Crystal Dangerfield Ignites Late, Sun Smash Sparks

The WNBA Semifinals are set, and WNBA Rookie of the Year Crystal Dangerfield had a big role in shaping them.

She was a monster down the stretch in the Minnesota Lynx’s second round showdown against the Phoenix Mercury, sending the Lynx to the Semifinals for the first time since they won the whole thing in 2017. Now just the No. 2 seed Seattle Storm stand behind them and their seventh WNBA Finals appearance since 2011.

The other half of the penultimate round will feature the top seeded Las Vegas Aces and No. 7 seed Connecticut Sun, who have returned to the Semifinals in improbable fashion. They’re eyeing back-to-back WNBA Finals appearances and seeking their first championship.

How did we get here? Let’s review the two second round, single-elimination matchups from Thursday.

Crystal Dangerfield Puts Up 15 in Second Half as Lynx Survive Mercury

On Thursday, Crystal Dangerfield was named the WNBA Rookie of the Year, the first time a non-first rounder won the nod. The second-round pick averaged 16.2 point per game in the regular season, 11th-best in the league, and became a staple of a steady Lynx team.

In the first half, though, Crystal Dangerfield wasn’t her normal self. She managed just two points and was largely kept in check by the Mercury. After the break, though, it was a different story.

Crystal Dangerfield scored 15 of her 17 points in the second half, and she was instrumental in Minnesota’s late run to take the game. With the score tied at 64 with a little under eight minutes to play, she hit a 24-foot step back to give the Lynx a three-point advantage. It jumpstarted a 10-3 run over the next couple minutes that featured seven Dangerfield points, building a lead Minnesota would not release. Her pure scoring ability was on full display as she tormented the Mercury with triples, pull ups and darting drives to the hole.

But it almost wasn’t enough. Diana Taurasi, who hadn’t lost in seven previous single-elimination situations in her WNBA Playoffs career, converted two four-point plays in responses to Minnesota’s run, bringing Phoenix back to within one, 78-77, with 3:17 on the clock.

There were only four more points scored: an Odyssey Sims jumper to extend Minnesota’s lead to three, and a pull up via Skylar Diggins-Smith with 35.3 seconds remaining to close the gap back to one. Damiris Dantas had two chances at the free-throw line in the final 10 seconds to bring the lead back to three but missed twice. But Phoenix couldn’t capitalize on her mistakes, and Taurasi and the Mercury found themselves on the wrong side of the scoreline, 80-79.

“When you think about the odds of beating a Diana Taurasi team in single elimination games – you can tell me what he record is – we knew we had our work cut out for us,” Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve told the AP. “A lot of effort went into guarding her and she still had 28 points and nine assists. A lot of things need to go your way.”

In my second round preview, I mentioned the difference in production from Damiris Dantas and Napheesa Collier in the Lynx’s two regular season games versus Phoenix. In Minnesota’s win, they combined for 39 points and 15 rebounds. In Minnesota’s loss, they had just 21 points and 11 rebounds, and Brianna Turner and Diana Taurasi commanded the paint and glass.

On Thursday, Collier didn’t have a great scoring night, only managing seven points, but she nabbed nine boards and six assists to help in other ways. What Collier didn’t contribute on the scoreboard, Dantas made up for it in spades. The Brazilian had a team-high 22 points, including a 4-of-9 mark from deep, and hauled down eight rebounds to boot.

They couldn’t keep Brianna Turner and Taurasi totally quiet, but the Lynx did a great job of pulling Turner away from the basket to keep her from blocking everything around the rim. Turner had 43 blocks in the regular season, averaging a league-best 2.0 swats per contest. In the second round against Minnesota, she had zero.

Sun Smash Sparks to Continue Playoff Dominance Over LA

In 2019, Connecticut whooped Los Angeles in the Semifinals, sweeping the Sparks, 3-0, and thumping them in Games 2 and 3 especially, winning both contests by a combined 48 points. In 2020, LA was given a second chance at the Sun, this time as the much-higher seed and in a single-elimination format.

It went about as well.

The Sun rolled the Sparks early, jumping out to a 22-8 lead by the end of the first quarter. Los Angeles got within six with 3:38 to go in the second, then gave up a 10-0 run to close the quarter and never got back within single digits, eventually caving, 73-59.

Los Angeles was woeful on both sides of the ball, spending way too many defensive possessions standing and ball watching and chucking brick after brick from beyond the three-point line, finishing the game 2-of-18 from deep. Candace Parker was really the only Sparks player to show up, scoring 22 points, grabbing 14 rebounds and effectively getting to the charity stripe. Otherwise, though, the only double-digit scorer was Seimone Augustus with 10, and the team shot a collective 33.3 percent from the floor. In all, it was a woeful showing from the No. 3 seed.

The team was without Nneka Ogwumike, who was sidelined at the last minute with a migraine. The hole she left behind was apparent.

“Nneka does a lot for us as a team on both ends of the court,” Sparks head coach Derek Fisher said to the AP. “(We missed) her efficiency offensively on a night when it was difficult to find some rhythm on that end of the floor. She’s a really good defender and rebounder. Most importantly her presence from a leadership standpoint helps our team to stay centered some times.”

That’s not to take away from Connecticut, a team that has now gone 7-3 in the playoffs the last two years. All five Sun starters scored in double figures, and DeWanna Bonner showed what she’s capable of, scoring 17 points and adding 13 rebounds and five assists. The team did a fantastic job of sharing the ball, with 23 of its 27 baskets being assisted, and sliced the Sparks with its passing.

Defensively, Connecticut stood tall, too. The Sparks were the league’s top three-point shooting team this year at 39.8 percent. The Sun held them to 11.1 percent on Thursday. The 59 points LA scored were its fewest in 2020. Los Angeles was completely disjointed offensively, and the Sun were a big part of why.

That makes its two confident and controlled victories in the postseason in a row for Connecticut, which finished below-.500 in the regular season and started the campaign 0-5. Now one 14-point win over No. 6 seed Chicago in the first round and a trashing of one of the league’s best during the regular season, the Sun seem to have all the momentum behind them, and they’ll need it in the Semifinals against No. 1 seed Las Vegas.

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