By: Jeffrey Newholm
The WNBA playoffs got off to a relatively quiet start Wednesday with two single elimination games. The Phoenix Mercury eliminated the Indiana Fever 89-78, and in the process ended the career of all-time great Tamika Catchings. In the nightcap, the Atlanta Dream defeated the Seattle Storm 94-85 behind Angel McCoughtry’s 37 points. I’ll begin by giving my impressions from the first round, preview this weekend’s second round, and finally give some personal reflections from my fan point of view.
First Round Impressions
There seemed to be a lot of angst on these two games being relegated to ESPNEWS. Here’s my take. The Fever-Mercury game was pretty well attended and had a good amount of media coverage for Catching’s final hurrah. But the Dream-Storm game was just what I was afraid of heading into these playoffs. Two decent teams had to wage a hard-fought battle in front of a 95% empty arena. Such a game would’ve looked really bad on a mainstream network, so I don’t think the league really missed out on anything. Sunday’s Dream-Sky game is on ESPN2, but the Sky have similar attendance problems as the Dream, so I think stumping for a better network could be a good example of “be careful what you wish for”. The games themselves were suitably entertaining. The Mercury went on a late run to hold off the Fever. Catchings seemed to run out of gas at the end, but insisted on playing until the final horn, even with an invitation from the coach to be subbed out in the waning seconds. It was unfortunate that a great career had to end so unceremoniously, but the WNBA is a business, and the Mercury were just doing their jobs in fighting to win. The second game came down to a halftime adjustment, with Dream coach Michael Cooper switching to a zone defense. The Storm seemed bewildered in how to attack offensively and the game quickly got out of hand with McCoughtry’s hot shooting. Some of the Atlanta Hawks did come to support the Dream, but sadly only a handful of fans made the trip out to Georgia Tech’s campus to see a good performance by the home team.
Saturday evening the Mercury travel to New York to take on the Liberty in another single-elimination matchup. Tina Charles has been playing at a MVP-caliber level for the Liberty this year, who are looking for redemption after an epic collapse in last year’s semifinals. For all those who spoke of a Cinderella run for the Mercury this year, this game provides an opportunity for Phoenix to do just that. With a win the Mercury could set up a semifinal rematch with the Lynx, which the Lynx won with difficulty last year even with the absence of the Mercury’s Penny Taylor and Diana Taurasi. The Liberty have had a much better year this year, but there is still some question about their ability to close out a playoff game. Last year the team blew a huge lead in a potential clinching game, and the Mercury has a roster with lots of postseason and championship experience. The Liberty may play well early on, but I would advise their fans not to exhale until the bitter end.
With the Sky’s best player, Elena Delle Donne, being out indefinitely with a thumb injury, it’s hard to handicap this one. Delle Donne averaged 21 points a game for the Sky, nearly twice the team’s second leading scorer. When Delle Donne was held out for the 2014 finals due to injury, the Sky were easily swept by the Mercury. The Dream, then, have a golden opportunity to piggyback off McCoughtry’s suddenly hot shooting and beat a team not comfortable with playing without its biggest star. If the Sky do hang on to win, I would be concerned about a rather quick exit in the semifinals with the much stronger Lynx and Sparks waiting for a best-of-five series. In fact I’m a bit concerned about this matchup either way because I worry neither of these teams could draw well for nationally televised games later on. A Sparks-Dream/Sky matchup could not only be a quick series, but one that poorly reflects the league’s improvement in attendance this year. (The Sparks have trouble staying relevant in the fierce entertainment competition of L,A,). I do appreciate the efforts to gain more exposure for the league with more national TV playoff games, but am a bit frustrated by home fans’ refusal to cooperate.
I’ll conclude with some personal thoughts from the fan inside of me speaking. The Storm fought very hard to claim a playoff berth this year, and the deciding regular season game came down to the last shot. It very much discouraged me to see their reward being a game with the atmosphere and enthusiasm of a preseason game. It’s tempting to question what the point of it all is if fans can’t even show up for the playoffs. But in my heart of hearts I know that fans of the women’s game can’t give in to this temptation. The 7 teams that will lose in this year’s playoffs will surely work that much harder to give it another try next year. The players will hone their craft overseas and continue to battle in the hopes that someday they, too, can be crowned world’s champs. Wednesday’s games proved the league still has an uphill battle to establish relevancy in a crowded American sports landscape. But it’s a battle I believe the league has a right in fighting, and someday may even be able to win-one season and step at at time.
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