Remember the NBA’s play-in round last month, when all eyes were glued to Damian Lillard and Ja Morant as they fought to compete in the postseason? If that was as fun for you as it was for me (read: everyone), I have good news: The WNBA has been using that elimination-game style since 2016. It’s exhilarating, it’s anxiety-inducing, it’s win or go home, and it’s really, really good basketball.
Even in this shortened 22-game season, the intensity inside the Wubble has been otherworldly. The seeding of the league’s top-eight teams was determined by the regular season’s final game, and there’s only more high-stakes basketball to come. The Las Vegas Aces and Seattle Storm have earned no. 1 and 2 overall seeds, while the Los Angeles Sparks, Minnesota Lynx, Phoenix Mercury, Chicago Sky, Connecticut Sun, and Washington Mystics will duke it out in two single-elimination rounds to determine who will make it to the semifinals. But before we watch the thrilling series that await us, here are the seven biggest questions heading into the WNBA playoffs:
Will Phoenix’s hot streak last?
Because of a lackluster start to the season, the league’s no. 1 scoring duo in Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi finds itself as the fifth overall seed. On Tuesday, the Mercury will go up against a tough Washington Mystics team that clawed its way into the postseason by winning the final game of the regular season. Both teams are sizzling; which will flame out first?
Ever since Brittney Griner left IMG Academy on August 21 for personal reasons and Bria Hartley tore her ACL on August 28, Diggins-Smith has had to elevate her game. She led Phoenix to wins in seven of the team’s last nine games and averaged 21 points and four assists during that stretch, which included a 35-foot buzzer-beater. Taurasi also had an All-WNBA season at the age of 38 (of course she did), and Tuesday will mark the GOAT’s 60th career playoff game. Diggins-Smith didn’t decide to sign with this team in the offseason to get eliminated in the first round. She and Taurasi will be on a mission, and I can’t wait to see it unfold.
Does Chicago have enough firepower to beat Connecticut?
Courtney Vandersloot has had one helluva year. She’s become the franchise’s second-leading scorer (behind only her wife, Allie Quigley), she’s averaging career highs in points and assists per game (13.6 and 10.0 respectively), and she passed Ticha Penicheiro for the WNBA single-game assists record (18). She’ll need another record-breaking night to help her Chicago squad prevail over DeWanna Bonner and the Sun in the first-round elimination game, though.
The Sky are first in the league in field goal percentage, and if they can weather the storm of Connecticut Defensive Player of the Year front-runner Alyssa Thomas and hit their outside shots, the odds will swing in their favor. The Sun will be down a significant piece in this game, as star Jonquel Jones opted out of the season. Regardless, we know that Bonner and Co. will fight until the final seconds (see highlights from the team’s monster 22-point comeback against the Mercury last week for reference). But if Kahleah Copper, rookie Ruthy Hebard, and über-talented Cheyenne Parker have notable contributions, the Sky’s title hopes will live to see another day.
Will the Sparks bounce back from last season’s disappointing playoff finish?
Around this time last year, I was sitting in a packed gym in Long Beach, confused as to why Candace Parker wasn’t on the court. It was Game 3 of the WNBA semifinals, and the Los Angeles Sparks needed to win to avoid getting swept by the Sun. But first-year head coach Derek Fisher kept his star on the bench, playing her only 11 minutes as the Sparks proceeded to get blown out by 22.
Candace Parker said she's physically and mentally okay and told reporters to ask Derek Fisher why she only played 11 minutes and 14 seconds on the Sparks 22 point elimination loss to the Connecticut Sun 78-56. #Winsidr #WNBAPlayoffs #LASparks pic.twitter.com/IMnD6vaSdZ— John W. Davis (@johnwdavis) September 23, 2019
It was bad, real bad. Tensions rose and people began to question whether Fisher was the best fit for this top-tier Los Angeles team. Fast-forward to today, when the Sparks sit as the no. 3 seed for the second year in a row. “Obviously we’ve done what we had to do behind closed doors to get to this point, but I believe actions speak louder than words,” Parker said last month in response to a question about clearing the air with Fisher. “I’m gonna do my part and be the best I can be. That’s what I can control.” And because Parker has been playing like #MVParker, the Sparks have an opportunity to make a run for the franchise’s fourth championship. Kristi Toliver and Chiney Ogwumike opted out this season, but with an A-list roster that features Chelsea Gray, Nneka Ogwumike, Seimone Augustus, and Riquna Williams, this group is a nightmare matchup for virtually every other team in the league.
Can Angel McCoughtry’s veteran presence will the Aces to victory?
Before McCoughtry headed to Bradenton, Florida, in early July, she told me what this season means to her: “I’m getting older in my career, and I know I don’t have that much longer left, so I don’t want to take anything for granted. I haven’t played in the playoffs in four years, and sometimes when I think about that, it’s surreal. Everybody knows that playoff time is when I love to shine. I’m ready to get back in the Finals. I want a couple of rings on my fingers.”
McCoughtry led Atlanta to the postseason in seven out of the nine full seasons she played for the franchise, and those Dream teams made it to the Finals three times. Her 1,029 career playoff minutes is nearly more than all of her Las Vegas teammates’ playoff experience combined. The no. 1 ranked Aces will need to lean on the vet if they hope to make it past the semifinals. McCoughtry is second on the team in 3-point percentage (47.1 percent, a career high) and is second in scoring (14.4 points per game) behind superstar A’ja Wilson, but her leadership and wisdom will be her real value. Las Vegas is riding high on a six-game winning streak that includes victories over the Lynx, the Sparks, and the Storm in the final week of the regular season. I expect them to keep that same energy in the semifinals (and possibly the Finals) with Wilson and McCoughtry at the helm.
How much will I miss Courtney Williams in the playoffs this year?
And be deprived of more iconic pictures like this one?! *Sigh.* Actually, I’m not ready to talk about this yet. Next question.
Do the Lynx need Sylvia Fowles to advance to the semifinals?
The Minnesota center has been out since mid-August with a calf strain, but this team has fared surprisingly well without her. Since she’s been sidelined, the Lynx have gone 8-5 and earned the no. 4 seed. There have been reports that Fowles might be able to rejoin the team in time for its second-round single-elimination game on Thursday, but even though it would be a plus to have the 13-year veteran on the court, I don’t think it’s necessary. Napheesa Collier has flourished in her sophomore season, ranking second in the league in rebound and steal totals, and rookie Crystal Dangerfield has sent shockwaves around the WNBA. The second-round pick leads Minnesota in scoring with 16.2 points per game, tallying more than she ever did in her four-year tenure at UConn. Her confidence is booming, and her relentlessness will not only lead to a Rookie of the Year trophy, but will also be a key factor in the Lynx’s pursuit of a fifth championship in 10 years.
Can anyone beat the Storm in a five-game series?
The short answer? Probably not. After a franchise-best 11-1 start, Seattle finished the season 18-4. A few of those wins were close (sorry, but Jewell Loyd stepped out of bounds!) and their losses came when they weren’t at full strength. With a healthy Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart, Loyd, Alysha Clark, and Jordin Canada, this group will be tough to beat three times. The Aces bested them twice, and even though the Storm lead the league in offensive rating (108.3) and defensive rating (93.3), Las Vegas isn’t too far behind in both of those categories. But regardless of stats or realism, I selfishly really want a Taurasi-Bird Finals. Two GOATs competing at a high level in their twilight years. 2020 owes us this.