By: Jeffrey Newholm
Wednesday the WNBA moves into its new best-of-five semifinal series. The Minnesota Lynx and Phoenix Mercury meet up in one matchup, and the Los Angeles Sparks and Chicago Sky square off in the other. This is where we see if a long layoff will work to the benefit or demerit of the Lynx and Sparks, who got a double bye from having the league’s top two records. The Sky and Mercury, on the other hand, should already be playing in good form after strong performances in earlier single elimination play. I’ll begin by recapping last weekend’s quarterfinal games, and then preview the two semifinal series.
Saturday’s Mercury-Liberty game proved to be a strong performance by Phoenix, who proved skeptics (including myself) wrong by improbably winning two road games as the eighth and final seed. Diana Taurasi has looked disinterested and frustrated at many points this season, but has (perhaps predictably) come on much stronger in the playoffs. Swin Cash’s illustrious career came to a rather uninspiring end for the Liberty as she only played eleven minutes and couldn’t even get on the scoreboard. But the Mercury were, just as in the first round, just doing their job. Sunday’s game was a rather unremarkable rout as the Sky were fully prepared for the Dream’s zone and buried Atlanta with a barrage of outside shooting. The game was on ESPN2, but not in the ideal time slot going directly against football. (Bear in mind ESPN usually shows bowling on Sunday). And, just as I feared, those fans who did tune in were greeted with a mostly empty arena. The Mercury and Lynx both draw good crowds, but Sparks-Sky could unfortunately present poorly on national TV.
The league went to herculean efforts to try to get this match-up for the Finals by making conference affiliation irrelevant for playoff seeding. Sadly the Mercury refused to cooperate by not bothering to play well in the regular season, so yet again fans get this series in the semifinals. Maya Moore and Sylvia Fowles have again led the way for the Lynx this year, with Moore having a bigger emphasis on outside shots (40% shooting from three this year). Taurasi and Brittney Griner lead the Mercury in scoring in both the regular season and postseason. One thing to look for is how well Griner plays against better competition. She struggled last year in the playoffs against the Lynx, and often looked unsure of herself in this summer’s Olympics as well. Perhaps having the experienced Taurasi and Penny Taylor on the roster this year will help assuage her uncertainty. An interesting note for this series is both teams have won three titles and the winner will go on to play for a fourth, which would tie the Houston Comet’s record. I, for one, would be quite pleased to see a record set by a defunct team be taken down.
Candace Parker may be the biggest name for the Sparks, but Nneka Ogwumike has had a huge breakthrough year, shooting near record 66.5% from the field. The Sparks have themselves had a breakthrough year, rocketing to 26-8 after a down year last year (due mostly to Candace Parker taking time off for rest). The team did rest starters for the last few games, however, so rust may be a factor as the series starts off. While the Sky were able to defeat the Dream, it appears Elena Delle Donne will still be out for at least the first few games of this one, which could make this a quick series if the Sky can’t steal a game in L.A. With the first two games starting at 10 Eastern, and Friday’s games again on ESPNNEWS, I again think the purpose of expanded playoffs has been defeated with poor time slots and subscriber-only networking. The Sparks may have trouble drawing fans for their home games, but with the start times so late how the game looks on TV may be irrelevant. So with all these TV concerns, it may be just as well if the Sparks quickly take care of the undermanned Sky, and the media can cover what’s sure to be a more compelling Lynx-Mercury series.
As the playoffs soldier on, it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that the league has an uphill battle against the incessant media drone on football that drowns out all else in the fall. But I hope these four teams can at least play some inspired ball this week so at least the media has some cause to talk about basketball prior to the start of the NBA bonanza of coverage. Fan support has certainly been disappointing at times so far in these playoffs, but from what I’ve seen league players have still been out there giving it their all. And this deserves, I think, at least a passing nod of acknowledgement and respect.
You can follow me on Twitter @JeffreyNewholm and our blog @NutsAndBoltsSP.