By Jeffrey Newholm
With the WNBA season shortened to accommodate for the upcoming World Cup, it proved to be a sprint to the final horn. But for the four teams forced to play in Tuesday’s single-elimination first round, the regular campaign proved lackluster. The Dallas Wings lost nine in a row before finally clinching Friday. Their opponent, the Phoenix Mercury, may feature legends Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner. However, Phoenix opens on first-round Tuesday for the third straight season. To make matters worse, the Mercury can’t play at home due to the “J. Cole KOD Tour.” (The Mercury, it seems, received a bad rap). And Tuesday’s nightcap pits the previous two WNBA finalists, the Minnesota Lynx, and Los Angeles Sparks. But after two disappointing seasons, one titan will be one and done. While underwhelming, these games present a basketball jolt for fans to escape the August baseball doldrums.
Wings at Mercury: 8:30 EST, Wells Fargo Arena, Phoenix
The Wing’s month-long, nine-game losing streak was quite ugly, although many games came down to the last minute. Coach Fred William’s dismissal for reportedly physically confronting the team CEO was also rather unsightly. But ugly basketball isn’t always bad. Sometimes ugly is a compliment, because it suggests a hard-working determination and post presence vital in the women’s pro game. Therefore, it’s proper to describe Dallas’s Liz Cambage as beautifully ugly. The vocal, bludgeoning terror set the WNBA record with 53 points in a July game and added 43 in Friday’s clincher. She led the league in scoring with 23 points a game and nearly averaged a double-double with 9.7 boards a contest. Since she’s considering not returning to the WNBA next year (she plays extensively oversees), fans in the states should relish every opportunity to observe her mastery.
The Mercury top any team in name power with Taurasi and Griner. However, the team may be suffering from the dreaded franchise fatigue. Taurasi’s technicals cost her a suspension, and it’s easy to wonder if, with three disappointing seasons in a row, the schtick is getting old. Griner appears to be playing very well. By averaging 20 points and 32 minutes (in a 40-minute game), she is the team’s most consistent contributor. But the Phoenix star exhibits the body language of someone tired of too much B.S. Griner was ejected from two games against Chicago after the Sky’s Grammy-worthy flops and left with mere shrugs. Also, she doesn’t seem as enthusiastic about standing up for herself as Cambage. The Wings certainly bring more emotion into this clash, but as Phoenix proved with long runs in ’16 and ’17, sometimes stoicism works best.
Lynx at Sparks: 10:30 EST, Staples Center, Los Angeles
Home court advantage is the primary reward for playing well in the regular season. But the Sparks gain more from not playing in Minnesota than benefiting at home. Crowds in the Staples Center can be rather sparse with too much entertainment competition. A Bing search turns up “Los Angeles Superior Court” before “Los Angeles Sparks” even appears on the screen. In 2016 the Sparks dominated the WNBA as Nneka Ogwumike played basket-volleyball perfectly with a winning layup in the final game in Minnesota. Los Angeles was just as dominant last year but came up one minute short. But the league improved significantly from first to fifth, leaving the Sparks a mediocre sixth. The team has never played particularly well or poorly, making them forgettable. But if they can win two playoff games, they certainly have the talent and coaching to make the finals.
The Lynx perfectly fit the description of the under-seeded team no team wants to play. Stacked with the talented Sylvia Fowles, Maya Moore, and retiring Lindsay Whalen, Minnesota won four titles and appeared in six finals the past seven years. But through organizational fatigue, the Lynx slumped to 18-16. However, it’s challenging to imagine the team not winning a game. Much like the anxious and talented 2016 Mercury, it would surprise few to see them challenging for a repeat next week. Inconsistency will be the biggest challenge on Tuesday and Thursday. Many times this year, Minnesota seemed to have “finally!” overcome its issues. Each time, poor play returned. In Whalen’s final regular-season home game, a sometimes stressed crowd was able to enjoy a convincing victory. It may be enough to propel the team into the semifinals. If not, few will feel sorry for the decade’s best franchise.
The Lynx-Sparks rivalry invigorated ratings in the first two years of the new playoff format. The improvement of almost every team and regression of Minnesota and L.A. proves parity entered with perfect timing. True, the four teams playing Tuesday rarely inspired (apart from Cambage). But the beauty of the WNBA is, apart from the four worst teams, every fanbase can say they had a shot at glory. And it’ll take several well-aimed shots for two “average,” but still very talented, teams to advance.