- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 13, 2019

The names on the jerseys will be the same: the Washington Mystics in red, the Seattle Storm in yellow. Besides that, Friday’s rematch of the 2018 WNBA Finals won’t quite resemble last year’s series.

For one thing, it will take place at the Entertainment and Sports Arena, the Mystics’ new home building where they have yet to lose a game, and which wasn’t even open last year.

More to the point, the Storm are hampered without their two biggest stars, league MVP Breanna Stewart and future Hall of Famer Sue Bird, who are injured and out for the foreseeable future.

“They’re really a different team without Sue and Stewie, so you can’t prepare for them the same way,” Elena Delle Donne said.

Before training camp began, coach Mike Thibault and his staff revved up the players by showing video of the Storm celebrating the 2018 title on the Mystics’ floor last September. That video did not resurface before Friday’s rematch, Thibault said, nor were any other motivational tactics needed.

“I don’t think once you get into the middle of the season, you’re thinking about the Finals from last year,” Thibault said. “I think you’re just trying to think about a way to get a home win before we go on the road.”

Kristi Toliver added that Seattle is still a team they want to beat, but added “we’re motivated every day.” For this team, taking down the franchise that swept them in three games last postseason — denying Washington its first WNBA title — does not hold any symbolic power to charging forward this season.

The Mystics met Seattle in the WNBA Finals, Washington’s first appearance in the championship series, a mere nine months ago. The Storm took control in Games 1 and 3 in particular en route to the sweep, including a 30-point effort by Stewart in the clinching game.

Today, only a hair separates 4-2 Washington and 4-3 Seattle in the standings, but the Storm have yet to win two straight games as they continue to adjust without their biggest stars. Stewart tore her Achilles in the EuroLeague title game. Bird needed surgery to remove a “loose body” from her knee and will be sidelined indefinitely as she recovers.

Thibault said the Storm’s offense now runs through forward Natasha Howard and guards Jewell Loyd and Jordin Canada, who have combined to take more than 60 percent of the team’s shots. These players are no slouches, either: Howard won 2018 WNBA Most Improved Player, while Loyd led the Storm in scoring in Game 1 against the Mystics last year.

“They’re playing at a very high pace,” Thibault said. “They’re getting the ball up and down the floor. They’re doing a little bit more trapping on defense.”

“We need to make them see a lot of bodies in the paint so they don’t see clear line drives to the rim,” Delle Donne added. “They’re super fast, athletic. We really have to play great help defense tomorrow.”

After Friday, the Mystics embark on a four-game, cross-country road trip — all the more reason they need a ‘W’ against the Storm, the teams’ recent history aside.

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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