WNBA finals: Everything you need to know about Las Vegas Aces vs Seattle Storm
Will league MVP A'ja Wilson round off her season in style, or can Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart claim yet another championship for the Storm?
It does not get much better than the 2020 WNBA Finals.
The top two teams in the shortened regular season - the Las Vegas Aces and the Seattle Storm - have made it through to the best-of-five championship series which begins on Friday (2 October).
Led by league MVP A'ja Wilson, the Aces are seeking their first WNBA crown while the Storm are aiming for a fourth title.
Experience is most definitely on Seattle's side with four-time Olympic basketball gold medallist Sue Bird on all three of their previous championship teams, and Breanna Stewart taking NBA MVP and Finals MVP honours in 2018.
The Aces did beat the Storm twice in the regular season, and will look to draw upon that when the Finals start in the 'Wubble' in Bradenton, Florida.
Wilson aims to cap stellar season
The Las Vegas Aces are in their first WNBA Finals since the franchise moved from San Antonio in 2018.
Led by Becky Hammon, now an assistant coach with the NBA's San Antonio Spurs, the San Antonio Silver Stars went down in the 2008 Finals to the Detroit Shock.
Last year, the Aces reached the semi-finals where they went out to eventual winners the Washington Mystics.
This season they have gone one better, a feat made all the more remarkable by the absence of Liz Cambage.
The prolific Australian centre, who scored more points than anyone else at Rio 2016, was granted a medical exemption for the campaign having fallen ill while playing in China and been deemed 'high-risk' by Aces doctors in June.
Cambage has since returned to Australia's WNBL.
A'ja Wilson has certainly stepped up in her absence, averaging 20.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and a league-leading 2.0 blocks per game to lead the Aces to the Finals.
Wilson's efforts saw her named WNBA MVP for the first time, two years after she won the Rookie of the Year award.
But the 24-year-old has been as big a presence off the court as on it.
She has been a vocal advocate for Black Lives Matter, the movement which has been very much part of this unique WNBA season.
Players continue to wear jerseys bearing the name Breonna Taylor on the back, in memory of the black woman shot dead by police in her own home in Louisville, Kentucky in March.
And Wilson is determined to make her voice be heard.
Wilson has been a towering presence on the court with two-time Olympic champion Angel McCoughtry, in her first year at the Aces after missing all of 2019 with a cruciate knee ligament injury, sinking plenty of buckets.
Meanwhile, Carolyn Swords has done an admirable job filling the void at centre left by Cambage.
After finishing the regular season with a league-leading 18-4 record, the Aces received a bye through to the semi-finals where they needed to dig deep to come back from 2-1 and beat the Connecticut Sun in Game 5.
Having conceded 30 points in the first quarter and trailed by as many as 16 points, the Las Vegas defence got to work.
Wilson showed nerves of steel from the free throw line in the final period and finished with 23 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks to help complete a 66-63 comeback victory.
The resolve they showed in adversity will stand them in good stead for the Storm who they beat twice in the regular season.
Seattle were without the injured Breanna Stewart in the second encounter with Sue Bird sidelined for both.
Both are now fit and ready to go, and the Aces are without Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby with a knee injury.
But Wilson hopes the Aces' team spirit will see them through once more.
"We just play for one another. We don't let anyone down. In times we get down we just stand together. We just stand up and we go after it." - A'ja Wilson speaking after reaching the WNBA Finals
Stewart the Storm standard bearer
If Wilson has been the Aces' benchmark for excellence, Breanna Stewart has played the same role for the Storm after a ruptured Achilles tendon forced her to miss the whole of the 2019 campaign.
The pair both won two Player of the Week awards in the Western Conference with Stewart averaging 19.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game in the regular season.
The Rio 2016 gold medal-winning centre was second to Wilson in MVP voting, and has raised her level in the post-season with 23.0 points and 5.7 assists per game in the 3-0 semi-final sweep of the Minnesota Lynx.
With the Aces missing one of their top defenders in Hamby, Stewart could have more opportunity to make her presence felt.
"After sitting out last season and coming back from the Achilles’ injury, I’m happy that I’m able to be on this court. If I miss however many shots? That’s what I miss. But I’m still here and able to shoot them." - Breanna Stewart talking to the New York Times
Like Wilson, Stewart is keen to use her platform off the court.
This week, she has been encouraging people to vote in next month's US Presidential Election.
And she gave this response to the news that one of the three police officers involved in Breonna Taylor's death would be charged and only with a lesser offence of 'wanton endangerment'.
Stewart, who was the MVP at the 2018 FIBA Women's World Cup, is one of eight survivors from the Storm roster that swept Washington 3-0 in the 2018 Finals.
Sue Bird has been on all three Storm championship teams - 2004, 2010 and 2018 - and is back to full fitness after injury restricted her to 11 games in the regular season.
The 39-year-old may be approaching the twilight of her career, but she played a full part in the semi-final series against the Lynx averaging 11.3 points and 7.3 assists per game.
The Storm are missing an important reserve of their own with three-point threat Sami Whitcomb ruled out.
But the presence of Stewart and Bird, and that recent experience of winning the Finals, makes them favourites to claim a fourth WNBA title.