Now that we have a round of the WNBA playoffs in the rearview mirror, there are plenty of lessons to be taken from Wednesday’s games. First, the results. The Chicago Sky dominated a Phoenix Mercury team that limped into the playoffs and continued to be without legend Diana Taurasi—the team did get some good news as Taurasi seems intent on returning next season—while Seattle ousted Minnesota in the battle of former champions.
Let’s start with the Sky, which means we’re really starting off with Diamond DeShields. The second-year sensation led all scorers with 25 points, though that might not be what Twitter remembers most from her first playoff game.
DeShields was a revelation against the Mercury, but Chicago’s offense was incredibly balanced throughout the game, with Courtney Vandersloot doing Vandersloot things such as racking up 11 assists and Allie Quigley getting into double digits. In fact, five players got into double digits for the Sky including Stefanie Dolson, Astou Ndour and Cheyenne Parker.
Chicago’s bigs putting up numbers was likely in part due to Brittney Griner having to go off after an apparent knee injury in the second quarter. Though Griner returned at the beginning of the second half with a bulky brace, she was substituted shortly after and did not return to the game, leaving Phoenix with few options in the frontcourt.
The Sky were the more athletic team, the team with more talent and ultimately the team that has an incredibly interesting case to win more playoff games going forward. Next up will be the Las Vegas Aces, who pose a far different threat than the Mercury did.
Vegas posted the best defense in the league by defensive rating and have a litany of versatile wings, big guards and talented bigs to stifle Chicago. If the Aces play to the best of their ability—and not like the team that lost four of its last six games coming into the playoffs—they likely won’t be caught in transition nearly as much as Phoenix was, and points will be harder to come by when you’re going up against A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage in the post.
Jackie Young could conceivably guard anyone from either member of the Vanderquigs to DeShields, and the Sky will have plenty to worry about when it comes to defending Vegas’s army of scorers. Suffice to say, this game likely won’t be a blowout and features some of the most exciting offensive players in the WNBA. It’s a shame that this game comes in a single-elimination playoff round because a five-game series between these teams would be fascinating. But my bet’s on big games from Wilson and McBride and the Aces moving on.
Now let’s discuss the more competitively entertaining matchup from Wednesday night.
Just in case you weren’t sure if the Storm’s defense was legit coming into the playoffs, let’s go over a couple things.
Natasha Howard won Defensive Player of the Year after nearly leading the league in both blocks and steals, while teammates Jordin Canada and Alysha Clark also found themselves on the WNBA All-Defensive team.
That would be the same Clark who led the league in three-point percentage and the Canada who edged Howard out for the league lead in steals per game by .1. Yet it was the latter’s offense that drew most of the attention in Seattle’s win over Minnesota.
Canada scored a career-high 26 points while fellow backcourt mate Jewell Loyd scored 22 to lead the Storm’s offense. Meanwhile, the Lynx’s starting guards scored … one point. That’s not a good look for Odyssey Sims or Danielle Robinson, who only got off a combined five shots and missed all of them.
Damiris Dantas led Minnesota in scoring with 20 while Sylvia Fowles dropped 14 and my choice for Rookie of the Year, Napheesa Collier, scored 19 in her playoff debut and showed plenty of reasons why the franchise should be in good hands going forward.
But Seattle’s defense looked downright scary down the stretch when Minnesota pulled within five and the Storm proceeded to stop the Lynx from making a shot for five-plus minutes of game time to shut the door on the victory.
Gary Kloppenburg, who was in charge of the team while Dan Hughes recovered from cancer earlier in the season, has given this team a stout defensive identity and it’s seen them succeed despite the losses of Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart.
“I mean I think we have a really good core, even with missing all those good players,” Kloppenburg said earlier in the season. “You still have that core that still really wants to win and knows how to win. They play really hard, they play extremely hard on both sides of the floor and I think we're still a really competitive team because of that.”
The Storm are proving just that, though the Sparks will be one helluva challenge to put their defense up against. Candace Parker has rediscovered her scoring touch since returning from injury in August. Nneka Ogwumike is consistently good for double-digit scoring and has turned herself into a legit three-point threat while her sister, Chiney, and Kalani Brown can do damage inside when they come off the bench. And you know if there’s a big shot to be taken in the dying moments of the game, Chelsea Gray can get you a bucket.
If we’re going to talk about Seattle’s defense, however, we'd be remiss not to mention that the Sparks finished just above them in defensive rating. No matter what this game comes down to, it’s going to be fascinating but I think Los Angeles’s mix of defense and superior offense knocks Seattle out and books the Sparks’ ticket to the semifinals.