August 2, 2022 

What Seattle learned from two Storm-Mystics matchups

Seattle, Washington are evenly matched

The Seattle Storm went 1-1 in a nail-biting two-game series with the Washington Mystics this weekend. Both games went down to the wire, offering a preview of both a potential WNBA playoff matchup and a show of strength between two likely title contenders.

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“The rest of our games are important, but we knew that these two were especially important to have the series if things come down to it in the playoffs,” the Storm’s Breanna Stewart said following Saturday’s game, an 82-77 win. Washington took Sunday’s contest, 78-75.

Going into the first game on Saturday, Seattle and Washington had the exact same record of 18-11 and a playoff spot was on the line. On June 23, the Storm beat the Mystics in their first meeting of the season, so they needed to win one of the two games this weekend to win the tiebreaker and clinch a playoff spot.

The teams were tied 11 times throughout Saturday’s game and there were five lead changes, but the Storm seemed to control the action after a 16-0 second-half run that gave them a comfortable 15-point lead over the Mystics with 6:30 to go in the fourth quarter. But much like we’ve seen from the Storm the entire the season, they couldn’t sustain the lead. Washington went on a 17-5 run that brought them within one point of Seattle (78-77) with 26 seconds left. Seattle was able to hold off the Mystics with a key defensive stop by Ezi Magbegor that kept Elena Delle Donne from driving to the basket, which could have won the game for Washington.

With that win, the Storm clinched the playoffs for the seventh-straight season, while the Mystics punched their ticket to the playoffs shortly after the game when the Atlanta Dream lost to the Dallas Wings. With playoffs now secured for both teams and both teams aware that they would probably meet each other in the first round, these two back-to-back games this late in the season were ideal for gaging areas of improvement before they meet again in higher-stakes playoff games.

How much Tina Charles is enough for Storm?

This game served as further proof that Seattle hasn’t yet figured out the solution to their achilles heel: sustaining a large lead while continuing to rotate lineups. Since the addition of Tina Charles to the Storm roster halfway through the season, rotations have looked different than they did at the beginning of the season. The most notable change has been in the starting lineup. The first game against Washington was the fifth-straight game in which Tina Charles was the starting center for the Storm instead of Ezi Magbegor, who started every game for Seattle in the first half of the season. Over these past five games, Charles is averaging 29.9 minutes per game, Magbegor just 17.3. Magbegor’s MPG was north of 30 prior to Charles’ arrival in Seattle.

With Charles in the starting lineup and Magbegor adjusting to playing with the second string, it has been difficult for the Storm to rotate lineups to give players a rest while keeping the momentum and maintaining a lead. Figuring out these rotations will be key for Seattle going into the playoffs.

The second game of the series on Sunday was even closer than the first. Washington maintained a small lead for most of the match, which the Storm was able to cut to 1 point with 5 minutes left in the fourth quarter. Breanna Stewart and Gabby Williams both attempted a 3-pointer with seconds left in the game to attempt to send the game into overtime, but neither shot fell and Washington was able to pull out the 78-75 win.

The Storm’s defense stood out, both positively and negatively, in this second game, especially in the last few minutes. Let’s break it down.

In the second quarter, Seattle tried out a few different defensive methods with the former starting five of Sue Bird, Stewart, Jewell Loyd, Williams, and Magbegor. You see them switching back and forth between a classic man-to-man defense and more of a zone defense where they try to trap and force turnovers, which was very effective. Magbegor’s help defense (especially on Elena Delle Donne) was especially key in forcing Washington to turn over the ball, which Seattle was able to capitalize off of.

“When we got to [double team], we were disruptive,” head coach Noelle Quinn said, “We were much better today with our traps.”

Fast-forwarding to the final minutes of the game, that help defense would have come in handy. With under a minute left in the game, Delle Donne took Charles one-on-one with a strong drive to the basket. Bird tried to get a hand in to stop Delle Donne, but the key here was Stewart not sliding over to double-team Delle Donne.

Similarly, in the Mystics’ last offensive play, Seattle’s help defense was lacking. Natasha Cloud was able to blow past Sue Bird and Seattle’s defense left a clear lane through the paint, with Loyd attempting to contest Cloud’s layup, but it was a bit too late. Thankfully for the Storm, Cloud missed the layup, but this play exposed some of the gaps in the Storm’s defense that need to be cleaned up before the post-season.

While the defense might have had some gaps at the end, Quinn was happy with the defensive adjustments from game one to game two, but still sees room to improve before potentially meeting Washington again this season: “[Saturday], we weren’t as sharp with sending bodies to Delle Donne and I think today, we were more in tune,” Quinn said. “But we have to get into bodies better, sprint under screens or over screens better and stay in their space.”

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This zone and help defense seems to be effective, but it comes down to when the Storm chooses to utilize it. This series with Washington was perfect for the Seattle coaching staff to play around with different defensive lineups to see which could come in most handy in the playoffs.

“You’re seeing a lot of zone from us and I think it’s just about trying to change up the pace and steal some possessions,” Quinn said. “We’re being strategic about our zone. We have length, especially when you think about Ezi on the floor with [Stewart] and now Tina coming into the lineup… As of late, we stayed in a zone a little bit longer because we had some success.”

Overall, this series further proved how evenly matched these two teams are and how much fun the first round of the WNBA playoffs could be if the Storm and Mystics end up as the 4/5seeds and battle it out in a best-of-three series.

“There’s a reason that we’re so close in the standings. There’s going to be times where we go on runs and times where they go on runs,” Bird said. “It comes down to one team making a couple more plays than the other and that’s what gets the win. It happened for us [Saturday], it happened for them today.”

Storm, Mystics battle for top defense

The Mystics and the Storm have gone back and forth this season for the best defensive rating in the WNBA, an accomplishment that both teams pride themselves on. Mystics head coach Mike Thibault said, “You’ve got two really good defensive teams going at each other. Teams that are really smart defensively, but both teams made some mistakes, too, in defensive coverages. It comes down to basically, you need to be better a couple more possessions per quarter than they are. That’s the difference between good teams, a lot of times.”

After splitting the series, Seattle and Washington have the same record once again (now 19-12). Nearing the end of the season, both teams face the Chicago Sky and the Las Vegas Aces (#1 and #2 in the league, respectively) before heading into the postseason. How the Storm and the Mystics close out their seasons will determine their seeding, but if they land in a series in either the first round or beyond, expect an epic battle.

Written by Rowan Schaberg

Rowan Schaberg (she/her) is a Seattle native covering the Seattle Storm for The Next. She is currently studying Sports Journalism at Colorado State University.

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