WNBA playoffs feature new format, but Lynx remain the favorite

ByMechelle Voepel ESPN logo
Monday, September 19, 2016

The WNBA playoffs are here, and the players on six of the eight postseason teams now go into a bit of a college mindset. It's win-or-go-home time, with the league this season making a switch to single-elimination games for the first two rounds, followed by best-of-five series for the semifinals and finals.

Minnesota and Los Angeles -- which automatically advance to the semifinals as the top two seeds -- also face an element of the NCAA tournament: They have a substantial wait before they play again (Sept. 28), similar to how a lot of college teams might go nearly two weeks between the end of league tournaments and the start of the Big Dance.

The Lynx and Sparks will watch Wednesday as No. 5 seed Indiana hosts No. 8 Phoenix (ESPNEWS, 6 p.m. ET), followed by No. 7 Seattle at No. 6 Atlanta (8 p.m. ET, ESPNEWS). The winners face No. 3 New York (NBA TV/WatchESPN, 7 p.m. ET Saturday) and No. 4 Chicago (ESPN2, 1 p.m. ET Sunday), with the lowest surviving seed meeting the Liberty and the highest taking on the Sky.

Minnesota is the definite favorite. The Lynx, who seek to tie the Houston Comets with four WNBA titles, finished with their best record in franchise history (28-6), and only three of those losses were to teams that are in the playoffs: Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. Connecticut beat Minnesota twice, but the Sun's season is over. Same for Washington, which also defeated the Lynx.

It doesn't seem likely that Minnesota will lose three games in a series. But coach Cheryl Reeve remembers the 2012 WNBA Finals, when the Lynx appeared to be a very strong bet to repeat but were defeated in four games by Indiana.

Reeve won't need to remind her "core four" of the championship that got away because Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen were all on that team. Sylvia Fowles joined the Lynx in late July last year, then was the WNBA Finals MVP in a five-game series victory over Indiana.

Are the Sparks picking up momentum again?

The Lynx are looking to become the league's first back-to-back champions since Los Angeles repeated in 2001-02.

But let's not forget that, before the Olympic break, the No. 2 seed Sparks appeared to be worthy challengers, and perhaps still are. In auto-racing lingo, they were leaking oil down the stretch, losing six of eight games once play resumed in late August. The question is: Did they fix the problem with their two victories to end the regular season?

Los Angeles' 90-85 win over Phoenix on Sept. 13 was important not just because it stopped the Sparks' three-game losing skid but also because of the circumstances. In spite of their struggles, the Sparks already had secured the No. 2 seed, so the game really didn't matter. However, Phoenix at that time was still trying to nail down its playoff spot.

And it appeared at one point that the Mercury's urgency was going to prolong the Sparks' slide. But Los Angeles got an enormous lift off the bench from Chelsea Gray, who had a season-high 23 points. MVP candidate Nneka Ogwumike had 24 points and 10 rebounds, and the Sparks' fire seemed to be rekindled.

They finished with a 71-65 victory Friday over San Antonio. Ogwumike had another double-double (17 and 10). She finished the regular season averaging 19.7 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists and shooting 66.5 percent from the field.

Now the Lynx and Sparks will focus on practice while the other six teams are whittled down to two. It's interesting that, in this first year of such a format, we have an idea of how the two top teams respond to a break. Well, sort of.

The Lynx lost their first game back, at Connecticut, but then played well the rest of the way. But a big chunk of Minnesota's team really wasn't away from game competition during the break, with four of them playing for the United States in the Olympics (Augustus, Fowles, Moore and Whalen) and one playing for Spain (Anna Cruz, who did not play for the Lynx the first half of this season but was with them all last year).

Only two Sparks players competed in Rio de Janeiro: Ana Dabovic for Serbia and Sandrine Gruda for France, the latter joining Los Angeles only after the Olympics. The Sparks' starters and top reserves were all together during the break. Yet the Sparks' chemistry seemed rusty when they returned to action. The good thing is they can look to that slow restart and try to prevent it from happening again.

The sentimental favorite

The legendary Tamika Catchings will retire when the season ends for Indiana. The Fever/Pacers organization and city of Indianapolis gave her a wonderfully emotional tribute ceremony Sunday after the Fever vanquished Dallas.

Catchings got some fantastic gifts, including a new Lexus, but the one she appeared most moved by was the $100,000 donation to her Catch the Stars charitable foundation.

It might have been semi-excruciating for the very humble Catchings to sit for more than an hour listening to everyone -- local and state politicians, former coach Lin Dunn, current coach Stephanie White, teammate Briann January et al. -- extol her greatness. But she got through it needing just a few tissues, with a lot of smiles. You can be sure that her mind then immediately turned to the playoffs.

We know that the Fever can catch fire in the postseason, having seen that many times (including last year, when they took the Lynx to a fifth game in the WNBA Finals). There have been moments this season, including in recent games, when Indiana has looked like a team that could go on a run.

Catchings said consistency is the Fever's biggest X factor. That's even more the case against the Mercury. Many people, including the league's general managers, tabbed Phoenix as the 2016 WNBA favorite with Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor back after sitting out 2015.

However, the Mercury's mojo has been more off than on for much of this season. They finished with the same record as mostly young Seattle (16-18), with the Storm getting the higher seed based on their regular-season 2-1 series edge.

At times, the Mercury have looked like their usual selves, and that's what worries other teams because that's hard to beat. But Phoenix also has appeared disjointed and not on the same page too many times. The Mercury have to put it together now, though, or this season is over. And they will be saying goodbye to one of their signature players, too, as Taylor also will retire at season's end.

That brings a poignancy to Wednesday's game in Indianapolis because it will be a farewell to either Catchings or Taylor and these two are some of the league's most exemplary role models and both came to the WNBA in the 2001 draft.

Will Dream, Liberty and Sky be missing key players?

The Dream also have had their up-and-down moments. But they've gotten the usual star play from Angel McCoughtry, and a lift from two players they traded for: Elizabeth Williams and Layshia Clarendon. However, the Dream might be without their second-leading scorer, Tiffany Hayes, because she picked up her seventh technical foul of the year in the Dream's regular-season finale at Minnesota on Saturday. That means a one-game suspension -- unless the league reviews the call and opts to rescind it.

Either way, though, the Dream will have their hands full with the Storm, led by an ageless-looking Sue Bird along with Breanna Stewart, a lock for Rookie of the Year, and Jewell Loyd, who took that award last year. Seattle won seven of 10 after the Olympic break, including a 91-82 victory Sept. 4 at Atlanta.

Lastly, the Liberty and the Sky have a first-round bye, then play this weekend. And they both have injury issues.

Center Kiah Stokes, whose defense off the bench has been so key for New York, hasn't played since Aug. 26. However, veteran guard Tanisha Wright, who was also injured Aug. 26 at San Antonio, played in the Liberty's last two games. Once again the Liberty are built around MVP candidate Tina Charles, who finished tied for the league lead in scoring (21.5 PPG) and was the leading rebounder (9.9 RPG).

The most significant injury any playoff team is dealing with is Chicago being without last season's MVP, Elena Delle Donne, who, like Charles, averaged 21.5 PPG this year. But Delle Donne injured her thumb Sept. 7 and had surgery. Unless she's a miracle healer, she's done for the season. Yet the Sky regrouped without her and won three of their last five games, including an overtime thriller against Minnesota, 98-97, on Sept. 13.

That game was important to the Sky to secure the No. 4 seed and meant nothing to Minnesota in terms of seeding. Yet the Lynx still battled to win it, which shows you how they're wired.

The Lynx aren't going to get tripped up by any kind of complacency, even though they've won three of the past five WNBA titles. They're still eager to win another, and they're as dangerous as ever.

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