It’s a first in the WNBA first round by Clay Kallam
We’ll get a look at the new WNBA single-elimination format Wednesday, though if history is any guide, a first-round WNBA playoff game during football season gets all the attention of a mosquito abatement district election in a presidential year.
Still, Wednesday’s two games should be lots of fun, as the intensity level will be high and the star-power quotient is up there as well. The winners move on to another single-elimination game this weekend – and remember the San Francisco Giants going from single-game wild card winners to World Series champion. Does that mean one of these four teams could win it all?
OK, that might be a stretch, but as the old saying goes, that’s why they play the games.
Phoenix (16-18) @ Indiana (17-17)
6 p.m. (ET)
Point guard: This is an interesting matchup because Phoenix doesn’t really have a point guard while Indiana starts two – but we’ll begin with the Mercury just because it’s so hard to ignore Diana Taurasi.
Taurasi, of course, isn’t really a point guard, and is fourth on the team in assists per 36 minutes, but she’ll be the one bringing the ball upcourt and of course she’ll be the one expected to make plays in crunch time. And since Taurasi is one of the greatest players ever, why not?
Still, she takes more shots per 36 minutes than anyone else on the team, and this year she’s only making 39.6% of them – though she is at 35% from beyond the arc. She turns the ball over a little too much, and is far from a demon defender. But tell me, who would you rather have running the show in a winner- take-all one-game playoff?
Maybe Indiana fans would answer “Briann January,” as she is a better defender, better pure point and this year at least, a better shooter than Taurasi. She’s also feisty (to put it politely) and will not back down from a big moment.
In the end, it’s hard to give an edge to anyone going up against Diana Taurasi, so advantage Indiana.
Shooting guard: Lately, Sandy Brondello has been going with Marta Xargay as a starter, and we’ll call her the shooting guard, though she and Penny Taylor share the traditional duties of that role. Xargay hasn’t show that much during her short WNBA career, but she is an adequate player, and allows DeWanna Bonner to come off the bench and give the second unit some offensive punch. At 5-11, she has a height advantage over January or Erica Wheeler, but she’s definitely going to have trouble staying in front of either one. Then again, that’s the luxury of having Brittney Griner guarding the rim.
Wheeler, on the other hand, is listed at 5-7, which means she’s probably 5-5, and can’t shoot a lick. But she can penetrate, pass and like Xargay, allows the more offensive-minded Shenise Johnson to anchor the second unit.
Neither one of those guards makes anyone’s heart go pitty-pat, pitty-pat, so we’ll call this even.
Small forward: Penny Taylor is one of the great players of the 21 st century, and Marissa Coleman isn’t. Coleman, in fact, lost her starting job for 11 games this year, but finished playing somewhat better. Still, there’s not much to discuss here because as long as Taylor is healthy, this is a huge advantage Phoenix.
Power forward: Speaking of great players, Tamika Catchings in her prime might have been better than Taylor, and over the course of this, Catchings’ final season, she played nine more games and 200 more minutes than Taylor, which made her 2016 contributions more important. But we’re only talking one game here, and Candice Dupree is a significantly better player than Marissa Coleman, so even prime Catchings would be less an advantage than Taylor. But Dupree is nothing if not inconsistent, and if she doesn’t shoot well, the rest of her game can fade away – and Catchings still can defend at an elite level.
And speaking of shooting well, Catchings is above her career numbers overall and from the free-throw line, and only off a little from beyond the arc. Dupree’s defense has been categorized, justifiably, as indifferent, and if Catchings starts making jumpers, Phoenix will be in trouble. Big advantage Indiana.
Center: We have both ends of the spectrum here: The undersized, overachieving Erlana Larkins against the very tall, very talented, what-will- we-get- tonight? Brittney Griner. The numbers give the edge to Griner, but she has to come out firing on all cylinders or Larkins will erase the physical advantage with hard work, hustle and smarts.
This will be one of the most interesting matchups of these 40 minutes, and it could well be that the winner of this matchup will decide the winner of the game. I will chicken out and call it even.
Bench: In one game, the bench may not matter, as neither coach has to worry about the next game, or saving anyone’s legs – but you still need a rotation, and Stephanie White has both a backcourt option (Shenise Johnson) and a frontcourt option (Lynetta Kizer). Brondello, on the other hand, can only really count on Bonner, though Lindsey Harding is certainly competent.
The Fever also could roll the dice on Tiffany Mitchell and Natalie Achonwa, so it seems to me there’s an advantage Indiana in this category.
Coaching: Neither of these teams quite lived up to expectations, and neither coach was particularly dazzling, though Stephanie White remains a media and fan darling. She also landed a better-paying gig at Vanderbilt starting as soon as Indiana is eliminated, but even though Phoenix looked awful too many times this season, it’s just one game – and this isn’t Brondello’s first rodeo. In-game coaching is far from an exact science, and though either one could draw up the brilliant play that wins the game, both are at the mercy of whether the shots fall. In other words, this too is even.
In conclusion: Can I go with “too close to call”? Didn’t think so. Forced to choose, I’ll go with Taurasi and Penny F. Taylor (you can guess what the “F” stands for). Phoenix by three.
Seattle (16-18) @ Atlanta (17-17)
8 p.m. (ET)
Point guard: Sue Bird has been the gold standard of point guards since she was in high school at Christ the King in New York City, and though she may be at the tail end of a brilliant career, she arguably had her best season since 2012. She shot 44.4% from beyond the arc, had a 2.3 A/TO, and is a classic veteran defender.
Layshia Clarendon was a shooting guard in Southern California and at Cal, and has had to learn how to play point guard at the professional level. She had a very good year in Atlanta managing a disjointed offense, but she’s still a long way from being a top-shelf point guard at this level.
And there’s a reason Bird’s nickname is “Die Bitches” – when push comes to shove late in the game, and in fact during all of the game, there’s a huge advantage to Seattle.
Shooting guard: In an inexcusable display, Tiffany Hayes picked up her seventh technical foul Sunday, and thus is ineligible for this one-game playoff. That means Matee Ajavon, one of the most ineffective players in the league this year, will have to play big minutes, and that spells disaster for Atlanta.
Of course, Dream fans can hope that Jewel Loyd has one of those two-for- 14 shooting games with lots of turnovers, but the second-year guard is slowly but surely figuring out what it means to be a professional – and this game could be a perfect showcase for her undeniable talent. If Loyd makes good decisions, Atlanta has no answer. Major edge to Seattle.
Small forward: The advanced analytics don’t love Alysha Clark, but Seattle fans do, and so do those who appreciate a player who understands her role and executes it extremely well. Leave Clark alone beyond the arc and she’ll bury a three; give her a passing angle and Breanna Stewart’s scoring inside. Is she undersized and not quite athletic enough? Yes, but given the presence of Bird, Stewart and Loyd, all she really needs to do is hold her own.
Most of the time, Clark can do just that, but Wednesday she draws Angel McCoughtry, and no one can hold her own against McCoughtry when she’s at the top of her game – no one. McCoughtry, at her best, is a spectacularly good player at both ends of the floor, and can impose her will on almost any game with her combination of physical skills and emotional intensity. That said, McCoughtry can be frustrated and pushed out of her sweet spot too easily, especially if she feels she has to do everything, which is the case with Hayes out. But still, McCoughtry is McCoughtry, and Alysha Clark isn’t – advantage Atlanta.
Power forward: If anyone was worried about Breanna Stewart making the jump to the WNBA, 34 games’ worth of results clearly showed that concern was misplaced. Stewart is a fabulous all-around player, and she has played in bigger games than this one, so don’t expect any kind of dropoff. With Bird getting her the ball, Clark setting up outside the arc and Loyd demanding attention, Stewart is pretty much unguardable – and without Sancho Lyttle, the Atlanta options are severely limited.
Then again, there are rumblings Lyttle will play, but even so, she’s missed 15 games and stepping onto the court at this point in the season is not exactly a guarantee of an exceptional performance.
If Lyttle can’t go, the likely starter is rookie Bria Holmes, who has played better and better as the season has worn on, but, to put it bluntly, she has no chance to guard Stewart. McCoughtry will probably give it a shot, but that’s a recipe for foul trouble. Rachel Hollivay? Markeisha Gatling? Please. Huge advantage Seattle.
Center: Elizabeth Williams emerged from the pack this year, and is a prime candidate for Most Improved Player – and she needs to display all of her shot-blocking, scoring and rebounding skills Wednesday night. She’s younger, taller, more athletic and a far better defender than Crystal Langhorne, and for Atlanta to win, she needs to make sure than Langhorne’s experience doesn’t erase those advantages. On the other end, if Langhorne can hit a few elbow jumpers and draw Williams away from the basket, that could open up the inside for Loyd and Stewart, and Langhorne’s 63% shooting percentage shows it’s possible. Still, this was Langhorne’s worst season in the WNBA since her first, in 2008, and Williams is
an up-and- coming star. Edge Atlanta.
Bench: Even if Hayes had kept her emotions in check, Atlanta was going to have some issues here, as even if Lyttle plays, expecting 30 effective minutes is pretty much out of the question. If Holmes can come off the bench, there’s something there, but if Holmes starts, well, there’s nothing.
On the other side, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis has been knocking down threes lately, Ramu Tokashiki can hit the midrange jumper and Noelle Quinn is a tall veteran option in the backcourt.
Or, to put it another way, advantage Seattle.
Coaching: Jenny Boucek has done an excellent job in Seattle this season, and taken a team most relegated to the lottery and guided it to a 16-18 record. She has the Storm playing well at just the right time, winning five of their last six, and has settled on a solid rotation.
Michael Cooper has never been one of my favorites, but he’s done a good job this year as well, as any team with Angel McCoughtry is going to be a challenge to coach. In one game, it’s unlikely the coaching will be decisive: Even.
In conclusion: You never know, and McCoughtry could go off, but it’s hard to see Seattle losing this one, even on the road. Storm by seven.