Showtime: Fever rookie Lucas talking playoffs with Julia Morris
If some of the accomplishments achieved by players and teams during the regular season is any indication, the 2014 WNBA Playoffs, which get underway tonight, might be the most exciting from onset to coronation – if not the most unpredictable – in league history. In some ways, that assessment is paradoxical, given that unpredictability in any playoff year usually is driven by the lack of a clear-cut championship favorite.
Championship favorite, thy name is the 2014 Phoenix Mercury. Led by rookie head coach Sandy Brondello and five players averaging double figures in points, the Mercury have gone on to emphatically check every box on the makeup-of-a-champion ledger, dominating the Western Conference and putting up the highest regular-season win total in WNBA history (29). But they’re not the team that has won two of the three WNBA titles, and the Minnesota Lynx – champions in 2011 and 2013 – finished only four games behind the Mercury, and also ended Phoenix’s 16-game winning streak on the last day of July.
Countering the imperiousness exhibited by Phoenix and Minnesota out in the West is the parity (mediocrity if you’re in a bad mood) out East. Bridesmaids in the Finals three out of the past four years, the Atlanta Dream are back in position to return to the show and finally break their duck in the championship round. How they got to their position doesn’t leave too much optimism, though: losers of six of eight to end the season and 10 of their last 14 after a 15-5 start. But someone has to be the favorites out East, and it might as well be the only team that finished over .500 in the conference, right? Or it could be the Indiana Fever, the 2012 champs who still have one of the great clutch performers in Tamika Catchings. Or it could be the Chicago Sky, who might be the healthiest they’ve been all season after having Sylvia Fowles, Elena Delle Donne, Epiphanny Prince and Courtney Vandersloot all miss time to injuries. Or it could be the Washington Mystics, the team with the best scoring defense in the league. Honestly, who knows in the East?
So going into the beginning of the postseason, here are the four main storylines we have in mind as the league gets set to put a bow on its 18th season.
1. Best in Show…?
Can the Phoenix Mercury turn their season-long hegemony into another WNBA Championship? We’ve seen time and again that regular-season success isn’t an indicator of that, whether it be because of burnout or running into a hot team in the postseason. Despite that, league history almost definitively shows that that the type of dominance shown by the Mercury almost always leads to a title. Six teams in WNBA history prior to this year had posted a winning percentage of at least .800, and five of those six teams ended up winning the game’s biggest prize.
The only team from the list that did not win a WNBA title from the list was the 2000 Los Angeles Sparks, who lost to another team on that same list, the Houston Comets, in the Western Conference Finals. The Mercury have been stellar because of their efficiency on offense under first-year head coach Sandy Brondello, as some possessions on offense have been marked by eight or more passes before turning down good shots for great shots – and sometimes, turning down great shots into no-doubters. What has taken Phoenix’s game to another level is the play of Diana Taurasi, who distributed almost the same amount of assists from last year (185, as opposed to 197 in 2013) while cutting her turnovers by exactly 25 percent (116 in 2013 to 87 this season). The unselfishness this team has might be its biggest strength, and one that will carry this All-Star lineup to the franchise’s third title if it were to continue.
2. Going out in style
Two mainstays and fan favorites in the WNBA will be hoping to extend their careers just little more during these playoffs. Before joining Gregg Popovich and the newly-minted NBA champion San Antonio Spurs as an assistant coach, Stars guard and six-time All-Star Becky Hammon will hope to offer up a magical championship run mirroring her male counterparts. San Antonio opens up with Minnesota, and the Stars just defeated the Lynx in their regular-season home finale. (Minnesota did win the season series, 4-1.) Out in the East, Lin Dunn, one of the most charismatic figures to ever be a part of the league and the women’s game, will retire from coaching once Indiana’s run in the postseason is over. If the Fever’s postseason run in anything like that of 2012, Dunn will exit stage left with another WNBA title. Dunn is hoping that Tamika Catchings, who missed the first 17 games of the season fighting back problems, is at full strength when the Fever start their playoff run at home against the Washington Mystics.
3. Eastern Philosophy
It’s anyone’s guess in determining which one of the four teams in the East will find religion and make it to the WNBA Finals. Even trying to use the regular season to evaluate which teams may have the upper hand in the first round could possibly prove to be a fool’s errand. Top-seeded Atlanta takes on the Chicago Sky, and it’s Chicago that won the series, 3-2. But two of Chicago’s three wins came when Dream star Angel McCoughtry wasn’t available to play, and Atlanta’s two wins came without the Sky having either Elena Delle Donne or Sylvia Fowles in the lineup. In the other series, Washington and Indiana split their four regular-season games, with the road team triumphant each time. The Fever have the home-court advantage, but is it possible the Mystics have the “road-court advantage?” Also, Tamika Catchings only played in one of the four games in the regular season.
4. The Moore, The Merrier
What Minnesota guard Maya Moore has done this season can only be placed in the strata reserved for WNBA legends like Cooper, Swoopes and Leslie. With injuries taking a little of the luster off what could have been an even more stellar regular season, Moore almost literally carried the Lynx on her back on many occasions. In 12 games this season, the former UConn sharpshooter scored 30 points or more, and twice she reached the 40-point plateau, including a 48-point masterpiece in a double-overtime victory over Atlanta. Moore was just named the league’s MVP, a much-deserved honor despite the chatter about whether a player from the league-leading Mercury – namely Diana Taurasi – should win the honor. Even with Moore’s exploits, the Lynx need former WNBA Finals MVP Seimone Augustus, who’s been battling knee soreness and has missed 10 games this season, to be healthy and resume being Moore’s running/scoring mate. In basketball, we’ve seen on numerous occasions where one player carries a team to a title, and Moore, who already has two WNBA titles to her credit, is more than capable of doing that. At the very least, it will be fun to watch her try.
[Cover photo (Sandy Brondello) courtesy Christian Petersen/Getty Images]