By Jeffrey Newholm
The WNBA best of five semifinals, which tip off Sunday afternoon, will feature Atlanta challenging Washington and Seattle fighting Phoenix. The Phoenix Mercury fought through two single-elimination games for the third year in a row to reach the semifinals. Thursday the Mercury finished on a 10-0 run to beat Connecticut 96-86 and complete the two-game push. Earlier that day, the Washington Mystics blew out Los Angeles 96-64. For the first time in WNBA history, six women scored in double figures in a playoff game as the Mystics easily dispatched a Sparks team that played very poorly. The Seattle Storm and Atlanta Dream have waited since Sunday for their first games because they finished with the top two seeds. With the WNBA never healthier, two evenly-matched, competitive semifinals would help propel the league even further.
Washington-Atlanta (Atlanta hosts games 1, 2, and 5)
Los Angeles failed to meet expectations and exhibited frustrated body language throughout the 32 point rout. Washington was rewarded for earning a bye and home game and proved that the team has multiple contributors in addition to Elena Delle Donne. Delle Donne has struggled in much of her career with being a one-woman team. But in her second year with the Mystics she’s finally playing on a balanced team with great chemistry. Coach Mike Thibault won his record 300th game in July and seeks the only item not on his resume: a league title. The Mystics roll into Atlanta against a historically weak fan base and a Dream team with little proven.
Nicki Collen was hired to coach a roster that league executives voted most improved in the offseason. She handled her new responsibilities very well. The Dream surged to 23-11 and defeated an eliminated Las Vegas team in the finale to clinch a double-bye. But a fourth finals berth is far from sure. The team’s best player, Angel McCoughtry, suffered a season-ending knee injury in August. With only two other double-figure scorers to back her up, it’s fair to wonder who’ll provide replacement play. However, the Dream won four out of five without her and succeeded even with her production down this season. The Dream impressed most observers, but still have to prove they’re not a slightly better version of merely good Connecticut.
Phoenix versus Seattle: Seattle hosts games 1, 2, and 5
Diana Taurasi improved to an extremely impressive 13-0 in single elimination playoff games Thursday. But were it not for a last push, the perfect run would have concluded. The Mercury remained calm after a disastrous four point play and tightened on defense in the last two minutes. But now they must play in a series, a situation the franchise has fared quite poorly in lately. In 2016 the 8th and last seeded Mercury made the semifinals but wasn’t remotely competitive in being swept by Minnesota. After winning two one-and-done games last year, Phoenix was blown out in games one and two against Los Angeles and came up one shot short in the clincher. Thankfully one’s never too old to evolve and the 36 year old Taurasi has a perfect opportunity to carry her August success to three more wins.
While Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd were the key draft picks in 2016 and 2015, hall of famer Sue Bird has been most valuable to Seattle. The 17 year veteran is still playing at an astonishing level and provides the young roster with crucial perspective. According to Bird, lack of playoff experience can actually be a benefit. Bird was quoted by ESPN.com, stating: “Hopefully we fall under that ignorance is bliss category and we’re just able to play our game and not let the highs and the lows get to us. Because come playoff time, when you have series, there’s a lot of highs and lows and you really can’t get on that roller coaster.” The 2018 season was certainly not a roller coaster for the 26-8 Storm. And the ride hopefully will have one last stop in the finals.
While the first two rounds exceeded expectations, the three concluding series features the greatest fall WNBA drama. Seattle will re-establish the franchise as league power. Meanwhile Washington, Atlanta, and Phoenix jostle to steal the baton from fading Minnesota. There’s never been a better time to follow the WNBA, and with the NBA now completely silent, there’s no other game for basketball fanatics. With the World Cup upcoming in September, the women will exclusively work the boards and court next month. And each head that turns the ladies’ way will find itself nodding in assent to an ascending basketball phenomenon.