The 2015 WNBA regular season has come to a close, and as expected, the most dominant teams all season are in the top spots as the playoffs begin today.
The New York Liberty (23-11) and Minnesota Lynx (22-12) are the number one seeds in the Eastern and Western conferences, while the number two seeds, the Chicago Sky (21-13) and Phoenix Mercury (20-14), are no strangers to the postseason. Last year, the Mercury and Sky faced off for the championship, with the Mercury sweeping the series 3-0.
All four of these teams look to be a lock for a potential championship, but there are some possible roadblocks in their way. We're going to break down the first-round series in each conference, and show where there could be a major upset in the WNBA playoffs.
(1) NEW YORK LIBERTY VS (4) WASHINGTON MYSTICS
The Liberty have been the top team in the WNBA all season, with MVP candidate Tina Charles leading the charge. With her 17.1 points per game and 8.5 rebounds per game, it was no secret she was the glue that held the team together. That is not to say the rest of her team were slouches, however.
The Bill Laimbeer-coached Liberty had the best defensive rating in the league (93.3), while also allowing a league-low 70.2 points a game. The team also had significant contributions from Epiphanny Prince (15.0 ppg, ninth in WNBA) and Rookie of the Year candidate Kiah Stokes.
You also cannot forget their playoff experience. Laimbeer and forward Swin Cash were members of the 2003 Detroit Shock championship team; altogether the Liberty players have 134 games of playoff experience amongst them.
However, it is too soon to count out the Washington Mystics (18-16), who look to make their first-ever trip to the WNBA finals. Coach Mike Thibault, in his second season with the Mystics, has been to the playoffs 11 out of his 13 seasons as a coach. His team also has an 'all-in-line' philosophy; they are the only team in the league without a bonafide superstar, but managed to give teams fits.
The team's top three players, guard Ivory Latta and forwards Emma Meesseman and Stefanie Dolson, played all 34 games this season, serving as the anchors of the Mystics. Meesseman (46%) and Dolson (47.6%) shot nearly 50% from the three-point line this season, while Meesseman was second overall in field goal percentage with 55.6 percent.
The team also has a lot of depth coming off the bench; veteran guard Kara Lawson can still provide some much-needed speed, and center Kia Vaughn rebounded from an injury-riddled start to her season to give some rebounding help.
Also, the Mystics were third in the league in defensive rating, at 97.9. With the potential of Meesseman and Dolson scoring in bunches in the frontcourt, the Liberty could have some trouble on their hands.
History also has not been kind to the Liberty. They have been to the WNBA Finals four times, but none since 2002. They also have the most Finals appearances without winning a championship. At least they can take solace in the fact they've been to the championship more recently than their male counterparts (the New York Knicks) in recent seasons.
PREDICTION: LIBERTY IN THREE
(2) CHICAGO SKY VS (4) INDIANA FEVER
Chicago has a lot of reasons they should win. They have a chip on their shoulders from being swept last year by Phoenix in the championship; they've got a lot of depth on their team; and they've also brought in some valuable experience in the form of Cappie Pondexter and Erika de Souza.
However, the Sky's hope and dreams rest in the hands of their do-it-all superstar, Elena Delle Donne. After a year where she was fairly unhealthy, she rebounded quite nicely to take over the league.
She led the league in points per game at 23.4 ppg; nearly three points higher than the second-place player, Minnesota's Maya Moore. She also was third in the league in rebounding and set the league record for free throw percentage, at 95 percent.
The team as a whole were dominating on the offensive end, averaging a league-high 82.8 points per game. They also averaged a league-low 12.2 turnovers a game. Unfortunately, they are about to face their toughest defensive challenge yet.
Enter the Indiana Fever. Their defense forced the most turnovers per game during the season, at 16.2 a game. Their offense also caught fire after a slow start, finishing the season as the best three-point shooting team, averaging 36 percent.
The team also has many people on their team who can score. Although their leading scorer, forward Tamika Catchings, only averaged 13.1 points per game, they did had six other players average at least eight points per game. They also had twelve players average at least 10 minutes a game.
The 'catch' here is Catchings herself. At 35 years old, she made it to her 10th All-Star game, climbed to third all-time in rebounding, and provided stable leadership for a team who is starting to rally around first-year coach Stephanie White. Catchings is also one of three players on the team from their 2012 championship team, along with Briann January and Shavonte Zellous.
The Fever have also done something the Sky or no other team can boast about: the Fever have been to the playoffs a league record 11 straight seasons.
PREDICTION: FEVER IN THREE
(1) MINNESOTA LYNX VS (4) LOS ANGELES SPARKS
If there was a 'must-see' series, this series might be it. You've got two of the league's most dynamic players facing off against each other in Maya Moore and the Sparks' Candace Parker, and you have a team who's won two of the last five championships going against a team who hasn't been to the Finals since 2003.
Let's start with the Lynx. Besides Moore, whose accomplishments speak for themselves, they also have a lot of players who are responsible for their success, guard Anna Cruz, who came to the team after spending her rookie season last year in New York, put in a solid performance as Lindsay Whalen's backup when she was hurt.
When Whalen was on the floor, she was a great asset at the free throw line, averaging 88.2 percent, good enough for ninth in the league. And of course, you have center Sylvia Fowles, acquired midseason in a three-tea deal involving the Sky and the Atlanta Dream. Fowles, who had sat out all season in Chicago before the deal, managed to end up eighth in the league in field goal percentage with 50.7 percent.
Head coach Cheryl Reeve, who has overseen both of the Lynx' championship runs, has the team running on all cylinders. Since she has taken over as the team's head coach, she has lead the team to three championship appearances in four years (2011-13), and is one of only four coaches in the league's history to win at least 60% of their games (the others being Dream coach Michael Cooper, Thibault and former Houston Comets coach Van Chancellor).
The Los Angeles Sparks, however, have to be the biggest surprise in this year's playoffs. After starting the season with seven straight losses, the team did just enough to get to the playoffs; albeit with the worst record of any team going into the playoffs (14-20). You have to give credit to first-year coach Brian Agler for being able to right the ship and keep the team composed.
He couldn't have done it without help, however. A lot of that help came from Jantel Lavender and Nneka Ogwumike, who served as the primary threats all season long. Ogwumike averaged 16.5 points per game, and Lavender was in the top 15 in both scoring and rebounding (14.5 ppg, 12th/ 8.3 rpg , 4th). However, that may not have been enough to keep the team in fourth if it had not been for the return of their best player in Parker.
Parker, who had sat out the first half of the season to spend more time with her family, set the world on fire upon her return. Her 19.4 points per game (in only 16 games) would have been fourth-best in the league if she were eligible, and her 10.1 rebounds would have been best in the league by almost a full rebound. Her return has given the Sparks some much needed moral support, and gave the team a fighting chance in the West.
The only downside for them is their experience; they only have one player who has a championship ring (Alana Beard), and the team hasn't been to the finals since Michael Cooper was their coach back in 2003.
PREDICTION: BARRING A MAJOR COLLAPSE, LYNX SWEEP 2-0
(2) PHOENIX MERCURY VS. (3)TULSA SHOCK
It goes without saying that the defending champions should always be the favorites. But in the case of the Phoenix Mercury, there are some question marks.
To be fair, they do have Brittney Griner as their center. Tulsa does not, and that doesn't bode well for them. Griner missed the first seven games of the season due to a domestic dispute with her now ex-wife Glory Johnson...and STILL had 36 more blocks than anyone else in the league. She averaged 4.1 blocks a game.
The team also had significant contributions from DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree, whom both finished in the top 15 in scoring (Bonner finished 5th with 15.8 ppg, and Dupree finished 13th with 14.1 ppg). The Mercury also hold a major advantage at home, going 12-4 during the 2015 regular season. Including last year's regular season and the playoffs, the Mercury have gone 33-6 at the US Airways Center since 2014.
The biggest downfall compared to last year's team is the loss of team captain (and top scorer in Mercury history) Diana Taurasi. Taurasi, who was ordered by her Russian league team to sit out the 2015 season, made the league's scariest one-two punch with Griner to lead the Mercury to their first championship since 2009.
The Tulsa Shock are quite that...shocking. The Shock had not been to the playoffs since 2008, back when they were in Detroit, MI. As the Detroit Shock, they had won three championships in four appearances. In Tulsa, the performance has been so bad the owners decided this was going to be their last season in Tulsa. After this season is over the Shock will be moving to Dallas/Fort Worth, TX.
That's not to say the team isn't any good. The Shock do have guard Riquna Williams, the league's sixth-leading scorer (15.6 ppg), and they also have the league's top rebounder in Courtney Paris (9.3 rpg). The Shock also had significant contributions from 34-year old Plenette Pierson (who was with the Shock when they last won a championship back in 2008) and Odyssey Sims, who averaged 31.4 minutes a game to go along with 16 points per game.
Keep in mind; the Shock went through the entire regular season without regular starting forward Glory Johnson, who sat out due to being pregnant with twins. They also went most of the season without their best overall player, Skylar Diggins, who tore her ACL in the team's ninth game of the year.At the time of her injury, the former no.3 overall pick was leading the team in scoring (17.8 ppg) and minutes (32.3 mpg).
PREDICTION: MERCURY IN TWO, BUT DON'T BE SURPRISED TO SEE A THREE-GAME SERIES. IF THAT DOES HAPPEN, PREPARE FOR A POSSIBLE UPSET.
Make sure you heat up some popcorn; these playoffs are bound to be more exciting than Floyd Mayweather's last fight.