WNBA Finals: 5 keys to the series as No. 1 Mystics, No. 2 Sun vie for first championship

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UNCASVILLE, CT - JUN 11: Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas (25), Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne (11) and Connecticut Sun guard Bria Holmes (32) during the WNBA game between Washington Mystics and Connecticut Sun on June 11, 2019, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT. (Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Alyssa Thomas, left, and the Connecticut Sun defense will try to stop Elena Delle Donne and the Washington Mystics from winning their first WNBA title. (Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The No. 1 seed Washington Mystics and No. 2 seed Connecticut Sun will begin their final push for a first WNBA title in franchise history on Sunday when game 1 of the 2019 WNBA Finals tips off in Washington, D.C.

The Mystics defeated the Las Vegas Aces 3-1 in the semifinals, while the Sun swept the Sparks in a stunning display and have had a week of rest.

The finalists met three times in the regular season, with the Sun winning twice, but it comes with caveats. League MVP Elena Delle Donne missed one of the Sun wins and postseason star Emma Meesseman missed the other. They have each been key pieces to the postseason run as the Mystics try to improve upon a runner-up finish last season.

The Sun, riding an underdog role, are in their first final since 2005.

A look at the series and five things to key in on.

How, when to watch WNBA Finals

The WNBA Finals are a best-of-five series. The Mystics host the first two games and the Sun the next two with a fifth returning to Washington, if necessary.

Game 1 | Sunday, Sept. 28 | 3 p.m. ESPN

Game 2 | Tuesday, Oct. 1 | 8 p.m. ESPN

Game 3 | Sunday, Oct. 6 | 3 p.m. ABC

Game 4* | Tuesday, Oct. 8 | 8 p.m. ESPN2

Game 5* | Thursday, Oct. 10 | 8 p.m. ESPN2

*if necessary

Five things to watch for in WNBA Finals

1. DisrespeCTed vs. All the respect

It is impossible to preview the series without starting here. The Mystics (26-8) are the No. 1 seed and came into the season as favorites for the championship after getting swept by the Seattle Storm in a shortened 2018 season. They completed the most efficient offensive season in WNBA history behind Delle Donne, who became the first 40/50/90 player in league history. And they were the only team with a winning record on the road (12-5).

The Sun are thriving as the underdogs, even though they finished with the second-best record (23-11) in the league and tied the Los Angeles Sparks for best home record (15-2). They have been looked over as title contenders and took issue with being called a team of “role players” without a star. The hashtag #disrespeCT, with the state abbreviation, has taken over Twitter.

“I just don’t think people have been paying attention to how we’ve played all season,” Sun forward Alyssa Thomas said, via the Associated Press. “We are a No. 2 seed for a reason. And for no one to pick us and just assume that we are not a team that can’t play in the playoffs, we took that to heart.”

2. Mystics’ Meesseman making playoffs MVP case

Meesseman is the Mystics’ postseason MVP so far, scoring a total of 85 points over four games, 79 of which came in the three wins. It’s the second-most points scored alongside Delle Donne and trailing Las Vegas Aces center Liz Cambage’s 118.

“She’s our missing piece. She’s the additive this year that makes us different,” Natasha Cloud said during halftime of Game 2.

Meesseman skipped the 2018 WNBA season to take a break from six years of non-stop basketball and for her Belgian national team commitments. She had totals of 27, 30, 6 and 22, respectively, in the four-game semifinal series.

She’s shooting 64.7 percent from 3-point range (11 of 17), best of any player with at least five attempts in the postseason, and has drilled them at key times. Meesseman went 3-for-3 from deep in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter of Game 4 to help out-pace the Aces and seal the series victory.

As Delle Donne said after the Mystics clinched a berth in the finals, Meesseman has stepped up and been playing like an MVP. Allowing her to do work is dangerous to the Sun’s hopes.

3. Courtney Williams electrifies fans

The Sun core has been together for a few years and the starting five set a record this season by starting all 34 regular season games. Point guard Courtney Williams was the last part of the puzzle, joining Connecticut in 2017 and breaking into the public lexicon this postseason (her dad’s sideline hype certainly helped).

Williams, known as the “Walking Bucket,” averaged 13.2 points per game in the regular season and 19 per game against the Sparks. The 5-foot-8 guard out of South Florida takes most of her shots from midrange and is dangerous on the glass as well, finishing the semifinal series with 26 rebounds.

Her defense will be key. She had a career-best 1.4 steals per game in the regular season, tied on the Sun with Jasmine Thomas (1.4) and Alyssa Thomas (1.9). They were all top-10 in the WNBA in total steals.

4. Rebound battle could determine series

In their lone loss of the postseason, the Mystics struggled with turnovers and rebounding. They had 16 in Game 3, nearly as many as the other three games combined (18), and were out-rebounded, 40-28. At times they looked uninterested in attempting to at all, which won’t do against a Sun team that thrives on defense, hustle and hunger.

The Sun are led by 28 total rebounds each from Alyssa Thomas, who is playing through torn labrums in each shoulder, and Jonquel Jones, who has 15 of them on offense. The team set a league postseason record in Game 2 with 29 first-half rebounds.

Delle Donne has 28 and Meesseman has 27 for the Mystics.

The Sun averaged 38.6 per game, second in the league behind the Aces, while the Mystics average a third-worse 33.3. The Mystics may shoot at a slightly better clip (46.9 to 42.3 percent), but they take fewer shots and boost leads with their skill behind the arc. If the Sun can dominate the boards again and the Mystics struggle from distance, or in general, the series could get away from the league favorites.

5. History awaits for individuals

There are individual historical notes to go along with each franchise attempting to win its first title. Every player except Mystics guard Kristi Toliver would win her first WNBA championship. Toliver, who returned for the playoffs after missing more than a month with a bone bruise and slight MCL sprain, won in 2016 with the Los Angeles Sparks.

Washington head coach Mike Thibault is the winningest coach in WNBA history, but the title has eluded him. First as the Sun’s head coach for 10 years and then with the Mystics for seven, he’s taken teams to the postseason 14 out of 17 chances. Thibault, who turned 69 the day before Game 1, has the most playoff wins in league history.

"You just keep knocking at the door and hopefully your experience and your skill improvement makes the difference this time around,” Thibault told NBC Sports Washington. “We're a better team than we were a year ago. That doesn't guarantee anything, but we are a better team."

Sun coach Curt Miller took over the Sun in 2016 after an assistant gig with the Sparks and head coaching jobs at Bowling Green and Indiana. He would become the first openly gay man to win a title

“The bit of frustration is the platform,” he told the Associated Press. “I think the light would shine to a lot of young people if I was coaching a men’s sport and sometimes it’s downplayed because I’m coaching in a women’s professional league.

“But I believe if we won the championship, it would shine light even brighter that a gay male can be a very successful team sport coach.”

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