By: Jeffrey Newholm
The WNBA begins its new playoff format with a pair of single-elimination games on Wednesday. The Phoenix Mercury face off with the Indiana Fever in Indy at 6 eastern, and at 8 the Seattle Storm travel to Atlanta to take on the Dream. I’ll begin my playoff coverage by taking a quick look at these two games, and return as the playoffs progress and new match-ups are set after each round. (Teams are reseeded after each round just as in the NFL conference playoffs).
Mercury vs. Fever
For Kobe Bryant, his last game as a Laker became a scripted shooting performance against an eliminated team willing to play the role of the straight man. For WNBA legend Tamika Catchings, her Fever can be assured that from here on out, their opponents will be playing to win. “Catch” had a fine regular season finale against a disinterested Wings team, but the troubled Mercury probably won’t be too sympathetic. The Mercury were expected to be strong contenders after the return of Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor, but shockingly had to back into this first round. Disciplined play has been hard to come by for, well, mercurial starts Taurasi and Brittney Griner, whereas the Fever quietly clinched a 12th straight playoff berth. Many have claimed that the Mercury are a team no one wants to face this postseason, but judging by the strong fan support for Catching’s last regular season home game, I think the Fever are also a tough out at home. In the end I think this one comes down to the level of poise and leadership Taurasi can display. If we see the Olympic “Good dee”, the Mercury could have a long run. If the Fever frustrate Taurasi into a “Bad dee”, a down Mercury season could end with a dud of a loss.
Dream vs. Storm
Judging by the Storm’s lack of success last year and in the early stages of this campaign, one may assume the team is satisfied just to get in this year. But the team has been playing very strongly after the Olympic break. The Storm are also coming off a convincing win in Atlanta just a few weeks ago, The Dream, on the other hand, have lost three out of their last four going into the playoffs, including a loss to the lowly Stars. While the Storm do have the hotter hand, the playoffs will be a completely novel experience for most of the young team. I think in terms of performance, the Storm has the stronger team right now. But if the Storm come out playing intimidated or over-hyped, the Dream could capitalize with a quick run. This could prove to be a test for Seattle’s second year coach Jenny Boucek. Dream coach Michael Cooper, on the other hand, is a multiple time league champion. The Storm could be in good shape if they get off to a strong start, but if the game comes down to strategy and guile, I think the edge would switch to Atlanta.
While both of these games present intriguing match-ups, it remains to be seen the ultimate effectiveness of the new elongated playoff format. Will the more well rested favorites just roll later on, or will playing extra games better prepare the underdogs? However it turns out, a national TV audience will have some good story-lines to follow this fall.
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