Seven of 18 WNBA Finals have gone the distance since the best-of-five format started in 2005. With the top two seeds and preseason favorites playing for the 2023 WNBA championship, will we see an eighth rendition of a winner-take-all Game 5 when the Las Vegas Aces face the New York Liberty?
We couldn't ask for a better setup, with a matchup of superstars in their primes -- Las Vegas' A'ja Wilson and New York's Breanna Stewart -- as two teams with the top talent and what appears to be the best chemistry meet. The Finals will begin Sunday in Las Vegas at 3 p.m. ET on ABC/ESPN App.
The most recent five-game WNBA Finals was in 2019, when the Washington Mystics beat the Connecticut Sun. That was a matchup of the top two teams in the standings, as was the case in 2016 and 2017, when the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx went the distance and alternated in taking home the trophy.
This season, the Liberty beat the Aces in the Commissioner's Cup final, while the teams split their four regular-season meetings. They played four times in August, so those games are still fresh in their minds.
Almost anywhere you look in this series, you'll see a No. 1 pick or an MVP or a statistical leader -- or someone who is all three.
Both coaches are former WNBA players; Las Vegas' Becky Hammon led the Aces to the league title last year, while New York's Sandy Brondello guided the Phoenix Mercury to the 2014 championship.
The fan bases come at this from a different perspective. The Aces' franchise dates to the start of the WNBA in 1997 as the Utah Starzz, but their time in Las Vegas has been short and successful. They moved from San Antonio to the Strip in 2018, and they are appearing in the Finals for the third time.
New York, on the other hand, is the only still-existing original WNBA franchise that has not won a title. While the Liberty players -- none of whom has been with the team since before 2019 -- might not really feel that historical weight, the longtime Liberty fans do.
So which superteam will be the 2023 champion? ESPN's Kevin Pelton, Alexa Philippou and Michael Voepel preview the Finals.
It's the Finals matchup we all expected. But what's one thing that has surprised -- good or bad -- about the Liberty and/or Aces?
Voepel: Stewart's shooting woes have been a surprise. She was at 46.5% overall and 35.5% from behind the arc in the regular season. In the Liberty's six playoff games, those percentages have dropped to 35.6 and 20.7. Of course, if she got a lot of her misses out of the way before the Finals, that's good news for the Liberty.
Philippou: Having covered the Liberty-Sun series in person, New York seemed to develop grit in real time to overcome a 0-1 deficit versus an uber-tough Connecticut squad and win three straight games, including two at Mohegan Sun Arena. Different people stepped up in different moments for the Liberty, but for the most part, they stayed poised to close out such a competitive series in four games.
I am surprised the Liberty's bench hasn't seen more minutes in the playoffs, since their depth seemed to be an advantage when considering New York as a contender earlier this season. Does that change against the Aces? Kayla Thornton's toughness and energy can turn around a game, as can Marine Johannes' shooting, and Stefanie Dolson adds post depth against a team that doesn't have a ton of it. Johannes had a stellar outing versus the Aces in the Commissioner's Cup championship, but she has played only 42 minutes this postseason.
Pelton: In addition to seconding what Alexa said, I agree Stewart's postseason slump has been a surprise. When the Seattle Storm lost to Las Vegas in last year's semifinals, it was the first time a healthy Stewart had been knocked out of the playoffs since 2017. And even then, Stewart set a playoff record with 42 points in the final game of a hard-fought series. Going back to UConn, and including EuroLeague competition, Stewart has almost always been at her best when the stakes are the highest. They don't come much higher than in this series.
How much should we read into the regular-season series (2-2 split) and the Liberty's win over the Aces in Las Vegas in the Commissioner's Cup final?
Philippou: Yes, the Finals are a whole new series, but those games -- particularly the August ones -- showed us a lot about how these teams match up. That said, I expect Wilson to play closer to how she did Aug. 28 against the Liberty (23 points) than say how she fared Aug. 6, when she tallied nine points on 2-for-14 shooting and tweeted, "I doubt I'll ever shoot 2-14 again I pray I don't lol." Since then, she has shot below 40% just once, and she has been playing on another level over the past two months or so. The Liberty have excellent defenders in Stewart and Jonquel Jones, but they'll still have their hands full trying to slow down Wilson.
Voepel: The Aces' 98-81 victory over the Liberty on June 29 doesn't have much bearing on this series, as Candace Parker was still playing for the Aces, and Jones wasn't quite in the playing form she is now. The other four matchups, all in August, are likely indicative of what we will see in the Finals. The Aces didn't play well in their first game in Brooklyn nor in the Commissioner's Cup final in Las Vegas. Those will be games the Aces will review in preparation because they were far from their best in both.
Pelton: It's interesting that head-to-head results haven't been particularly predictive of Finals results. Since the WNBA went to a single playoff table in 2016, and not including the shortened 2020 Wubble season, teams that won the regular-season series have gone just 2-4 in the Finals. And both of those winners, the 2018 Storm and last year's Aces, also had home-court advantage in the Finals. However, we've never seen teams play each other this often before the Finals. All of those previous head-to-head series were three games rather than the five times Las Vegas and New York have already met this year.
The Aces and Liberty ranked 1-2 in offensive rating and 1-3 in defensive rating this season. Which team will win the series: the team that plays better offensively or defensively?
Pelton: Given the firepower on both sides, I think it's more about which team can consistently get stops. New York was 15-0 in the regular season (and 1-0 so far in the playoffs) when holding opponents to 95 points per 100 possessions or fewer. One of those games was the Aug. 6 blowout win over Las Vegas that represented the Aces' worst offensive performance of the season in terms of points per possession -- and the Liberty's best on defense.
Philippou: Defensively, for the reasons Pelton stated, but also because if you ask both Hammon and Brondello, they'd say defense wins championships. Not just by the pure nature of getting stops and keeping an opponent off the scoreboard, but for these two teams in particular, defense (and defensive rebounding) fuels offense on the other end, especially in transition.
The Aces have had the best defensive rating in both the regular season and playoffs, but they allowed the Liberty to score at least 80 points in all of their previous meetings except one -- Aug. 17, the only time Las Vegas beat New York in their four matchups that month.
Voepel: The Aces have the two-time Defensive Player of the Year in Wilson, but she has given much praise to Kiah Stokes as the true anchor of Las Vegas' defense. The Aces' Jackie Young is one of the league's best defensive guards and at 6 feet tall actually can take on just about anyone. Sixth Player of the Year Alysha Clark is also a versatile defender.
It makes sense to say defense will prevail in this series, for all the reasons Alexa and Kevin point out. Still, let's add this: The Aces can be like a runaway train on offense, and that can take over games. The Aces won playoff games scoring 97 points and 64 points, which shows how effective they can be on both ends of the court.
Which player is the biggest X factor in the series?
Philippou: Jones' emergence into her MVP-level self is arguably the single biggest development that has catapulted this Liberty team into a contender. In the postseason, she has had six double-doubles in as many games; and in the second half alone of Game 4 in the semifinals, Jones came up with 20 points and eight rebounds.
Going up against the Mystics' and Sun's frontcourts is different than facing that of the Aces' (especially with Wilson being unstoppable as of late). But if Jones can play like she did in New York's August meetings versus Las Vegas, the Liberty are much better positioned to win.
Another X factor is Liberty forward Betnijah Laney, who has scored at least 19 points in all but one of New York's postseason games and will be critical to helping contain the Aces' high-powered guards.
Voepel: Jones is the biggest X factor overall in the series. The biggest for Las Vegas is Kelsey Plum's 3-point shooting, because that can really fuel the Aces. Plum averaged 2.4 3s per game and shot 38.9% from behind the arc in the regular season; during the Aces' five playoff games, she was at 3.2 and 42.1%. Plum, Young and Chelsea Gray all can do damage from long range, but if Plum gets in a groove, it makes Las Vegas' offense all the harder to stop.
Pelton: Stokes. Over the course of the season, as well as the playoffs, the Aces' starting lineup with Stokes in place of the injured Parker -- the group that led Las Vegas to last year's title -- has remained dominant.
However, that hasn't been the case against the Liberty. In 45 minutes across the five meetings, the Aces were outscored by 19 points with their starting five on the court. Although Hammon can always go small with Clark in Stokes' place, not being able to keep Stokes on the court will leave Las Vegas painfully thin.
Which team will win the 2023 title?
Philippou: Liberty in 5. I went back and forth and wouldn't be shocked to be proved wrong. But at the end of the day, it's hard to ignore how much the Liberty dominated the Aces in their most recent meetings in August. Plus, New York had a much tougher road to the championship series, and being battle-tested will pay off. Jones won MVP of the Commissioner's Cup championship game thanks to her dominance in the paint on both ends and on the glass, and I project her to take home Finals MVP should the Liberty win.
Voepel: Aces in 5. This feels like the 2016 and 2017 Lynx-Sparks Finals, when there was such a good case for both teams to win both years. They split, with the Sparks winning in 2016 and the Lynx in 2017. The Sparks won 2016's Game 5 on Minnesota's home court, which is so hard to do in the clinching game of a playoff series. Then the Lynx won in Minneapolis in 2017's Game 5 -- although at the University of Minnesota's Williams Arena, because Target Center was being refurbished. The WNBA's most recent Finals Game 5 was in 2019, when Washington beat Connecticut on the Mystics' home court.
It seems like this year, the Aces -- who celebrated their 2022 title in Connecticut -- might win it at home.
Pelton: Liberty in 4. That's not a reflection on how close the series might be, but lower-seeded teams that have won the Finals in the best-of-five era have been more likely to close out at home than win a Game 5 on the road. If Parker were healthy, I'd be inclined to pick Las Vegas. But New York has been the (slightly) better team since the All-Star break, and I don't expect Stewart's shooting slump to carry over into the Finals.
Ramona Shelburne: Aces in 5. Las Vegas misses Parker, and this matchup is going to be difficult. But the Aces are the defending champs until someone takes the title from them. You've got to knock them off, and that's difficult over a best-of-five series.