WNBA playoffs 2022 – Why Seattle Storm-Washington Mystics winner could be primed for postseason run

Could the winner of the most intriguing first-round series of the 2022 WNBA playoffs between the Seattle Storm and the Washington Mystics pose a bigger threat than his record suggests?

The Storm and Mystics, who finished fourth in WNBA standings 22-14 — with Seattle earning the right to host the series by winning two of three straight-through duels during the regular season — did not play during the season on par with winning the 2018 (Storm), 2019 (Washington) and 2020 (Storm again) championships.

However, a closer look at the two teams’ seasons suggests that both could be better in the postseason. Seattle has quietly improved since the addition of former MVP Tina Charles, who led the WNBA as a scorer last season while playing for the Mystics. And Washington, of course, was much better with 2019 MVP Elena Delle Donne in the lineup, something we can expect during the playoffs after the team carefully managed their regular-season schedule.

Let’s break down the numbers for Seattle and Washington ahead of Game 1 on Thursday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2).

Storm Offense clicks at the right time

Defense was a constant for both teams, who finished first (Mystics) and third (Storm) respectively in the defense rating. However, in the first half of the season, Seattle relied on defense to overcome a struggling offense.

When the Storm added Charles on June 28 after a contract divorce with Phoenix Mercury, Seattle ranked ninth in the WNBA in offensive scoring with 98.3 points per 100 possessions, according to WNBA Advanced Stats. All other playoff teams except for the slow-starting New York Liberty had offensive ratings of 100 or better at the time.

In part, Seattle has been more affected by the WNBA’s health and safety protocols than any other team. MVP nominee Breanna Stewart and reserve Epiphanny Prince missed two games early in the season, both losing to Phoenix. Shortly thereafter, Sue Bird and Ezi Magbegor were sidelined for three games due to health and safety protocols, and Stephanie Talbot the first two of those in which the Storm went 2-1 but only managed 51 points in a home loss to the Dallas Wings.

Even at full strength, Seattle relied too heavily on the duo of Stewart and All-Star guard Jewell Loyd to score goals. When Charles joined Storm, Magbegor (12.6) and Bird (8.6) were the other two Seattle players averaging more than seven points per game. Though it took Charles a while to integrate, she started with her in a reserve role and continued as a starter ahead of Magbegor in the final 10 games of the season, raising Seattle offensively.

In 18 games with Charles, the Storm ranks fourth in the WNBA with a 107.0 offensive rating while the team still ranks third in defensive rating. And six Seattle players — all five starters plus Magbegor from the bench — averaged at least 7 PPGs during that time span.

Seattle’s 11-7 record with Charles is identical to the team’s mark without her, but those wins came very differently. Only four of the Storm’s 11 wins without Charles were in double figures, compared to eight of the 11 with her. As a result, Storm’s point differential has increased from plus 1.8 PPG before Charles signed to plus 6.4 — a mark bested only by the Connecticut Sun (plus 8.0) all season.

It also flew under the radar how dominant Seattle’s starting five was with Charles. That unit has outperformed opponents by 20.9 points per 100 possessions, according to WNBA Advanced Stats, and is easily the top among lineups to have played more than 100 minutes this season. No other lineup with that many minutes had a net rating of more than plus-15.8.

Forward coach Noelle Quinn said she could “absolutely” extend the playing time for her starting five in the playoffs. We thought that when Charles signed with Phoenix ahead of the season, their arrival would create a “super team.” It’s possible that her midseason move to Seattle caused that to happen instead. But if the Storm wants to reach the semis after falling short as defending champions last season, they’ll need to beat a dangerous Washington side.

Mystics successfully managed Delle Donne’s health

Another interesting parallel between these two teams: they were both hard to beat with healthy stars. Seattle’s playoff losses in 2019 and 2021 both came with Stewart missing through injury, meaning their last healthy exit was in 2017. For Washington, it was the 2018 final loss to the Storm – and even then, Delle Donne fought the semifinals with a bruised bone sustained.

The difference, of course, is how long those injuries kept Delle Donne off the pitch. Earlier this season, she had only played three games since winning the 2019 Finals after exiting the 2020 “Wubble” season in Bradenton, Fla. and being sidelined for most of 2021 with a back injury.

To get Delle Donne healthy into the playoffs, the Mystics used scheduled rest games throughout the season, a decision that ultimately cost them home field advantage. Washington went 18-7 (.720) in the games Delle Donne played, a similar winning percentage to the Chicago Sky and Las Vegas Aces, who took the top spot overall (26-10, .722). In the 11 games Delle Donne missed, the Mystics only went 4-7, dropping them to fifth place.

In part because Delle Donne almost always rested on the road (she played 17 of 18 home games but only seven away), Washington played better without her than that record difference suggests. But with her in the lineup, the Mystics performed 5.2 points better than you’d expect for an average team against the same opponent. Without them, Washington was little better than the league average (0.7 PPG).

Though costly overall, the Mystics’ plan worked for Delle Donne as hoped to see her through the season. Delle Donne has increased activity late on schedule, playing 11 of the team’s last 13 games – including a home game against Seattle in late July. Delle Donne’s minutes also increased from 27.0 before the All-Star break to 28.9 after, which is important because Washington’s net rating with Delle Donne on the court was 12.2 points per 100 ball possessions better.

Both the Storm and Mystics can point to recent WNBA history as reason for optimism about a deep playoff run. A year ago, Phoenix and Chicago were seeded fifth and sixth respectively and made the playoffs before advancing to the finals. Chicago became the most surprising champion in league history, going 16-16 during the regular season. If Seattle and Washington follow a similar run this year, it won’t be nearly as shocking.

https://www.espn.com/wnba/story/_/id/34416504/wnba-playoffs-2022-why-seattle-storm-washington-mystics-winner-primed-postseason-run WNBA playoffs 2022 – Why Seattle Storm-Washington Mystics winner could be primed for postseason run

Emma Bowman

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