THIS IS NOT A DRILL! THE PLAYOFFS START TONIGHT! AGAIN THIS IS NOT A DRILL!
The regular season came and went in the blink of an eye. This season was largely defined by injuries to superstars, low scoring, and the Washington Mystics’ dominance. The WNBA’s playoff format makes it such that we won’t hear from the Mystics until next week. Luckily, we will have injured superstars and low scoring in the first round! Wait, no, that’s not good.
As much as the WNBA community bemoans the playoff format, it yielded two excellent first round, single-elimination matchups tonight on ESPN 2. (If you’re not familiar with the format, check out the league’s page on it.) The eight-seed Phoenix Mercury travel to Chicago Sky, the fifth-seed, for a matchup of the old guard against a rising power. Then, the last two last WNBA champions, Minnesota and Seattle, play each other for a spot in the second round.
Each year since the playoff format was instituted in 2016, at least one team playing in this round made it to the Semifinals. But no team playing in the new first round has ever broken through to the Finals. 2019 could very well be the year where one of these “wildcard” teams, so to speak, make it through to the end. But let’s first concern ourselves with the first round and preview these matchups.
8-Phoenix Mercury @ 5-Chicago Sky
Tipoff time: 8:00 pm EST
Team Vitals: Chicago 20-14, 101.6 ORTG (2nd), 100.2 DRTG (9th)
Phoenix 15-19, 98.2 ORTG (8th), 99.4 DRTG (7th)
Season Series: Chicago 3-0 (82-75, 94-86, 105-78)
Key to the Game: Chicago getting out in transition
I mentioned above that a team playing in the first round has made it to the Semifinals each year in the new playoff format. The Mercury have been that team for the past three years (along with the Mystics in 2016). Last year, Phoenix came one Sue Bird virtuoso performance away from making the Finals and fell to the eventual champs in 5 games. It’s almost foolish to think that the Mercury will lose in a game like this given the franchise’s history and Diana Taurasi’s personal history in elimination games.
*Stephen A. Smith voice* HOWEVA, this is not the Mercury team we are used to. Diana Taurasi has missed much of the year with a back injury and has not showed that she is the DT of even last year. Also she is listed as doubtful to play tonight. If she can’t go, the Mercury are in big trouble.
Without the league’s all-time leading scoring, Phoenix has been pedestrian this season and looked pretty bad at times. Britney Griner, Dewanna Bonner, and Leilani Mitchell all had great years offensively. But that hasn’t translated to consistent success or wins. Obviously Phoenix can turn it on in the playoffs, but we haven’t seen that potential in 2019.
Also, the Chicago Sky are the best team that Phoenix has played in the first round. They have the league’s second-best offense (behind the machine in DC) and an intriguing mix of players. Diamond DeShields, the Vanderquigs, and the rest of the team are ready to make their mark in the postseason after a few rough seasons since Elena Delle Donne departed.
The Sky could do just that by running Phoenix out of the building tonight. Chicago is one of the best transition teams in the league, if not the best period. Of the seven teams in the league with over 400 transition possessions, Chicago scores the most efficiently with 1.098 point per possession. Conversely, the Mercury rank dead last in transition defense in the WNBA, according the Synergy Sports data. They give up 1.088 points per possession in transition.
Without Diana Taurasi, the Mercury flounder early and can’t match the energy of the hyped up Sky. Chicago will get out to an early lead, but Phoenix pulls back into the game with a lot of Griner post-ups. The Mercury are just too experienced and too tough to give up on a playoff game. They’ll keep it close heading into the fourth quarter.
But then, the flood gates will break. The Sky, led by Courtney Vandersloot, will get out in transition and outrun the Mercury. Phoenix just can’t hang defensively with the league’s fastest teams and can’t match the Sky’s offensive output without a 100% DT. Diamond DeShields gets her first of many playoff moments by putting up 20+ points. Chicago wins its first playoff game in three years and moves on to face the Las Vegas Aces in Round 2.
Final Score: Chicago Sky–95 Phoenix Mercury–82
7-Minnesota Lynx @ 6-Seattle Storm
Tipoff time: 10:00 pm EST
Team Vitals: Seattle 18-16, 96.2 ORTG (9th), 96.4 DRTG (4th)
Minnesota 18-16, 98.8 ORTG (6th), 95.8 DRTG (2nd)
Season Series: Seattle 3-1 (MN 73-61, SEA 84-77, SEA 90-76, SEA 82-74)
Key to the Game: Turnover battle
This game has serious rock fight potential between two very similar teams. Each team is missing stars from last year (Whalen, Moore, Brunson, Bird, Stewart). But they’ve weathered the adversity with great defense as both rank in the top 5 of defensive rating. At the same time, Minnesota and Seattle seem to forget how to score at times. So if you’re looking for high-scoring, pretty basketball, this is likely not the game for you.
Both of these defenses create havoc for opposing offenses. Minnesota ranks first in opponent turnovers at 16.6 per game and Seattle trails by just 0.5 turnovers per game at third. Seattle loves to jump passing lanes and take chances on defense. Jordin Canada and Natasha Howard are first and second, respectively, in the WNBA for steals per game. Minnesota smothers teams with length and pressure. Rookie-of-the-year favorite Naphessa Collier and Odyssey Sims harass ball handlers into bad decisions. Both of them rank in the top fifteen for steals per game. When they make mistakes, Sylvia Fowles can still clean up them up in the paint.
On the flip side, both Minnesota and Seattle turn the ball over a ton on offense. The Storm average 15.7 turnovers per game, the second-worst mark in the league. The Lynx are the only team worse with 16.2 turnovers per game. The point of all this is that there will be a LOT of turnovers in this game. It will look sloppy and frustrate each team’s fans.
But, as Kosmo Kramer once overheard on the subway, these teams love the slopp, it’s in their bloodlines, their fathers were mudders, their mothers were mudders (their mothers were mudders?!). This game will come down who best handle the slopp and use it to their advantage. In three of the four matchups between these two, the team that got the most points off turnovers won. I expect Wednesday night to be no different.
The Storm will come out with a lot of energy at home. They will be flying around, going to loose balls, and trying to jump passing lanes. For Minnesota, it will be about not losing the game in the first quarter and weathering the emotional storm (no pun intended). At some point, neither team will be scoring and we will probably have some Benny Hill-moments as they turn the ball over back and forth. It will be ugly like I mentioned but it will be close late.
Both teams have late game perimeter assassins with championship pedigrees in Jewell Loyd for the Storm and Odyssey Sims and Seimone Augustus for the Lynx. Augustus has been hurt for most of 2019 and has yet to show the Money Mone of old. Sims’s development this year is impressive and there are not many players better in the clutch than her. However, Loyd is one of those players. She will hit a big shot late to put Seattle over the top and into the second round.
Final Score: Seattle Storm–72 Minnesota Lynx–66