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Why The Underdogs Have A Shot In The WNBA Semifinals

At first glance, the pecking order in the WNBA was pretty clear this season.

Essentially, there were six teams with legitimate playoff campaigns, which we’ll measure with the shorthand of a positive regular-season net rating. On Sunday, four of those six played for the right to advance to the WNBA semifinals, and while the lower seeds prevailed — Phoenix over Seattle, Chicago over Minnesota — each of the two higher seeds was missing vitally important pieces.

Minnesota was largely without the steadying presence of Layshia Clarendon, who played just 12 minutes while fighting through a leg injury. And a nagging left foot injury kept Breanna Stewart, who might be the best player in the world, on the Seattle bench. Even so, those net ratings don’t lie. Seattle’s 5.2 and Minnesota’s 4.7 were ahead of Phoenix’s 3.1 and Chicago’s 1.5, but they were all bunched close enough that Sunday’s upset results weren’t that surprising.

Connecticut, meanwhile, was far more dominant than Sunday’s higher-seeded teams, posting a season net rating of 12.4. Las Vegas wasn’t far behind at 11.1. Easy call — go with the chalk, right?

Not so fast. Let’s get into it.

That matchup between Connecticut and Chicago comes at a time when no team has been playing better than the Sun, winners of 14 straight, with a 15-1 home record. But in the season series between the two, Chicago finished 2-1. And in many ways, the Sky are better now than they were during the three games between these teams.

Chicago had opened the season 2-7, playing without Candace Parker after the season’s first game. But as soon as Parker returned to the lineup on June 12, they rattled off seven straight wins, including two at home against the Sun, before losing to Connecticut on June 27. Parker found her rhythm quickly, averaging 25.5 minutes per game through that third Sun game with an assist percentage of 23.6 and a rebounding percentage of 15.7, though her effective field-goal percentage of 46.9 percent lagged her career average.

But it seemed to take a little more time for the team to gel around her — a reasonable outcome when younger players are deferential to a legend. We can get a sense of the team’s offensive flow from the effective field-goal percentage of her teammates. Among rotation players, only Ruthy Hebard topped 51 percent through June 27, or roughly half the season, as the team played with and without Parker. But for the rest of the regular season, Chicago had six rotation members with effective field-goal percentages higher than 51 — Parker, Kahleah Copper, Dana Evans, Allie Quigley, Stefanie Dolson and Azurá Stevens, with Dolson and Stevens both north of 60. 

Even on Sunday, in a game in which Minnesota held Chicago to just 6-for-24 from three, the Sky still shot 49.2 percent from the field, put up 89 points and won going away.

“They know who they are, and they were so persistent in their identity,” Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve said of the Sky after the game. “We couldn’t break their identity. We spent a couple days on our focal points. What was important. It would be the team that would be able to take away the paint. It was Chicago.”

And against Connecticut’s length, Chicago has shown that it can match up. Four of the nine players Sky coach James Wade used on Sunday are 6-foot-4 or taller, while two others — Diamond DeShields and Copper — are 6-foot-1 with wingspans that allow them to play bigger. A healthy DeShields is a two-way star off the bench who should be a handful for Connecticut.

Connecticut has absolutely earned the favorite status in both this series and, ultimately, the WNBA playoffs as a whole. But don’t be surprised if this one goes back to a Game 5 at Mohegan Sun on Oct. 8. I’ve already put aside the day.

As for Las Vegas vs. Phoenix, let’s examine one fact in particular. In my playoff preview, I mentioned that the key for the Mercury would be whether Diana Taurasi could play, and if so, whether she looked like her typical self. While she missed Phoenix’s first-round nail-biter over New York, Sophie Cunningham entered the game and impersonated her mentor, right down to the made threes and gratuitous technical. It was like watching a Diana Taurasi Tribute Band.

Cunningham actually did something similar in the one game Phoenix took from Las Vegas back on July 7, hitting four of five three-point attempts in a 99-90 win. But Taurasi didn’t play a single minute in the three games between these two teams. And yet, Phoenix posted the better net rating when the two teams faced off, managing 107 points per 100 possessions against a defense that, as a whole, allowed 96 per 100 this year.

Taurasi is still short of 100 percent, as we saw on Sunday. Still dealing with that ankle injury, Taurasi visibly limped all game. But the thing about Taurasi that doesn’t show up in the statistics — though, let’s be real here, she’s the all-time leading scorer in WNBA history, so the stats capture plenty — is her understanding of when her team needs a particular play, a well-delivered pass, the equalizer three. That’s what she provided right here, when it looked like Seattle could salt the game away in overtime.

Two possessions later, she came through again, on a one-legged stepback. Phoenix would not trail again. Taurasi scored just 14 points, but those 5 mattered as much as any in the entire game.

“Dee gives them automatic confidence, swag just by being on the floor,” Storm coach Noelle Quinn said after the game. “What happens when you have the greatest player in our game on the floor is she hits timely shots. She steps into a three, hits a one-legged baseball shot. She’s such a big shot taker and maker, you can’t lose focus when she’s on the floor. She has clutch DNA.”

Considering how close these two teams played each other this season without her, that could be enough to tip the scales in Phoenix’s favor.

Chalk could well prevail here. But don’t expect a pair of walkovers. The four teams who should be here right now are the semifinalists in the WNBA playoffs.

Check out our latest WNBA predictions.

Howard Megdal is editor-in-chief of The Next, a women’s basketball site, and founder of the women’s sports newsletter The IX.

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