Professional Basketball

WNBA Semifinal Round Preview: Sky-Sparks/Lynx-Mercury

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Winning a championship in a professional sports league is a daunting task. Some teams like the Minnesota Lynx, Phoenix Mercury and Los Angeles Sparks have won multiple WNBA championships, while other teams like the Chicago Sky have not won any. All four teams will be in action tonight as the WNBA Semifinal round begins.

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Chicago Sky forward Elena Delle Donne, listed out for Game 1 and questionable for Game 2, is a crucial asset for Chicago if they are going to make it to the Finals. Photo by Abe Booker III.

The Minnesota Lynx will host the Phoenix Mercury at 7 p.m. CT, followed by the Chicago Sky visiting the Los Angeles Sparks at 9 p.m. CT. Both games are the first games in the best-of-five series.

The Lynx and Sparks battled for the league’s top spot for most of the regular season with the Lynx coming out with the top seed after a franchise best 28-6 record. The Sparks took the second seed with a 26-8 regular season record, two games behind their rivals. Both teams earned byes through the first two rounds of the postseason.

Early in the season it seemed like the Phoenix Mercury would not even qualify for post-season action. A slow start left many wondering what was wrong with the team chemistry and Brondello even considering making “changes” around the Olympic break. When the team came out of the break, they won six of the final 10 games and a 16-18 record was enough to earn the eighth and final seed. More importantly, the Mercury seemed to get their early season struggles behind them and get back on track with the goal of winning a championship.

With the new playoff format in place, the Mercury, by nature of having the lowest seed, had to play two single-elimination games. Diana Taurasi scored 20 points while Brittney Griner and DeWanna Bonner each netted 18 as the Mercury downed the Indiana Fever 89-78, effectively ending the playing career of Tamika Catchings, and advanced to the second round.

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The Minnesota Lynx and Phoenix Mercury battle in the WNBA Semifinal round for the fifth time in six seasons. Photo by Abe Booker III. [cover photo]

In a shootout in New York, Taurasi scored 30, Griner had 22 and Penny Taylor added 20 as the Mercury held off the third seeded Liberty 101-94 giving them the opportunity to play the Lynx for the fourth consecutive time in the playoffs.

The fourth seeded Chicago Sky had a bye during the first round and faced the Atlanta Dream in round two. With the absence of Elena Delle Donne, the Sky still managed to slow down Dream forward Angel McCoughtrey in the second half to take a 108-98 win and a trip to the semifinals.

Chicago Sky at Los Angeles Sparks

During the regular season, the Los Angeles Sparks swept the three game series which featured two of the games at Chicago. In addition, the Sparks have forward Nneka Ogwumike, who on Tuesday was named the league’s MVP for the 2016 season, and forward Candace Parker, also a two-time MVP (2008, 2013) giving the team incredible depth at the low post position.

However, the Sky has the 2015 MVP forward Elena Delle Donne on their roster. Though Delle Donne will not be active during tonight’s Game 1 and is listed as doubtful for Game 2 while recovering from thumb surgery, with the help of Courtney Vandersloot and Jessica Breland, the Sky have been able to show more versatility during Delle Donne’s absence during the playoffs.

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The WNBA’s top offensive rebounder Rebekkah Brunson looks to help the Lynx get to the WNBA Finals for their fifth time in the past six seasons. Photo by Abe Booker III.

“If we continue to play well and win, it becomes increasingly more likely but we’re not counting on that. It would just be a bonus,” said Chicago Sky head coach Pokey Chatman when asked about Delle Donne’s ability to rehabilitate in time for the semifinal series. “There are no secrets to basketball this late in the season. It’s about players stepping up to the challenge and making plays, so I’m not afraid of that.”

“It’s nice that we have some momentum and we’re doing some positive things. There will have to be some adjustments for us as well. It’s an arduous task but it’s the playoffs. I think since the break we’ve become a better team, more balanced team with some more people contributing,” said Chatman.

With the new format, one of the adjustments that Los Angeles has had to make was having 12 days before playing in the postseason.

“It’s real strange, real strange, but we’ll be ready this time around,” said Sparks head coach Brian Agler. “I mean, we have to be.”

The Sparks have a home court edge during the best-of-five series and Delle Donne’s absence may increase their odds at winning the series even more, especially if she sits out more than Game 1. However, the Sparks may battle a “rest versus rust” scenario while the Sky is playing on momentum. The edge goes to the Los Angeles Sparks to win the series in five games for their first trip to the WNBA Finals since 2003.

Phoenix Mercury at Minnesota Lynx

This may be the matchup that the league intended to see in the Finals when they changed to the new format. The Lynx and Mercury matchup will be the fifth time in six seasons that these two teams have met in the semifinal round. Minnesota won in 2011, 2013 and 2015 and won the league championship in each of those years. Phoenix won the 2014 series and the league championship that year.

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Is this the final series for Phoenix Mercury’s Penny Taylor or will there be one last Finals appearance? Taylor will retire at the conclusion of the Mercury’s playoff run. Photo by Abe Booker III.

Last year’s Western Conference championship was won with a controversial foul called with seconds left in regulation which put Lynx forward Maya Moore on the free throw to ice the game and win the best-of-three series 2-0. Phoenix fans were mortified by the call. The league reviewed the call and determined that the foul should not have been called. It still didn’t negate the fact that Minnesota was crowned Western Conference Champions and won the best-of-five series against the Indiana Fever to take home their third league championship in five seasons.

The Mercury team and fans have not forgotten the ending to last year’s playoffs and will hope to exact revenge against the defending WNBA champions, but this time it will take winning a best-of-five series in order to dethrone them.

“I think everyone’s excited about this matchup. We’ve met each other so many times. They’re the best team in the WNBA so I’m excited. I’m glad it’s a best-of-five series,” said Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello.

The extra rest might benefit Minnesota as five of the Lynx players are Olympians, while Phoenix sent six players to Rio. The Mercury had to play both single-elimination games on the road while the Lynx had the extra time to rest and prepare.

Even though Games 1 and 2 will be played at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul while Minnesota’s home facility, Target Center, is undergoing renovations, Phoenix will also play away from their home court if a fourth game is needed. Game 4 is scheduled at GCU Arena at Grand Canyon University since their home court, Talking Stick Resort Arena, is unavailable. Game 5, if needed, will revert back to Target Center in Minneapolis.

Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve doesn’t think the arena change will affect her team much. “We’re fortunate. We’re a team kind of making lemonade out of the lemons, our backup facility is a beautiful place like the Xcel Energy Center,” said Reeve.

Still, Brondello believes that momentum can help carry her team to the Finals.

“We have the potential to be great. After the Olympics, we knew that every game counted, and I think that momentum and that focus helps you play your best ball at the end of the season. It’s not how you start the season, it’s how you end the season,” said Brondello.

Not so fast, says Reeve.

“Their record indicates what we did, and our record indicates what we did. Do I think it’s going to be a heck of a series? Absolutely. But we’ve said this all along, there’s not a great separation of talent. You look at all eight teams, there’s not a bad team in the field, Phoenix included,” said Reeve.

Will the Lynx make their fifth trip to the WNBA Finals in six years or will the Mercury make their second trip in three years? This best-of-five series will be telling, but with a home court advantage, rest for their Olympians and more time to prepare, a Lynx series win and high television ratings in four games might be possible.

NOTES:

Of the four teams in the semifinals, three teams have head coaches who served as assistants under San Antonio Stars head coach Dan Hughes. Brian Agler (Los Angeles), Sandy Brondello (Phoenix) and Cheryl Reeve (Minnesota) all spent at least one season under Hughes. Chicago’s Pokey Chatman was not a WNBA assistant coach before becoming the Sky’s head coach and general manager in 2010.

All four WNBA head coaches have coached in the WNBA Finals with three of their teams taking home championships. Chatman coached against Brondello during the 2014 Finals series, which

Brondello’s Mercury team won. In addition to the 2014 championship, Brondello had an appearance as an assistant in 2008 (San Antonio). Agler coached the Seattle Storm to a championship in 2010. Reeve has coached in the 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015 Finals (winning all but 2012) plus appearances as an assistant in 2001 (Charlotte Sting), 2006, 2007 and 2008 (Detroit).

Photos:

 

IMG_4572: Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike, 2016 WNBA MVP, will attempt to lead Los Angeles to their first trip to the Finals since 2003. Photo by Abe Booker III.

 

 

 

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