Road to the Playoffs: The Drought Is Over

After three long years and a large number of first-round draft picks, the Dallas Wings are headed to the playoffs. It goes without saying that this wasn’t an easy route, but the youngest team in the league prevailed despite various obstacles. Two of their players missed a portion of the season due to national team duties, one rookie player experienced a delayed entrance into the U.S., a new coach entered the scene and an inconsistent starting lineup resulted in chemistry challenges throughout the season. Although many doubted the Wings’ ability to make the playoffs this season, Dallas clinched the seventh spot with a 14-18 record and showed that it has one of the most versatile rosters in the league. While there is a list of things to call into question about the Wings, the players have stepped up big to pull out wins and secure a playoff spot. From rookies to five-year vets, the Wings worked to find their stride and put us on notice that this is only the beginning. 

We’re going to take a look back at what hindered the Wings this season, but there is also room to recognize and applaud what this young squad has been able to accomplish. How did the Wings make it through the season with all of the adversity thrown at them? Let’s reflect on how things played into Dallas’ favor. 

Season Kick-Off

The Dallas Wings took game one of the season over the Los Angeles Sparks with five players scoring 10 or more points. They started off a little sloppy, weak in transition and lacking defensive power, and the chemistry was far from developed with Satou Sabally and Awak Kuier missing from the available roster.

However, as the game progressed, players began to find their footing. Allisha Gray logged a season-high 23 points with nine rebounds, and Arike Ogunbowale followed suit with 17 points of her own. Gray’s energy on the court was confident and electric. She took control and got her teammates involved, causing the entire team’s energy to surge. Veterans Kayla Thornton, Isabelle Harrison and Marina Mabrey brought the heat as well, recording big numbers and making monumental plays. The 2021 first overall pick, Charli Collier, had a spectacular debut, grabbing herself a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds. 

Starting the season on a high note was just what the Wings needed to take flight. However,  they soon experienced some difficulties with flying high. 

 

Missing Pieces, Changing Lineup, and Developing Chemistry

At the beginning of the season, the Wings were operating with a short-staffed flight crew. Players Satou Sabally and Awak Kuier were absent for the first part of the season, and Allisha Gray departed after game one. Sabally and Gray were headed to compete with their respective national teams in the qualifying trials for a chance to play 3×3 basketball in the Tokyo Olympics. Sabally missed six games, while Gray missed five matchups. Awak Kuier missed three games due to situating her visa in Finland. Gray and Sabally returned on June 4 to face the Seattle Storm, but prior to that matchup, the Wings went 2-4 and did not look how many imagined them to. 

On top of that, an inconsistent starting lineup left the Wings out of touch with one another at various times on the court. To start the season, head coach Vickie Johnson mentioned that she wanted to play multiple players and preferred they compete really hard with fewer minutes as opposed to more minutes with less effort. With this method, she wanted her team to understand that one player doesn’t have to carry the weight alone. 

“If they’re in the heat of the moment with me, I trust them,” Johnson said. 

One of the main benefits of having a solidified starting lineup is knowing that you have a set of players that can get the job done together. Constantly adding and removing pieces throughout each game can potentially stall the team’s flow. 

However, Johnson and the players are pleased with how the team’s chemistry has developed. Johnson glowed when she spoke about players showing up and leaving practice together and planning fun activities like barbecues.

In addition to navigating player absences and changing lineups, the Wings faced the injury (and illness) bug, plaguing Sabally, Gray, Harrison and Moriah Jefferson. These players all missed games, which furthered the disconnection within the team. Although Dallas clinched the seventh seed, they had the potential to be a little higher if all were healthy and given more time together. 

The Wings’ lineup switches this season call into question their ability to maintain a full 40 minutes of game chemistry and consistency during the playoffs. Miscommunication and on-court frustration plagued them this season. While everyone wants to use their age as an excuse, there’s also another perspective to consider—maybe they just really want to win. While controlling your emotions is key, it’s great to see players use their passion as fuel to perform. And yes, sometimes our emotions get the best of us, but it’s all for the love of the game. If used correctly, perhaps this intensity will help the Wings rise to the challenges they will face in the playoffs. 

 

The Regular Season Finale

The Dallas Wings ended the season how they began: beating the Los Angeles Sparks. Although this time there weren’t any season-high numbers, the Wings came out and completed the task at hand. During this final regular-season matchup, Ogunbowale punched in 20 points, Mabrey logged 16, Harrison had 14 and Gray took home 12. The team’s shooting was fairly good, firing 50.0 percent from the field and 45.5 percent from behind the arc while going 17-of-19 from the line. 

Johnson says this was her favorite moment from the season, being able to witness her team grow and seeing their hard work land them a playoff spot. 

“We started in L.A.. Our last game was L.A.,” she began. “We were just trying to prove ourselves when we first started the season to see where we were.

“We were missing some players, but for the last game we had pretty much our whole team, and it was a game we knew we were in seventh place, and we knew that L.A. had to win to be in the playoffs.

“The way we fought and we didn’t give in—it was about us and not L.A.. It was about our growth throughout the year offensively and defensively. So to watch that come together and to be able to finish the game the right way, with a win, was huge for me.”

The Wings beating the Sparks led to the New York Liberty clinching the eighth playoff spot. New York’s players took to Twitter and Instagram Live to rave about Dallas’ performance.

 

See Also

First-Round Prediction

With their current standing, the Wings will go up against the Chicago Sky in the first round, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves thinking Dallas is an easy team to knock out in a single-elimination game. The Wings are nearing full health and will be in action together in their first playoffs with this particular unit. What should we expect to see?

The “unicorn” may just remind us of who she is. Sabally only averaged 11.9 points this season, missing a chunk of games due to Olympic qualifiers and her Achilles injury. A competitive unicorn is not something you want to test, but with Satou still battling an Achilles injury, we’re not sure if we’ll be able to see her at her peak. Her versatility makes her lethal on both ends of the floor and an exciting player to watch, but her injury could limit her defensive power.

Additionally, you still have Gold Medal Lish, who practically shows us what it looks like to play like a champion, and 2021 WNBA All-Star MVP Arike Ogunbowale, who is going to be hard to stop now that she’s met her goal of reaching the postseason. When on the floor together, Gray and Ogunbowale have solid chemistry with each other as well as with their longtime teammates, such as Thornton and Mabrey. With these two flying the plane, there’s no telling how far the Wings can soar. 

But wait, there’s more! Rookies Charli Collier and Awak Kuier are stepping into their power this season, so look for them to grab buckets. Collier garnered a significant amount of playing time and experience on the court, and her development from the start of the season is noticeable. She recorded an 11-point and 10-rebound double-double in her debut, and she then clinched a career-high 13 points against the Las Vegas Aces on July 11. Collier is a lot more confident, not only defending but also taking shots—resulting in her being named to the Associated Press’ All-WNBA Rookie Team. When paired with another big on the floor, like fellow rookie Awak Kuier or veteran Isabelle Harrison, she blooms. 

Similarly, Kuier has become a lot more comfortable and confident on the floor as of late. In her first few games, she looked lost and out of place, giving too many turnovers and taking too few shots. However, as the season continued, she played to her strengths. Against the Connecticut Sun on Sept. 7, she set a career-high with 10 points, eight rebounds and five blocks, and she got some much-needed experience against big-time ballers like DeWanna Bonner and Brionna Jones. 

Johnson is very pleased with the production she’s seen from her rookies this season, including Chelsea Dungee. 

“Charli has exceeded my expectations of her rookie year and also K [Kuier],” she said.

“You don’t see the growth because you’re not in practice, but what she [Dungee] brings to practice every day is huge: her energy level, she comes to work every day at practice, she encourages her teammates and is a great person in the locker room.”

If we’re lucky, we might see a rookie matchup in the first-round game as former Wings player and second-round pick Dana Evans plays for Chicago and has a chance to go against the team that traded her. 

Needless to say, the first round of the playoffs is a must-watch event as the Sky have some heavy hitters—like Candace Parker, Kahleah Copper and Allie Quigley—whom Dallas needs to watch out for. Johnson doesn’t know if she’ll shorten her rotation in the playoffs due to players having minute restrictions, but she says the Wings are locked in and focused on the task at hand.

“The biggest thing about the playoffs is believing that you belong. We belong in the playoffs.”

 

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