This story has been updated to include an official diagnosis and status for Elena Delle Donne.
We’ve waited all summer for this — 12 teams reduced to eight, trimmed to four, until eventually two teams will face off in the WNBA Finals, to produce just one winner.
By “we,” I mean die-hard basketball fans who’ve done more than wait, who dialed in early this season and went along for the very intense ride, no matter how high or how low. And the 2018 WNBA season has been filled with both, plus every imaginable scenario in between, in a compressed three-month season that, at times, felt more like three years.
And, here we are, with four teams changing cities in advance of Friday’s Game 3 matchups — the Storm-Mercury uglyfest moving from Seattle to Phoenix, the Dream-Mystics nail-biter traveling north to the nation’s capital from Atlanta — suffering a case of the Semifinals sads due to the bummer scenarios playing out in both series. Lovers of the game get high off the intensity of competition, especially in a league where even the last-ranked team comes to battle every night, but also on the beauty of plays executed with precision and awe-inspiring individual performances.
True lovers of the game also prefer postseason competition to feature healthy squads and fair fights, with outcomes determined only by the effort, energy and execution of full, healthy squads playing their very best basketball. Yet, after two games in the semifinals round, this is turning out not to be the case in either series, as outside factors have begun to influence the outcomes of games and the momentum of series.
Storm-Mercury: A curious case of referee interference
We get it. The Seattle Storm is powered by the tornadic energy of being number-one seed and having the Most Valuable Player in Breanna Stewart and the Most Improved Player in Natasha Howard, so it’s easy to get swept up in that energy field. But the job of referees is to remain impartial, to resist getting swept along like the fans. But the officials in this series, so far, have come up short.
Please note that this is not a TRASH THE OFFICIALS take, or a DON’T HOLD PHOENIX ACCOUNTABLE FOR THEIR FAILINGS stance. Referees face a tough task every night, especially in frenzied environments, and most seem keen to perform their duties without making themselves a part of the game. Some refs, however, struggle with the latter and their calls alter the momentum in games and oftentimes change outcomes by creating additional obstacles for players and teams to overcome.
As we’ve seen in the Phoenix-Seattle series, some refs have been happy with their whistles, calling some bogus fouls against various Phoenix players while letting some Seattle players, namely Natasha Howard, foul to her heart’s content without getting called. This lopsided officiating absolutely has impacted the series by allowing the Storm to get and stay in rhythm, while thwarting the Mercury’s efforts to do the same.
Hall of Fame broadcaster Rebecca Lobo has mentioned in each broadcast the fouls that were not called on Howard — and the fouls that were called against various Mercury players in error — and she, of all people, is a credible source.
As frustrating as this must be for Phoenix, it has been a death knell for fans, too, as each whistle blows a little more life out of the game. With one team out of rhythm, the intensity of competition fizzles which is just not enjoyable to watch.
The answer, of course, is not to blow more whistles to even the officiating score but to adhere to the long-held fan ethos: LET THEM PLAY.
Granted, the Mercury have not played well, and this goes back to the second-round battle against the Sun that easily could have seen Connecticut advance over Phoenix. To get the win against the Sun, it took DeWanna Bonner lighting into Brittney Griner at halftime to get her going, resulting in a strong comeback for a 10-point win and a ticket to the Semifinals. But the Mercury are being killed against the Storm in this series because of slow starts and foul trouble. Truly, Phoenix did this to themselves by falling behind by double digits in each game. But that doesn’t mean the refs should add nails to their coffin, either.
Although Phoenix is down 2-0 with a chance to have the Storm end their season on Friday night, the Mercury should take heart in the fact that they lost Game 1 by four points and Game 2 by four points. If the Mercury show up to compete with intensity from tipoff and avoid a double-digit deficit, they have a strong chance of stealing Game 3 on their home floor to make it a series.
Seattle, of course, will do everything in their power to prevent this from happening. If we’re lucky, the outcome of Game 3 will be determined by what the players do on the court and not by what the referees do with their whistles.
Dream-Mystics: A series of unfortunate injury-related events
The good news is that the series between the Atlanta Dream and the Washington Mystics exemplifies the spirit of competition — a team triumphing over adversity to secure the second seed and first- and second-round byes.
The Dream lost superstar veteran Angel McCoughtry to a knee injury after the All-Star Break but remaining players answered the call by Head Coach Nicki Collen, stepped up big and piled on more wins. In the Semifinals against the Mystics, however, the Dream showed more rust than rest, as Washington put their inexperience and undisciplined execution on full display. But by the fourth quarter of Game 2, the Dream were rising to postseason-quality execution, as they put on an impressive defensive stance to split the series, 1-1.
This is the good news the Mystics should cling to as they grapple with the fallout of what appears to be — from cringe-worthy replay after cringe-worthy replay — a serious injury to Elena Delle Donne’s left knee.
At just over three minutes in the final period, Delle Donne’s foot slipped, her knee buckled backward and she had to be helped off the court. After the game, the former league MVP issued a statement through Washington’s PR team: “I mean, I’m walking. The swelling isn’t terrible. I’ll go home [Wednesday] and see our doctors, and see what they say. But I’m hopeful to be back in the lineup Friday.”
Delle Donne’s injury was diagnosed a left knee bone bruise and she is questionable for Game 3 on Friday. This is probably the best outcome anyone could have hoped for, but the thought of Delle Donne missing any time at all gives me a case of the sads because of how well she competed so far in the series. She has had big games throughout the season, but her postseason precision has been surgical and she literally could not miss a shot, making the Dream regret it if they got sloppy and allowed that ball to wind up in her hands.
In Game 2, Delle Donne shot 50 percent from the field, 50 percent from three-point range and 100 percent from the charity stripe. In Game 1, Delle Donne shot 45 percent from the field, 50 percent from deep and 100 percent from the free-throw line; she also tallied double-doubles in both games, on scoring and rebounds.
Because Delle Donne carried the load so far, and because her teammates naturally appeared dejected after the game, the biggest obstacle they will have to overcome moving forward is doubt that they cannot advance to the Finals without their leader. This simply is not true — one the Mystics’ hottest winning streaks of the season was without Delle Donne, who was sidelined with illness. It won’t be easy, but the Dream only won Game 2 by just three points and never managed to run away with the game, which keeps Washington’s championship hopes alive.
No matter what happens on the court in Game 3 and beyond, it’s hard not to feel crushed for Delle Donne, even if she is sidelined for just one game. Anyone who has worked hard and made a ton of sacrifices towards making their goals and dreams into realities surely understands the pain she, her teammates and Mystics nation might be feeling.
Next up on the court ...
The 2018 WNBA Semifinals move from Seattle and Atlanta to Washington, DC and Phoenix, respectively, for Game 3 on Friday, August 31. Tipoff is at 8 p.m. ET on NBA TV.
Scorching the status quo — Hall of Fame edition
The following banter toward the end of last night’s Storm-Mercury game on ESPN2 warms our hearts:
Broadcaster Ryan Ruocco: Coming up after the game, NFL [this, that or the other] ...
Hall of Famer Rebecca Lobo: And plenty of WNBA replays — right, Ryan?
And, really, that is all.
ESPN seems committed to showing highlights of everything except WNBA games, so it only seems right that the network be called out by a Hall of Famer during their own broadcast of a WNBA game that did not include a pregame or postgame show.
WNBA Draft Lottery
WNBA teams learned their 2019 fates during halftime of the Dream-Mystics game last night. And in a stroke of wild luck that probably only happens in Vegas, the Aces — for the third year in a row — get the first-round pick.
Here is how the bottom four teams from the 2018 regular season made out:
- Las Vegas Aces
- New York Liberty
- Indiana Pacers
- Chicago Sky
How to #WatchThemWork during the 2018 WNBA Playoffs
Shine brighter. * flicker flicker *