It’s one-and-done in the WNBA playoffs, again. By Clay Kallam
The second set of single-elimination playoff games is this weekend, and after Phoenix outlasted Indiana, and Angel McCoughtry’s spectacular performance sparked Atlanta past Seattle, now Chicago and New York join the party.
The winner of these games will move to the semifinals, which will be three-out- of-five games against Minnesota and Los Angeles, the league’s top two teams, so expect to see the best from all four teams.
The big questions: Can New York slow down the Phoenix offense enough for its advantage on the boards to determine the outcome? Can Chicago slow down Angel McCoughtry enough to let its depth decide the game?
Phoenix at New York
Saturday, 7 p.m., NBA-TV
Point guard: Given Sandy Brondello’s odd use of Diana Taurasi in the win over Indiana, maybe Marta Xargay should be in this spot, but presumably Brondello will realize that having Taurasi stand in a corner and never touch the ball isn’t exactly the best use of one of the greatest players ever. That said, of course, Taurasi’s attempts at defense make her a liability at one end, but that’s true of the entire Mercury team, which appears to gaze upon defense as a particularly nasty communicable disease.
Still, stopping Taurasi is a key, and neither of Bill Laimbeer’s options appear to be that great. Tanisha Wright has the experience but not the athleticism; Brittany Boyd has the athleticism but is a little undersized and only a second-year player. The hope that Epiphanny Prince could be effective this year seems to have been dashed, but perhaps more recovery time will get her closer to her one-time status as an elite guard. If Prince can step in and deliver solid minutes as a lead guard, the equation changes, but Taurasi is, well, Taurasi. Edge to Phoenix.
Shooting guard: Sugar Rodgers is a much improved player, though PER (the analytic rating system used in the NBA and WNBA) doesn’t rate her as much above average – maybe because consistency has been an issue. But she’s made threes this year, made free throws and harnessed that undoubted athletic ability much more than in the past.
Xargay wasn’t particulary effective in the win over Indiana, missing three of her four shots and half of her free throws, and the metrics cast her as the worst starter on either roster. So the question here isn’t whether New York has an edge, but rather how much of an edge? If Rodgers brings her A game, it’s a huge advantage; if she doesn’t shoot well from the perimeter, the Liberty are still ahead. I’ll split the difference: Solid advantage for New York.
Small forward: Penny Taylor, like Taurasi, is one of the great players of the 21 st century, and she also plays hard at both ends of the floor, a concept foreign to most who wear the Phoenix uniform. She wasn’t great against Indiana, but she was very good in her 30 minutes – and that’s the floor for Taylor. If she gets close to her ceiling Saturday, New York has some issues, as Swin Cash, who probably will start, no longer can defend her. Rebecca Allen, who’s started late in the year, might have a better shot, but Taylor’s probably been schooling her in Australian pickup games since Allen was a teenager.
Taylor, like the just-retired Delisha Milton, is one of the most underrated players in the modern game, and she could single handedly turn this game around. Major edge to Phoenix.
Power forward: Tina Charles could easily be the official MVP, and is clearly one of the top two players in the WNBA right now. She led the league in scoring and rebounding, and averaged nearly four assists a game. She can score inside and out, and is a strong defender, though she knows she must stay out of foul trouble.
Phoenix will counter, sort of, with Candace Dupree, whose complete indifference to defense or rebounding offset her athleticism and superb shooting. Dupree seemed to barely try against Indiana unless the ball was in her hands, and a similar attitude Saturday will cause some serious issues – even if she’s crossmatched with Carolyn Swords or Amanda Zahui B. Both will do just what Erlana Larkins and Tamika Catchings did Wednesday, which is crash the offensive boards, and New York will get many extra shots.
If Dupree can turn the intensity up from invisible to merely below-average, the Mercury’s chances of winning increase significantly. Still, advantage New York.
Center: Carolyn Swords might be the most anonymous 34-game starter in the postseason, but she averaged 10.7 points and 9.6 rebounds per 36 minutes of court time – and she certainly has the size and bulk to make life hard for Brittany Griner. Amanda Zahui B played more down the stretch, and had some nice games, but she faded a little late and just doesn’t seem quite ready for the playoff spotlight.
Griner, of course, has all the tools but remains enigmatic. She might be the best shot-blocker to ever play the game, she can score inside and she’s a very good free-throw shooter, but she doesn’t really rebound, and seemed lost defensively against Indiana. But fully engaged and confident, she’s the best post player in the world (even though that doesn’t happen very often). Advantage Phoenix.
Bench: It’s DeWanna Bonner against the world here, as Bonner is pretty much the only person Sandy Brondello can call on who’s shown any kind of consistency. In fact, she probably should be starting, but if she did, Phoenix would have zero coming off the bench and be incredibly vulnerable when the starters had to rest.
Laimbeer, though, has many options, especially if Kiah Stokes is healthy. That’s an unknown, but given that she’s missed seven games, even if she returns, she can’t be expected to be the defensive and rebounding machine she usually is. And if Allen starts, Cash comes off the bench (or vice versa). Brittany Boyd’s electric athleticism can energize the team, especially if she makes a couple jumpers, and who knows what Prince will bring?
It’s one game, though, and expect Brondello to ride her top six as hard as possible in this do-or- die playoff. Laimbeer, however, has many more options and many more cards to play. Big edge to New York.
Coaching: Brondello, for no apparent reason, had Taylor out of the game late in the fourth quarter Wednesday, and both could only watch as Indiana cut into the lead – a surge aided by Brondello’s insistence that Taurasi stand in the corner and let Xargay handle the ball. These are not smart moves.
Laimbeer is a winner, and has had plenty of time to get ready for this one. Advantage New York.
In conclusion: Of course Phoenix could win, as the Mercury could a) score 90 points (given all that talent) or b) actually defend and rebound. But more likely, New York grinds them down and the Liberty win by five.
Atlanta at Chicago
Sunday, 1 p.m. ESPN2
Point guard: We’ll call Courtney Vandersloot the point guard, even though she and Jamierra Faulkner both play that role, but the problem is they can’t pass the ball to Elena Delle Donne, who’s out with an injured thumb. Vandersloot also battled injuries this year and started just 21 games, but she’s played better since the Olympic break, which is a very good sign. With EDD out, Vandersloot needs to score as well as pass, and she’s a smart enough player to know that.
Layshia Clarendon, though, has the defensive chops to slow her down, and is playing with more and more confidence every game. She hit some big shots in Wednesday’s win, and though she’s not quite at Vandersloot’s level, she’s close enough to call this even.
Shooting guard: With Tiffany Hayes back after inexcusably missing the first playoff game due to too many technical fouls, the seesaw definitely tilts more in Atlanta’s favor. Still, Cappie Pondexter is well rested (she hasn’t played in more than a week), and has been showing signs of being the Cappie of old down the stretch.
This matchup really comes down to which player makes more outside shots, and history suggests that will be Pondexter – though Hayes is a better defender. Hayes also gets to the line more than anyone in the league and could cause some foul trouble for Chicago, but still, edge to Chicago.
Small forward: Did you see the game Wednesday? If so, there’s no need to discuss much here: Angel McCoughtry is phenomenal. When she plays at that level, it would be hard to argue there’s anyone better in the WNBA, or the world. Of course, she doesn’t always go 14 for 21 from the field, have seven assists to just two turnovers and make three of four threes, but she’s shown that, in the playoffs, she can string together a series of improbably excellent games.
If Delle Donne were playing, then this would be more interesting, but Tamera Young has a reputation as a good defender, so maybe that won’t work too much against Chicago. But if McCoughtry is in that same zone, Young isn’t good enough – and probably no one is – to slow her down. Big advantage Atlanta.
Power forward: Presumably Sancho Lyttle is still out, and even if she’s healthy, Michael Cooper may go with Bria Holmes again. The rookie has improved steadily through the season and played her best game Wednesday – and she will be a matchup issue for the Sky, as Jessica Breland will have trouble keeping up with her. Pokey Chatman could slide Young to the four, Pondexter to the three and insert Jamierra Faulkner at the two, but then Chicago is dangerously small.
Breland, though, isn’t a bad call, as she averaged 12.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per 36 minutes, and shot 49.4% from the field, so expect her to start – and hope Holmes comes back to earth. Then again, Lyttle might be ready, and that would be a better matchup for Breland, though Lyttle, healthy, is a better player. Uncertainty swirls in this matchup, so call it even.
Center: Imani Boyette has been a revelation this year, but the rookie fouls way too much and struggles at the free-throw line. Elizabeth Williams, on the other hand, has blossomed after figuring things out at the pro level, and will be a big problem for Boyette at both ends of the floor.
If Boyette can stay out of foul trouble, she might make things difficult for Williams, but don’t expect either to happen. Edge to Chicago.
Bench: Erika deSouza has thrived off the bench, which gives the Sky some punch when the subs come in, and either Faulkner or Young will be available as well, so Chicago has options. On top of that, Allie Quigley is available and though she didn’t have a great year this season, she’s certainly capable of lighting it up from outside.
Atlanta, on the other hand, doesn’t have that kind of depth, especially if Lyttle is out or hampered. Meighan Simmons will shoot (and miss) way too often, young posts Reshanda Gray and Rachel Hollivay are erratic at best, and Carla Cortijo just doesn’t bring much to the table. Another advantage Chicago.
Coaching: Michael Cooper is getting credit for his switch to a zone against Seattle, but if the Storm had made open threes – as they had done all season – people wouldn’t be so positive. But the 2-3 and the box-and- one worked thanks to missed shots, and credit has to be given to Cooper for dialing them up and putting pressure on Seattle’s shooters.
Pokey Chatman has gotten her fair share of criticism this year, but she integrated Boyette into the lineup and coaxed a good year out of Pondexter. She’ll be challenged, though, by the absence of EDD, but she does have some cards to play. This one’s even.
In conclusion: Atlanta has the advantage in only part of this analysis, and is even in three others – but that one advantage is Angel McCoughtry. I’ve always felt that in a close game, the team with the better player has the advantage, and if this game is close late, then that player is Angel McCoughtry. Atlanta by two.