Are we looking at a potential repeat of the 2016 WNBA Finals?
Or could we possibly see a new rivalry blossom?
This is the fun that we call the WNBA Playoffs: 2017 Edition. So let’s begin with the first round matchups, where we’ll see one team with a lot to lose, two that are looking to prove they are better than their record shows, and a team that missed last year’s playoffs after three consecutive trips to the conference semifinals.
FIRST ROUND (WEDNESDAY 9/6)
#8 SEATTLE STORM v. #5 PHOENIX MERCURY (Mercury won season series 2-1)
One would think after facing each other five times already (both teams split the preseason series 1-1), that the spark would be gone from this opening postseason matchup.
If anything, this spark has ignited into a flame. Seattle, who didn’t clinch a playoff spot until Friday night, is looking to avoid a repeat performance of last year, when they ended a two-year postseason drought only to be bounced in the first round by the Atlanta Dream.
Under interim head coach Gary Kloppenburg, who took over in mid-August after the firing of Jenny Boucek, Seattle won five of their final seven games to clinch their ticket in. With their triple-headed monster of Breanna Stewart (19.9 PPG, 8.7 RPG), Jewell Loyd (17.7 PPG, 1.3 SPG) and all-time assist leader Sue Bird (2,610 assists, 6.6 APG this season), they come into the postseason looking to prove their 15-19 record was simply a fluke and nothing more.
Then you have the Phoenix Mercury, who barely clinched their fifth consecutive playoff appearance. And by barely, it took a Chicago Sky loss with two games left in the season for Phoenix to secure their spot.
This Mercury team, unlike most years, has a lot to lose by an early-round exit. With the all-time points leader (and three-pointers) in Diana Taurasi and this year’s scoring and blocks leader in Brittney Griner (21.9 PPG, 2.5 BPG), the Mercury also come in as the most successful team, having won three championships in the last 10 years.
However, the Mercury have reason to be cautious. The last two seasons have seen them swept in the semifinals (both times by the Minnesota Lynx), and while they won their last three games, they also lost the previous three games by a combined 79 points to the Connecticut Sun (94-66, Aug. 20), Lynx (105-69, Aug, 22) and the Los Angeles Sparks (82-67, Aug. 24), the #4, #1 and #2 seeds, respectively.
And while we may not see a complete reset like the 2011 Washington Mystics, a third consecutive early exit would definitely make upper management consider making some changes to a roster where only four players have more than five years experience.
#7 DALLAS WINGS v. #6 WASHINGTON MYSTICS (Wings won season series 2-1)
The Dallas Wings and Washington Mystics may have stumbled into the most intriguing matchup in the playoffs.
On one hand, you have the Wings, who are only in the playoffs for the second time in the last eight seasons. However, in their second season in Dallas, this young team has all the makings of a surprise contender.
The surprise emergence of rookie Allisha Gray (two-time Rookie of the Month), combined with a fully healthy duo of Skylar Diggins-Smith and Glory Johnson, pushed their way into the seventh seed after winning three of the last five games.
This is where it gets tricky. Dallas’ leading blocker was Diggins-Smith (0.9 BPG), who is also 5’9”, a stark contrast to the top two scorers for their opponent (Elena Delle Donne and Emma Meesseman are 6’5” and 6’4” respectively).
And while their overall defensive rating was second in the league (107.4), their rebounding and blocking percentage is below Washington, which is troubling considering that their opponents overall outmatched the Wings in both categories (34.7 RPG/4.6 BPG compared to Dallas’ 34.5 RPG/3.7 BPG).
Swish Appeal Exclusive: Dallas head coach Fred Williams previews today’s game
Washington, after a particularly rough 2016 season that saw them miss the playoffs for the first time in the Mike Thibault era, did a complete overhaul in the offseason. The overhaul saw key contributors in Bria Hartley, Kia Vaughn and Stefanie Dolson in different uniforms, but also brought in star power in the form of Elena Delle Donne and Kristi Toliver. Those changes led to a surprising 6-2 start to the season and helped the Mystics get back to their winning ways.
Washington got lucky clinching a home elimination game, as they finished the season with an 11-6 record at home. However, their struggle will be in getting the ball around, which plays to Dallas’ defensive strength.
The Mystics led their opponents in nearly every category but three-point shooting and steals, the former which should have been solved with the additions of Delle Donne and Toliver (Delle Donne - 42.6 percent in 2016, 38.8 in 2017; Toliver - 42.4 percent in 2016, 33.8 in 2017). The Mystics slipped from fourth to 10th in overall team three-point shooting, which Dallas will use to its advantage and force Washington to beat them from inside the paint.
THE TOP FOUR SEEDS
#4 CONNECTICUT SUN
This year’s version of the Sun may be the biggest wild card in the playoffs. After four years of finishing in the cellar, head coach Curt Miller steered a dramatic turnaround, leading the team to the fourth best record in the league (21-13), and finishing in the top five in seven statistical categories.
Fueling that rise was second-year forward/center Jonquel Jones, who has gone from seldom used rookie to All-Star and possible MVP candidate in one year. Not only did she finish as the league leader in rebounds (11.6) and set the single-season record for rebounds in a season (403), she also finished second in the league in three-points percentage (44.6) to the player the Sun traded for Jones, Chelsea Gray of the Los Angeles Sparks.
This year’s Sun squad also sent three players (Jones, Alyssa Thomas and Jasmine Thomas) and their head coach to the All-Star Game, while pulling off the biggest improvement upon this year’s playoff teams.
#3 NEW YORK LIBERTY
The Liberty, after finishing the best record in the Eastern Conference for the third season in a row (22-12), are under increased pressure to take that finish and turn it into a spot in the WNBA Finals, something they haven’t accomplished since 2002.
While that seems easy to do on paper (the Liberty have MVP candidate Tina Charles and head coach Bill Laimbeer, who is the longest tenured coach in the league and 2015 Coach of the Year), they have a tendency of falling short when the playoffs start.
Since 2010, they have made the playoffs five times, losing either in the conference finals, semifinals or second round. And among teams that have made the WNBA Finals, they hold the record for most appearances without a championship (0-4).
This year, though, has given the team and fans reason to be optimistic. The Liberty is the league’s hottest team, riding a 10-game winning streak into the postseason. They also were the league leader in rebounds, averaging 38.7 a game.
#2 LOS ANGELES SPARKS
It’s rare that you ever talk about the defending champions as an underdog, but here we are in 2017, and the Sparks are considered the underdog to defend their title...despite the fact that they are the last team to win back-to-back titles (more on that later).
This year’s squad was led by franchise cornerstones Candace Parker and 2016 MVP Nneka Ogwumike, but also had a lot of contributions from new faces as well. Odyssey Sims, acquired in the offseason from Dallas, led the team in free throw percentage (88.6), while rookie Sydney Wiese finished second in three-point shooting (40 percent, all while only playing seven minutes a game with NO STARTS).
Third-year guard Chelsea Gray also had an increased role on the team, starting all 34 games and leading the team (and the league) in three-point shooting (48.2 percent).
The team also goes into the playoffs with a considerable advantage, going 16-5 against this year’s playoff teams, including a 2-1 season series advantage over the #1 seed...
#1 MINNESOTA LYNX
Yes, the Lynx lost the season series against the defending champions, but the Lynx have Los Angeles beat where it matters the most: best record.
For the fifth time since 2010, the Lynx have clinched the best record in the league, which speaks as a testament to their greatness. In the last seven years, the Lynx have three championships to their resume, as well as the best record among all teams (195-77).
As they attempt to go for their fourth championship (something that three other teams this year - Dallas (previously Tulsa/Detroit), Los Angeles and Phoenix are attempting as well), the Lynx appear to be the team most fitting to do so.
Not only do they feature MVP candidate, Sylvia Fowles (who led the team in points, rebounds, shooting percentage and blocks), but also former MVP Maya Moore and franchise stalwarts Lindsey Whalen and Seimone Augustus. It also helps that they have the most veteran depth, with Renee Montgomery, Plenette Pierson and Natasha Howard playing huge roles off the bench.
The Lynx also went 18-5 against their playoff counterparts, going 12-1 in the first two months of the season, setting themselves up for this potential fourth victory while having an easy route: three wins and they’re in the Finals again.
This playoff season looks to be an exciting one, and we here at Swish Appeal will be here to give you every single update for it.