Last night, two teams were removed from championship contention as the lower seeds in the playoffs, Phoenix and Minnesota, lost on the road in the single-elimination first round at the hands of Chicago and Seattle. With the inaugural stage of the WNBA Playoffs behind us, let’s look at what led to the Sky and Storm advancing to the next stage:
5 Chicago Sky 105, 8 Phoenix Mercury 76
To open the night, the Mercury traveled to Chicago to take on the Sky, a team that experienced a surge in the second half of the regular season to turn a 6-7 record into a 20-14 mark and the league’s fifth seed. Chicago followed a similar path in this one, unable to pull away from Phoenix in the first half but blowing the game open in the second 20 minutes. At the break, the Sky held a narrow 44-41 advantage, then outscored their opponent 29-19 and 32-16 in the third and fourth quarters, respectively.
How did it happen?
Brittney Griner injury
The loss of one of the best players in the WNBA in the second quarter to an apparent knee injury will never be good for a team’s chances. Phoenix was already without Diana Taurasi, so to be without its other superstar immediately put the team in a very difficult position, and it showed. The Mercury run their offense through Griner, not to mention the impact she has around the rim on the defensive end. Without her, things broke down.
Diamond DeShields is a star
The second-year pro out of Tennessee had herself a day, going for 25 points on 10-of-19 shooting and wrecking havoc for Phoenix on all parts of the floor. She was the most aggressive player on the court Wednesday night, and it showed.
You cannot allow Chicago to get out in transition, and DeShields illustrated why. Whenever the Sky got a steal or otherwise had a transition opportunity, DeShields was always leaking out in search of an outlet. When she wasn’t in position to do so, she was the one making the pass. Seven of her 10 made shots were layups, many of which came while the Mercury were still 30 feet behind her.
The guard finished eighth in the WNBA in scoring for the regular season with 16.2 points per game. In her playoff debut, she didn’t lose a step. The rest of the W should be on notice, and DeShields, along with the infectious energy she brings, has a real opportunity to cause some disruptions moving forward.
As a team, Chicago shot 53.2 percent from the floor and 50 percent from behind the arc, but the story of the great shooting came from its starters. We already covered DeShield’s night, but Astou Ndour shot 7-of-11 from the floor, Stefanie Dolson went 6-of-10, Allie Quigley was 7-of-10, and Courtney Vandersloot managed to go 4-of-9. As a whole, Chicago’s starting lineup shot 34-of-59 (57.6 percent).
To get that level of production out of five players, particularly your five best, is a great sign and obviously a recipe for winning. The Mercury could have absolutely defended better, and as the game was out of reach during spans of the fourth quarter, their defensive intensity waned. But you still have to put the ball in the basket on offense, and if Chicago continues to shoot like it did Wednesday, the rest of the WNBA better watch out.
6 Seattle Storm 84, 7 Minnesota Lynx 74
A battle between the two most recent WNBA champions produced a game that remained relatively close in score but not in spirit. Seattle dictated the pace from start to finish, and while I usually find the concept of “wanting it more” to be on the corny side, there was certainly something to that effect working against Minnesota. Although the Lynx got within five late in the fourth quarter, it never felt like they had much of a chance.
How did it happen?
Minnesota’s unforced errors
For the entire game, the Lynx attempted to enter the post by lobbing the rock into the paint, essentially creating 50-50 balls that often led to turnovers and broken plays. They did this repeatedly from opening tip to final whistle for reasons I do not understand. It makes sense that Minnesota wanted to get the ball to its bigs, especially with how its guards played (which we will get to), but softly lofting it into the key’s general vicinity, particularly as Seattle constantly brought over help before the pass or while it was in the air, was never going to work.
But it didn’t stop there. On several occasions, the Lynx simply threw the ball out of bounds. Either laziness, miscommunication, a lack of intensity or some combination were the causes as Minnesota gave Seattle the ball all throughout the game. The team ended up with 18 turnovers, though watching the game it felt like so much more. As a whole for the game, the decision making was horrendous for the Lynx, and there was no way to win playing the way they did.
Minnesota’s two starting guards, Odyssey Sims and Danielle Robinson, who averaged 14.5 and 10.1 points per game in the regular season, respectively, combined for one whole point on 0-of-5 shooting in what has to have been one of the worst collective offensive perimeter performances I have ever seen.
That statline is so bad that further analysis is not needed. It gives all the illustration necessary. Yes, they really were that invisible.
On the other side, Seattle’s Jewell Loyd and Jordin Canada were dominant, scoring 48 together. Canada got to the rim at will and finished with a game-high 26 points, and Loyd drew countless fouls, which converted into seven made free throws, and hit three triples to boot. But their play on the defensive end is what allowed the Storm to control the game, totally locking down Minnesota’s perimeter, making it easier on their teammates to rotate and react to attempted post entries, and coming away with five steals of their own.
Beyond all else, this game was won and lost by each side’s guards.
In the second round, which is still single elimination, Seattle will travel to Los Angeles to take on the No. 3 seed Sparks on Sunday at 3 p.m. EST, then Chicago and No. 4 seed Las Vegas will duel in the desert at 5 p.m. EST the same day.