The 2019 WNBA Finals tip off Sunday between the No. 1 Washington Mystics and No. 2 Connecticut Sun. And what a wild ride it has been leading to this culminating moment!
The aging and injured No. 8 Phoenix Mercury were blown out in the first round, along with the youth-invigorated No. 7 Minnesota Lynx. In the second round, the No. 6 defending-champion Seattle Storm were sent home via blowout and the No. 5 Chicago Sky were ousted at the buzzer. The No. 4 Las Vegas Aces were sent home in the semifinals 3-1, and the No. 3 Los Angeles Sparks were smothered in a three-game sweep. Along the way, there were storylines aplenty, both on and off the court.
While counting down the hours until Game 1 of the Mystics-Sun Finals, relive the top 10 storylines of this year’s WNBA Playoffs:
10. The injury bug shook things up.
All teams were affected by devastating injuries this season, with two stars of last year’s Finals — the Seattle Storm’s Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart — sidelined in the 2019 postseason. But Stewie and Bird are not alone. Here are the other players who couldn’t help their teams in the playoffs:
- Jantel Lavender (Chicago Sky)
- Layshia Clarendon (Connecticut Sun)
- Karima Christmas-Kelly and Jessica Shepard (Minnesota Lynx)
- Alanna Smith and Diana Taurasi (Phoenix Mercury)
- Kiara Leslie (Washington Mystics)
Carolyn Swords (concussion) missed time for the Las Vegas Aces but played in three playoff games, while Clarendon (ankle surgery) could return to help her Sun teammates in the Finals. The result of all this? An East Coast Finals! West Coast teams missing their stars were knocked out early, opening the path for others to ascend to the WNBA’s biggest stage.
9. “Say Anything” you want, Seattle remains a contender.
The Storm were bounced in the second round by the Los Angeles Sparks, but they showed fight all season, even without three-time champion Bird or 2018 league and Finals MVP Stewart. In fact, their absences may have helped Seattle to become a top contender in 2020. Jordin Canada, Alysha Clark and Natasha Howard all made strides. Add Stewie and Bird back into the mix and they once again become the team to beat in the West.
8. Lynx cubs are out for blood.
Cheryl Reeve took a team missing future Hall of Famers Lindsay Whalen (retirement) and Maya Moore (sabbatical), plus veteran staple Rebekkah Brunson, and got to the postseason. Still having former league MVP and former Defensive Player of the Year Sylvia Fowles certainly helped, and the offseason acquisition of Odyssey Sims and Lexie Brown grounded the team in expertise and depth.
But it was two rookies who stole the show early in the regular season — Jessica Shepard and Napheesa Collier — quickly putting to rest the now-silly notion that the Lynx are years away from contending. Reeve’s shrewd personnel moves earned her the Executive of the Year award.
Shepard went down with a torn ACL six promising games into her professional career, but just look at this fire — May 25, after her WNBA debut:
Collier, who started every game in 2019, went on to win Rookie of the Year. She can score from inside, outside or mid-range. Her sweet-looking face belies the monster she really is inside — on the defensive end of a basketball court, at least. Dreamy highlights:
7. The Sky is still the limit in Chicago. Let’s Wade into why.
Chicago always had the talent to succeed, what with backcourt baddies Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley, plus frontcourt phenom Diamond DeShields. Members of this power trio became All-Stars, and a coaching change was required to get it done. James Wade instilled a championship culture in Chicago and and turned the Sky from a bottom-dwelling squad that hadn’t earned a postseason bid since Elena Delle Donne left for D.C. into a No. 5 contender that bounced the Mercury from the playoffs in the first round. Results like these win people awards. For Wade, it was Coach of the Year.
6. Hamby heaved life into Las Vegas.
A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage get all of the attention, but Dearica Hamby saved the Aces’ butts all season, off the bench. This wild shot at the buzzer to get Vegas a Round 2 win for a trip to the semifinals is but one example of her verve on both sides of the floor — an exclamation mark on a Sixth Woman of the Year season:
5. There’s no place like home.
For WNBA teams displaced from their home arenas at the most critical time of the season, not being able to play at home is a real bummer, and the results speak for themselves. In 2018, the Mercury played part of the postseason at Arizona State University and lost in the semifinals. Meanwhile, the Mystics played their postseason in two different arenas, neither of which was their home and one of which was in Virginia, and they were bounced in the Finals in a three-game sweep.
This year, the Aces won their win-or-go-home Round 2 matchup three miles away, at UNLV, but were dropped in the semis 3-1. But the Sparks had it worst of all, never getting to play even one postseason game at home. Down 2-0 to the Sun in the semis, they were forced to play Game 3 in Long Beach, which truly was no place like their Staples Center home.
4. Trash talk boomeranged onto Liz Cambage.
This didn’t end so well ...
The Mystics went on to win the series 3-1. Guess the Aces didn’t get the memo.
3. Emma Meesseman torches souls.
Meesseman let her play do the talking in the semifinals:
If she keeps this up, she just may wind up with a Finals MVP trophy in her hands.
2. Bullish view of injury-riddled team felled Phoenix. Ash status: UNKNOWN.
The bull, of course, is Diana Taurasi, who the Mercury treated like a savior all season. Unfortunately for them, she never swooped in to save them from retrograde. Taurasi missed the last two games of the regular season because of a lingering hamstring injury. She traveled with the team to Chicago for their win-or-go-home Round 1 matchup with the Sky on Sept. 11, but didn’t play.
The next week, Taurasi joined the USA Basketball Women’s National Team Camp at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida.
The Mercury rode Brittney Griner hard all season in Taurasi’s absence. The natural result, of course, was for Griner to go down with a knee injury in what ended up being Phoenix’s only postseason contest.
1. The Sparks fizzled behind some very Fishy coaching decisions.
What kind of coach doesn’t play his starters in a decisive win-or-go-home Game 3 in the WNBA semifinals, especially when some of those starters are past and present All-Stars, champions as recently as 2016, former league MVPs, a former Finals MVP and a back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year?!
Candace Parker, most notably, played just 11 minutes in Game 3, sitting all of the fourth quarter and some of the third. When asked about her health, she said she was fine, both mentally and physically, and deferred questions about her benching to Sparks coach Derek Fisher.
If for no other reasons than to have the team’s stars on the court for fans who paid to see them, and to avoid a blowout in a nationally-televised game, Parker and the rest of the team should have been given another chance to make a run. It is hard to imagine what reasons the L.A. organization could use to justify sitting a team’s starters for the final quarter of a winner-take-all affair.