Yet, here we are, on the eve of the second round of the playoffs, and we are looking at the eighth-seeded Phoenix Mercury as the team with their backs against the wall.
Saturday’s second round matchup of the eighth-seeded Mercury and third-seeded New York Liberty will serve as one of the biggest tests for both teams this season, as each team will have plenty of questions that need to be answered.
Does the Liberty have the bench depth to be able to overcome Phoenix’s three-headed monster of Griner, Taurasi and DeWanna Bonner? Can Phoenix contain MVP candidate Tina Charles? Let’s take a look at each team here.
#3 NEW YORK LIBERTY
The third-seeded Liberty finished with a 21-13 record, which was the best mark in the Eastern Conference. However, the end of the season didn’t end so well for New York, as they finished with a 3-5 record. On top of that, the Liberty finished the season with only EIGHT healthy players, which doesn’t speak well for a single-elimination format.
New York head coach Bill Laimbeer talked to the New York Times earlier in the week about his feelings on the program, and he didn’t pull any punches.
“A coach will say that this format is awful,” Laimbeer said. “You can play an entire season and be very successful, and you play one game, and you have bad calls, or you have a sprained ankle, or you have somebody ill - they can’t play and oops, you’re out in one game after a whole season.”
Laimbeer has never been one to make excuses for his teams, but one can’t help but look at his current roster - with injuries to Kiah Stokes, Tanisha Wright, Shavonte Zellous and Epiphanny Prince - and help but think he might be a little unhappy with this format.
However, there are a lot of bright spots for the New York Liberty, starting with WNBA Peak Performer Tina Charles. It’s no surprise that Charles is a superstar; what’s surprising was the level in which she performed this season.
The 6’4” Charles became just the third player in WNBA HISTORY (and first Liberty player) to lead the league in both scoring (21.5, eclipsing her previous career high of 18.0 set in 2012 and 2013) and rebounding (9.9), giving Charles her fourth rebounding title and first since her trifecta from 2010-12).
While Charles may not be solely responsible for the Liberty being successful, she is definitely the driving force behind the wheel.
The Liberty also have backup in Sugar Rodgers, who may end up the Most Improved Player of the Year. Rodgers broke the franchise single-season record for three-pointers in a season (86) and improved her scoring output from 8.1 last season (her previous career-high) to a new high for her, 14.5, while shooting .415 from 3-point range, fifth in the league.
#8 PHOENIX MERCURY
The Phoenix Mercury didn’t exactly set the world on fire this season, finishing 16-18 and barely clinching their spot in the playoffs in the second-to-last game of the season. However, the team also lost their first three games in September and had to win three of the last four to even make it in.
Phoenix should have a little more confidence going into this game after their first-round win over the Indiana Fever on Wednesday. The team had five players score in double figures, with Diana Taurasi leading the charge with a game-high 20. Also in Phoenix’s favor: they have DeWanna Bonner, bench extraordinaire, who chimed in with 18 points in the team’s 89-78 win.
The upside for the Mercury: they have a full, healthy roster. The three players that Phoenix sat on Wednesday were all DNP-Coach’s Decision, and are all available for Saturday. The downside for the Mercury: the lost the season series to New York 2-1, including a 92-70 flop in New York on Sept. 3.
If they plan on beating the Liberty, they will have to be a lot more consistency from their bench. Phoenix’s bench players (Bonner, Kelsey Bone, Lindsey Harding and Mistie Bass) combined for 22 points in Wednesday’s win, but 18 of those came from Bonner. Phoenix may have a full bench, but they will have to add a lot more scoring to counteract the twin attack of Tina Charles and Sugar Rodgers.
No matter what, this Saturday’s game will be full of excitement and anticipation. The winner of this game will go on to face the second-seeded Los Angeles Sparks in the semifinals.