After a laser-fast WNBA regular season, the 2020 playoffs have arrived. The stakes are high, and almost cruel, this week: single-elimination doubleheaders Tuesday and Thursday ahead of the best-of-five semifinal series, which begin this weekend.
On Tuesday night, the sixth-seeded Chicago Sky face the seventh-seeded Connecticut Sun. Then the five seed, the Phoenix Mercury, take on the eight seed, the Washington Mystics. The lower-seeded survivor of that matchup takes on the three seed, the Los Angeles Sparks, on Thursday, while the higher-seeded Tuesday winner faces the four seed, the Minnesota Lynx.
From there, the lower-seeded Thursday winner will head into a five-game series against the top-seeded Las Vegas Aces, while the higher-seeded Thursday winner takes on the second-seeded Seattle Storm. Both of those begin Sunday.
Let’s examine the gauntlet ahead.
The Chicago Sky feature the finest point guard of this generation, and possibly any generation, in Courtney Vandersloot, author of the three highest single-season assist percentages in WNBA history. The Sky have a steller backcourt of Sloot and her wife, sharpshooting Allie Quigley, plus they’ve gotten strong seasons from emerging wing Kahleah Copper and underrated big Cheyenne Parker. The team presents plenty of matchup problems for opponents, even with Diamond DeShields missing most of the season after a slow start due to an injured knee.1
The concern with the Sky, especially as the season progressed, is at the defensive end. In July, their defensive rating was 97.2. In August, that jumped to 101.9. In September? 108.2. That the September number came with a 1-4 finish — the lone win over non-playoff Dallas — should not be a surprise.
The trajectory of the Sun, meanwhile, is the opposite of Chicago’s journey. Curt Miller’s team, dramatically different from the Jonquel Jones-led WNBA finalists of 2019, began the season 0-5 with an offensive rating of just 90.6. But since that ugly beginning, DeWanna Bonner’s one-woman show has become an ensemble piece, with the team’s offensive rating jumping to 103 amid a 10-7 finish. Alyssa Thomas finished with her customary efficiency with circus shots around the rim, hitting 50.2 percent of 2-pointers, while her defensive points per possession easily led the league,2 per Synergy. Bri Jones contributed vital rebounding and finishing as starting center, Natisha Hiedeman’s work as backup point guard helped keep starter Jasmine Thomas fresh, and the Sun have found an equilibrium that makes them scary.
In the other Tuesday opener, the Mystics represent the survivor of a spirited, three-team fight for the eight seed with Atlanta and Dallas that was decided on the final day of the regular season. They’ve done it without Elena Delle Donne, Natasha Cloud, LaToya Sanders or Tina Charles, and that’s thanks in large part to Myisha Hines-Allen’s remarkable campaign. She grabbed 31 percent of the available defensive rebounds, served as secondary facilitator and defended a wide variety of opposing players, finishing with the 13th-most win shares in the league. And over the final four games of the season — a 4-0 finish that catapulted D.C. into the playoffs — no team defended better than the Mystics did.
For their troubles, they’ll get the Phoenix Mercury, who are riding the amazing twin backcourt performances of Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi into serious title contention. Diggins-Smith is at another level offensively this season, quite a statement for a four-time All-Star entering this campaign. Even with a slow start as she familiarized herself with a new system after the Mercury acquired her from the Dallas Wings last offseason, Diggins-Smith managed to upgrade her shooting percentage: She went from 40.3 percent overall and 29.7 from three in 2018, before she gave birth to her son in 2019, to 47.4 and 39.7, respectively, in 2020. That was good for an effective field-goal percentage of .560, third among the 29 WNBA players with at least 200 field goal attempts in 2020.
As for Taurasi?
She’s somehow entirely herself, at age 38, with no discernible difference in any of her key statistical categories, carrying the offensive load and distributing, forcing teams to figure out how to defend both her and Diggins-Smith — bringing to mind her old running days with Cappie Pondexter. (Those two won a couple of titles, by the way.)
Waiting for the winners of these two games are the Lynx and Sparks, two teams that had designs on top-two seed finishes into the final week.
If Minnesota looked smart for drafting Napheesa Collier sixth overall when she won Rookie of the Year in 2019, it looks extra-smart in 2020, as Collier improved in virtually every category on her first-year campaign and finished fourth in the league in win shares. Her all-around game was supplemented by the fine rookie-season work of former University of Connecticut teammate Crystal Dangerfield, who may win ROY honors despite falling to 16th overall in the 2020 draft. The Lynx finished strong offensively — with the best offensive rating of any team over the last 12 games of the season — and did that without the best center in league history, Sylvia Fowles, who is expected back for the playoffs from her calf injury.
As for the Sparks, it is fair to wonder whether a different call on this final play — a game-winner by Seattle’s Jewell Loyd where it appeared Loyd was out of bounds — is the difference between the Sparks playing an elimination game on Thursday and getting into the top two, with the double bye.
Nevertheless, Loyd made the huge shot, it counted, and so the Sparks, for all their excellence, play a one-and-done, thanks to a system that doesn’t really reward the Nos. 3 and 4seeds. That said, beating the Sparks will not be easy. Candace Parker just posted a vintage Parker season, with an assist percentage of 24.9, a defensive rebounding rate second in the WNBA and her best true shooting percentage since 2011. Nneka Ogwumike provided her typical high-end efficiency and defensive versatility, and Chelsea Gray rebounded from a shaky start to return to the elite level of scoring point guards, averaging 15.9 points per game and shooting 47.6 percent over her final 11 games. The Sparks have more players who can beat you than any other team, and their role players — like pogo-stick-with-a-jump-shot Brittney Sykes and ageless Seimone Augustus — know precisely what play is necessary in a key moment.
If that all sounds daunting, it is. And for the two teams who advance to Sunday? Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird with the Storm and A’ja Wilson and Dearica Hamby of the Aces will be waiting, fully rested.