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Hoops Happening: Thrilling start of WNBA playoffs leaves us wanting more early-round games

Would best-of-three be a better format for the first two rounds? Plus, five other takeaways from the WNBA Playoffs so far. This is today in women’s basketball for Friday, August 24, 2018!

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Courtney Williams of the Connecticut Sun saw her season come to an end last night despite scoring 27 points against the Phoenix Mercury.
John Woike/Hartford Courant/TNS via Getty Images

The “one-and-done” single-elimination playoff setup is one of the most brutal contrivances in all of team sports. In evenly-matched contests decided by a shot missed or made, a momentum swing or even a ref’s whistle, it’s heartbreaking to see either team go home.

This was definitely the case Thursday night, when the Phoenix Mercury and Connecticut Sun went back and forth in a tightly contested, winner-take-all second round matchup. The Mercury escaped with the win, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any fan who wouldn’t want at least one more game of that.

The thrill of the three-game series

A feature of the three-game series that teams undoubtedly appreciate is the adjustments from one game to the next. With teams able to shore up their game plans and face each other again in a matter of days, on-court intensity rises, narratives form and scores get settled quickly — much to the delight of fans.

The Mercury escaped Connecticut with a win over the Sun due to the experience of their team’s Big Three: Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and DeWanna Bonner. But late mistakes by Stephanie Talbot easily could have spurred a different outcome. The Sun had the momentum following a four-point play — Talbot fouled Courtney Williams in the act of hitting a three-pointer — and then Talbot air-balled a three on the other end. It was the kind of sequence that often sinks teams or players who don’t have experience in these big moments. But Talbot sank a three on a subsequent possession which swung the momentum back into the Mercury’s favor, ultimately leading them to victory.

But the Sun played incredible, competitive ball all game. Courtney Williams put her team on her shoulders down the stretch and was prepared to carry them to victory. The Sun came up short in a single-elimination game, but if these two teams had been given a three-game series to duke it out, it isn’t hard to imagine a scenario in which the Sun and Mercury split the first two games 1-1, with the deciding Game 3 being a battle for the ages.

The Mercury won the regular season series against the Sun 2-1. With the better regular season record, the Sun had home court in their favor. In a three-game series with home-court advantage, Connecticut may have pulled it off. But while Connecticut fell short and Phoenix earned the right to advance, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to see the Sun go home.

Is “one-and-done” a fair fight?

For the LA Sparks, a jam-packed cross-country travel schedule had an obvious impact on what they were able to bring to the court. The Sparks just weren’t able to play like the Sparks, and this was most notable in the usually-fierce backcourt of Chelsea Gray and Odyssey Sims. These two have built their careers on the ability to spark momentum with strong defensive stands that create opportunities on offense. In last night’s blowout loss to the Washington Mystics, however, Gray and Sims — just like the rest of the team — simply didn’t have the legs.

Being the champions they are, the Sparks were not about making excuses. After the game, head coach Brian Agler said, “Our mentality is that we play the hand that we’re dealt so you don’t have any excuses. My hat’s off to Washington. They played really well ... Made it difficult for us at our offensive end so they were the better team today ... [T]his wasn’t a great showing for us. We know we can play better and it just didn’t happen tonight.”

Still, LA’s travel schedule likely played some role in their lackluster second-round playoff performance.

Regular season

August 14 — vs. Liberty, in LA

August 17 — at Mystics, in Washington, DC

August 19 — at Sun, in Uncasville, CT


August 21 — vs. Lynx, in LA

August 24 — at Mystics, in Washington, DC

In her postgame presser, Mystics guard Kristi Toliver lauded Agler and the Sparks for not making excuses but added: “That is the beast of the WNBA. It is a quick season, has quick turnaround, and the way that this playoff format is does not help ... They showed up, they were going to play and gave it their all, and I think we were just really good tonight.”

Five other takeaways from the WNBA Playoffs so far

#1. DeWanna Bonner at the four position is a thing of beauty. The Mercury hate that Bonner’s move to the power forward position was necessitated by a season-ending injury to Sancho Lyttle. But Phoenix Head Coach Sandy Brondello’s choice has bolstered Phoenix’s defense and unlocked Bonner’s double-double potential. Last night against the Sun, she scored 23 points and grabbed 18 bounds. It is quite likely that she’s just in a double-double zone right now and everything moving forward will come in twos.

#2. Diana Taurasi’s trash talk is as skilled as her on-court production. Mic’d up during a timeout in last night’s early game, Mystics Head Coach Mike Thibault told his team to “take away their belief.” The words seemed chilling at the time. But when compared to what Taurasi said on the court after the final buzzer of the Mercury-Sun contest, Thibault’s utterance about the Sparks seems like an offer of Girl Scout cookies.

Taurasi shouted the following roast to someone who was out of camera range — reportedly Courtney Williams:


If you’re wondering about the Instagram comment, Courtney Williams posted this in advance of Thursday night’s game:

Courtney Williams via Instagram

Williams is a fierce competitor, and it’s hard to imagine she regrets posting this. Just as Taurasi used it as motivation, Williams will use the taunt to fuel her through the very long WNBA offseason.

#3. Fans who confuse trash talk with abuse need to search their blackened souls for signs of life. Comments are blacked out on the screenshot of Williams’ Instagram post because some fans used the aforementioned situation as a chance to troll and bully and harass. Cheering for a team or players one likes, or jeering a team or players one doesn’t like, is within the bounds of fandom. But making gender-based or other discriminatory attacks is outside the bounds of civility and must never be tolerated. Yes, she got schooled by Taurasi, but that’s it. Leave it there.

#4. Rabid Lynx fans may need their shots. Or, some chill pills at the very least. From fiercely loyal to lashing out after a first-round loss, flat. No one wants to see their favorite team lose, so disappointment is warranted. But anger, soaked in targeted blame? If the fingertips of some in Lynxland are to be believed, head coach Cheryl Reeve only has herself to blame for the loss. According to them, it’s all her fault for not making significant roster moves, and so on. Well, the woman built that team up in one season and won the championship in the one after that (2011). She went on to win three more. So tossing her under the bus after those achievements seems harsh.

One Lynx fan, however, asked a thoughtful question on social media about whether the GM and coach roles should be separated. It is hard to imagine a situation where the answer could be yes definitively or no definitively, whether the question refers to Reeve or someone else, because there are so many dynamics at play. But Reeve’s record speaks for itself and she has earned the right to let the choice be hers.

Doing two jobs at once is taxing, so if she feels surrendering the GM duties would lighten her load in support of any changes she wishes to make to how she’s coaching, then it seems like a good move. But to demand that she be stripped of her GM duties seems like an overreach because a new GM many not be the answer.

GM-coach relationships can be as delicate as coach-player relationships, so splitting the roles and bringing in a GM depends on who that GM might be. We’ve all seen how a fraught GM-coach relationship can boil over, and how a coach with GM duties can lose perspective about the roster. So there may not be a simple, single answer to the question for the Lynx. And, no matter what transpires, Reeve should be given her due respect as a master of preparation.

#5. The Mystics are legit. Any team that has a rookie playing as fearlessly as Ariel Atkins, with everyone else locked in and committed to every possession, has an edge. The WNBA Semifinals against Atlanta will be intense.

Next up on the court ...

The 2018 WNBA Playoffs proceed to the semifinal round on Sunday, August 26, with the Mystics taking on the Dream in Atlanta and the Mercury facing the Storm in Seattle. Action begins at 3 p.m. ET on ESPN 2.

Stay tuned for previews and other playoffs coverage!

Drink up, link lush!

Brittney Griner’s block party last night against the Sun helped her to hit another milestone.

In other news ...

  • Breanna Stewart has deepened her involvement with RAINN, doing great things to bring resources to survivors of sexual violence.
  • The Dream’s Elizabeth Williams has a new job off the court.
  • Angel McCoughtry’s year away from basketball and entry into the ice cream business did great things for her outlook on life.
  • Kaela Davis of the Dallas Wings is still battling vertigo-like symptoms with some uncertainty about the cause of the condition. Let’s hope she gets resolution and a return to health soon!
  • Most people wouldn’t survive half of this, so please heed this simple reminder not to do drugs.
  • A UMMC Ekaterinburg roster for 2018-19 didn’t include Brittney Griner. Has Griner moved on from the club or is there an error in this tweet?
  • Everyone deserves the right to do their job without getting spit on or verbally abused. For as frustrated as fans may get with referees, it’s a tough job.
  • If players buy in, anything is possible. It sure seems like Nicki Collen of the Atlanta Dream has succeeded in this mission.
  • The Aces’ Tamera Young was tweeting she wishes she had “the green light to just kill and play super free.” Las Vegas is definitely going to be a team to watch next season.

How to #WatchThemWork during the 2018 WNBA Playoffs

Shine brighter. * flicker flicker *