By Jeffrey Newholm
The Phoenix Mercury and Los Angeles Sparks emerged victorious in Tuesday’s first round playoff matchups. They advance to face the Connecticut Sun and Washington Mystics, respectively, Thursday (also in single-elimination). The second round features two favorites who are less prestigious than their underdog challengers. Los Angeles and Phoenix are conditioned to success. L.A. appeared in the last two finals and the Mercury won a total of three. By contrast, host Washington is the only WNBA team yet to advance to the finals, and Connecticut hasn’t won a playoff game since 2012. While Tuesday’s openers weren’t overly thrilling, Thursday’s games promise sweet basketball rumbles to prepare for delightful best-of-five semifinals.
Phoenix at Connecticut: 8:30 ET, Mohegan Sun Arena
Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi improved to 12-0 in winner-take-all games as the Mercury pulled away to defeat a disinterested Dallas team 101-83. The concept of a “big three” is one of the most overused descriptions in basketball. But the reason it’s overused is big threes are very successful. And the Mercury have their own with Taurasi, Brittney Griner, and DeWanna Bonner. The three accounted for 68.2% of their team’s scoring, and Bonner in particular is critical this year. She missed 2017 after giving birth to twins and Phoenix didn’t have the womanpower to match up with L.A. in the semis. But Bonner is back with 29 points against Dallas. Even more impressive, she hit several near-midcourt threes, including one bank shot that had her flaunting her skills in front of an adoring crowd. But the Sun will be a sterner challenge.
After four straight years in the lottery, the Sun had seemingly set as forgotten. But coach Curt Miller, hired in 2017, quickly brightened the sky. The team rose to 21-13 and earned a bye. However, they lost a tight home game against Phoenix. If the Sun is to finally return to the semis, they will need a key player to emerge. Phoenix has a hall-of-fame, sure emotional boost in Taurasi to lift the franchise in the postseason. The Sun is very well balanced with six players starting 16 games or more. But none has postseason success, and the leading scorer, Chiney Ogwumike, averages only 14.4 points a contest. The University of Maryland, in its recent run of contention, never had a key player burst out to topple titans UConn and Notre Dame. If Connecticut can’t discover a true star, they may become a similar WNBA team that’s only modestly successful.
L.A. at Washington: 6:30 ET, Charles E. Smith Center
Monday I labeled the Sparks as a talented team that performed rather averagely. Tuesday’s 75-68 triumph against maddingly inconsistent Minnesota didn’t disprove this notion, but it did highlight a persistent concern. Franchise cornerstone Candace Parker has seemingly played capably, averaging 30 solid minutes in 30 starts. But ESPNW’s Mechelle Voepel, usually reluctant to criticize the ladies, questioned her true worth this year. Voepel argued that Parker wasn’t elevating her team to its championship potential. To make the situation worse, Parker contracted an illness prior to the Minnesota game (according to coach Brian Agler). Due to her impediment, she scored only two points on one of six shooting. Other players, such as Nneka Ogwumike and Chelsea Gray, can play well, but the Sparks will not go far without a healthy Parker.
The refreshing Mystics may not be able to play at Capital One Arena, with the stadium undergoing poorly-scheduled maintenance. But hopefully a large contingent of fans make the trip to George Washington University to have an eye feast on Elena Delle Donne. Delle Donne has the prettiest form in the WNBA, effortlessly gliding down the court and around defenders. Unfortunately the 2015 MVP has struggled with Lyme disease and untimely playoff injuries. But her trade to Washington (tellingly coinciding with a Chicago Sky collapse) rejuvenated her career. The Mystics stormed to the semis last year, but were swept by a then menacing Lynx. Washington has a decidedly more favorable matchup against L.A., who isn’t accustomed to early playoff struggles. The Mystics have never had a better shot at the finals, but must avoid a lapse in concentration in a round with no second chance.
With the WNBA playoffs finally not up against football (and preseason doesn’t count, thank you!), the early playoffs can provide value to summer sports fans looking for an adrenaline injection. The Mercury and Mystics aim to seize momentum for a thrust to finals glory. The Sun shoots to strip off the label of “good but dull” and establish a northeast dynasty. And Candace Parker will have a chance to prove the detractors wrong and reposition herself as the game’s best player. With the recent Supreme Court decision, bets will definitely be on Thursday’s games. But selling the women’s league short in its breakthrough season? Surely a losing wager.