The WNBA’s Final Four start Wednesday by Clay Kallam
The time for whining over the single-elimination playoff format the WNBA introduced into the first rounds of this year’s postseason is over. Now we have two best-of- five series matching the best four teams in the league. (Sorry, New York fans, but the Liberty’s weaknesses were brutally exposed by Phoenix on Wednesday.)
Of course, the advantage of a five-game series is that the better team has a better chance to advance, and the greater number of games looks to be an advantage for the two teams that finished with the top records during the regular season, Minnesota and Los Angeles. Minnesota should be able to apply its superior depth to pressure and eventually break Phoenix, while the Sparks don’t have to worry about single-game explosions from players like Tamera Young and Jessica Breland to derail them.
There is little room for rest between games, and there will be some wear and tear involved, but these are veteran players use to playing year-round so in the end, barring an unforeseen injury, it should just come down to which is the better team. And over 34 games, Los Angeles and Minnesota were the better teams – and there is no reason to expect that to change now.
Phoenix at Minnesota
Wednesday, 8 PM
Point guard: Marta Xargay is clearly the point guard for Phoenix now. She brings the ball up, initiates the offense, and is the best perimeter defender on the Mercury. That said, when it matters most Diana Taurasi should have the ball in her hands. For the bulk of the game though, Xargay will run the show and though she doesn’t do anything particularly well, she doesn’t do anything particularly poorly either. And with her in the starting lineup, Sandy Brondello can bring DeWanna Bonner off the bench, which keeps the Mercury offense humming no matter who’s in there. And given the way Phoenix defends, the offense needs to keep humming.
On the other side is Lindsay Whalen – WNBA All-Star, Olympian, and one of the best point guards of her era. Whalen isn’t what she used to be, but she’s still awfully good. And her biggest weakness, on the defensive end, doesn’t really apply here because Xargay can’t score. This is a huge advantage Minnesota.
Shooting guard: Seimone Augustus returned from the Olympics rejuvenated, and she needs to continue shooting well and playing well for the Lynx to roll through this series as many expect. Augustus, though, has always had holes in her game and at 32, her weaknesses are even more pronounced. Still, like Whalen, she’s a WNBA All-Star, an Olympian and one of the best players of her era.
Diana Taurasi, on the other hand, is one of the great players of all time. She showed her true colors in the one-game playoff against New York, and if she keeps her emotions under control, doesn’t try to do too much, and stays out of foul trouble, she’s the one person in this series who can impose her will on the game. Advantage Phoenix.
Small forward: Maya Moore might just be the best player in the game; at one point, the argument could have been made that Penny Taylor qualified for that always arguable honor. But Taylor’s prime was a decade ago – and she was Most Valuable Player of the 2006 World Championships – but now she relies on cunning, intensity and effort.
Moore can do pretty much everything; Taylor used to be able to do pretty much everything. That was then, however, and this is now. Advantage Minnesota.
Power forward: Candace Dupree and Rebekkah Brunson are pretty much at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Dupree is a silky smooth shooter who occasionally rebounds and defends, while Brunson is a beast on the boards, never gives up on a play, and can go for long stretches when making anything outside four feet is a mountain she cannot climb.
Dupree did well against Tina Charles, though inexplicably the Liberty chose not to throw Charles the ball in the second half, but her assignment against Brunson is in some ways tougher. Brunson wants to rebound and be physical, and Dupree really doesn’t want to do either of those things. On the other hand, if Brunson gets too eager for rebounds, Dupree will make her patented 13-foot set shot over and over again, and the Lynx could be in trouble.
If Brunson is making her elbow jumpers, she’s a load; if Dupree decides to defend and rebound, she’s a very good player. There’s really no way to tell which version of which player will show up, so we’ll call this even.
Center: Like Augustus, Brittney Griner has played better since returning from Rio, and she was extremely good against New York. If she continues to play at that level, even the marvelous Sylvia Fowles could have some problems, which means this will be one of the most interesting matchups of the entire postseason.
Fowles is a physical, inside player who is really an old-school center. Griner loves to block shots, features turnaround fallaways, and really doesn’t like to mix it up on the boards. Griner is a good passer, Fowles is not; both however share the center’s weakness for fouls – though Fowles’ experience may come into play here.
Just as at power forward, it really depends on who shows up on what night. Over five games, if it goes that far, both players will probably have good nights and average nights. So again, it’s even.
Bench: Minnesota has one, Phoenix does not. In that one game against New York, the lack of depth was not an issue for the Mercury, but in a five-game series, with not that much time between games, the fact that Cheryl Reeve can call on a host of experienced, talented players to come off the bench could be crucial. Renee Montgomery, Jia Perkins, Janelle McCarville, and even Natasha Howard and Anna Cruz can give the Lynx positive minutes. For Phoenix the list starts and ends with Bonner and that not only is a big problem, it could be the deciding factor if this series goes five games. Major advantage Minnesota.
Coach: It sometimes seems that Brondello talks but the Mercury don’t listen, and that never really seems to be the case with Minnesota. But even though the Mercury struggled through much of the season, they did what they had to do when they had to do it. Minnesota did it all season long, and so you have to give Reeve credit for that. Reeve has also won a couple of championships and that’s on the plus side for her as well. Advantage Minnesota.
In conclusion: Coaches love to believe that a team can’t turn it on and turn it off, but the harsh truth is that veteran teams can do just that – as Phoenix has shown. The Mercury have very good players, but only six of them. It’s unlikely that will be enough to overcome an equally talented Minnesota team with much more depth and the home-court advantage. Minnesota in four.
Chicago at Los Angeles
Wednesday, 10 p.m.
Point guard: Kristi Toliver is really a shooting guard but in this misaligned Los Angeles roster she shifts over to the point. She’s done very well in that spot, averaging nearly 5 assists a game and she remains an exceptional shooter and clutch player. No one, however, has ever accused her of being a demon defender, and Courtney Vandersloot will give her all she can handle.
And there are those who say Vandersloot is the best point guard in the WNBA, at least with the ball in her hands. She’s a good shooter, an excellent passer, and has matured into a steady reliable quarterback of an offense that has made a quick adjustment to the absence of Elena Delle Donne. Vandersloot missed some time with injury this year, but has played very well recently and will make Toliver work hard on the defensive end of the floor.
So what we have here are two point guards who are great with the ball in their hands, and not so good trying to keep other point guards from doing what they want to do. The easy way out? Call this even.
Shooting guard: It’s unlikely that familiarity has bred contempt between Cappie Poindexter and Alana Beard, two essentially 34-year- old veterans who have faced off too many times to count, both here and overseas.
Pondexter, in her prime, was an unstoppable scorer, while Beard was and is an exceptional defender. Pondexter is adequate defensively, and Beard can make the midrange jumper. Beard is taller and a better rebounder but Pondexter is the more efficient ballhandler. You pays your money, and you takes your choice – even.
Small forward: Tamera Young and Essence Carson are another pair of solid veterans, but neither is a consistent offensive weapon. When Young scores, and she did against Atlanta in the single-elimination game, she’s an extremely valuable member of any team, and the same could be said of Carson.
Oddly enough, these bit players could turn out being pivotal in the series – if one of them can consistently score, it could tilt the scales in what in many other cases is an even series. Still, another one in the even category.
Power forward: Candace Parker, clearly stung by her Olympic rejection, played extremely well in the first half of the season, as did the Sparks, but both struggled a bit after the Olympic break, and weren’t quite up to their previous standards. Still, Parker is one of the best players in the world and at 6-5, passes like a guard, can shoot threes and even occasionally mixes it up in the paint.
If Chicago had Elena Delle Donne, out with a thumb injury, this would be a very interesting matchup but after Wednesday’s performance, Pokey Chatman is going to have to go with Jessica Breland again, and hope that she can come close to replicating her outstanding performance against New York. Otherwise, there’s no one who could really even try to match up with Parker, not even Cheyenne Parker, so Breland needs to be effective, and stay out of foul trouble. Even if she does, though, this is still a major advantage Los Angeles.
Center: The Associated Press named Nneka Ogwumike the Most Valuable Player in the WNBA, and though there may be legitimate arguments against her getting that award, she still clearly has been one of the two or three top players in the league in 2016. Ogwumike did it all this year, shooting a phenomenal 66.5% from the field, making 86.9% of her free throws, grabbing rebounds, and even had a 1.5 assist/turnover ratio. She’s tremendously athletic, very quick to the hoop and a load to defend. With Parker getting her the ball – and at 6-5, Parker can see over defenders and find Ogwumike with ease – the Stanford grad has had her way with almost every defense all season long.
The Sky, on the other hand, have to rely on rookie Imani Boyette, though at 6-7, Boyette is a true center, not a converted power forward like Ogwumike. Boyette, however, is still young and raw at both ends of the court and if nothing else, gets herself into foul trouble way too easily.
Ogwumike is an accomplished veteran at the top of her game, Boyette is a youngster trying to prove herself. It doesn’t take much analytical ability to classify this one is a major advantage Los Angeles.
Bench: This is where L.A.’s crudely constructed roster comes into play, as the top player off the bench is Jantel Lavender, who merely reinforces the strong points of the Sparks as a scoring center/power forward. Lavender is a very tough cover, as she can shoot from 15 feet, and knows how to play close to the basket. After that, though, the cupboard is pretty bare for Brian Agler – even if he ever did want to use his bench, which history suggests (rather strongly) that he doesn’t. Chelsea Gray has delivered some good minutes as a backup point guard, but she is still inconsistent, and a trio of European backup perimeter players have yet to produce anything significant.
On the other hand, Chicago can bring in Jamierra Faulkner to play point guard and lose almost nothing, and Erika DeSouza has been surprisingly effective in limited minutes off the bench backing up Boyette. And don’t forget Allie Quigley, the 2015 Sixth Player of the Year, who may be breaking out of a season- long shooting slump at just the right time. That’s three options for Pokey Chatman and really just one for Brian Agler so it’s pretty clear the advantage here goes to Chicago.
Coaching: Brian Agler has gotten a bad rap over the years for not winning as many playoff games as some have felt he should but he is a consummate professional basketball coach. He has turned around a struggling Sparks’ franchise, come up with an antidote for a poisonous locker room, and helped Ogwumike develop into one of the best players in the league.
Chatman too has come under fire for her decisions in the past, but she has done a wonderful job of rallying the Sky after the loss of Delle Donne. Both are high quality WNBA coaches, and so once again call it even.
In conclusion: It comes down to this: Can Chicago’s superior depth overcome the advantages L.A. has in Ogwumike and Candace Parker? The answer, in a word, is no. Los Angeles in four.