off Stewart in regard to guarding opposing centers. Howard, the WNBA's most improved player for 2018, averaged 13.2 points and 6.4 rebounds in the regular season, and is at 14.0 and 6.8 in the playoffs.

LaToya Sanders came into the WNBA in 2008, but this is just her sixth season; injuries, family commitments and finding the right fit kept her away from the league for some years. But she has been very successful overseas and never doubted that she could help a WNBA team given the right opportunity.

That has come in Washington. Sanders played 23 games for the Mystics in 2015, just four in 2016, and none last year. But she started all this season, averaging 10.2 points and 6.4 rebounds. Her numbers in the playoffs are 9.8 and 6.5. And just as Howard's defense has been a help to Stewart, Sanders has done the same for Delle Donne.

Coaches: At last, one will win a WNBA title

Hughes of the Storm and Mike Thibault of the Mystics have coached in the WNBA a combined 33 years. Both are trying to win their first title.

Thibault is 67, and Hughes 63; both have coached men and women, and at different levels. There's nothing they haven't seen.

Hughes has had his greatest success in the WNBA with two of the best point guards ever: Becky Hammon in San Antonio and Bird in Seattle. With those types of leaders on the court, Hughes puts a lot of trust and responsibility on their shoulders, and he doesn't try to micromanage them.

If you see Hughes deferring to Bird in huddles, it's not because he has nothing to say. It's because he knows how well the team listens to Bird, and also how in sync he is with her.

What Thibault has done in Washington isn't just about his coaching and talent evaluation, which are admired league-wide, but also about creating a winning culture. He has a strong trust factor with his veterans, such as Delle Donne and Toliver, but he has never been afraid to be direct and blunt with players about their performance. The people who play for him always say they appreciate that.