Professional Basketball

WNBA Season Ends, Playoffs Start Tomorrow

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Chicago Sky guard Courtney Vandersloot became the first player to finish with 300 assists in a single season. Photo by Abe Booker III/Sportspage Magazine

The 2019 WNBA Regular Season drew to a close on Sunday and the playoff field is finally set. Even though the teams that made the cut for the post-season have been known for the last couple weeks, the seeding was unknown until the final weekend of play.

The top overall seed belongs to the Washington Mystics (26-8), who held a three-game lead over the second seeded Connecticut Sun (23-11). Both teams automatically advance to the best-of-five semifinal round that begins on September 17 against the winners of the second round.

The Los Angeles Sparks (22-12) narrowly edged out the Las Vegas Aces (21-13) for the third seed. Both the third and fourth seeds automatically advance to the single-elimination second round game on September 15 against the first-round winners.

The first round begins on Wednesday with single-elimination games featuring the eighth seeded Phoenix Mercury (15-19) visiting the fifth seeded Chicago Sky (20-14) at 7 p.m. CT.

Chicago swept the three-game series with Phoenix this season and holds a 12-5 home record in 2019. The last meeting between these two teams resulted in a 105-78 Chicago blowout a week ago. This marks the first time since 2016 that the Sky was eligible for post-season play.

Sky point guard Courtney Vandersloot became the first player in league history to average more than nine assists per game in a full season, and also became the first player in league history to record 300 assists in a single season. She currently ranks sixth all time with 1,685 assists in her career. Vandersloot was named the 2019 Peak Performer award winner for the assists category.

Even with Vandersloot dishing dimes all season, making their first playoff appearance in three years and with a new head coach, the Sky players do not take their opponent lightly.

“We know their reputation precedes them in the playoffs. This is not going to be the same team that we have faced the past three times. Everything gets elevated in the playoffs,” said Sky guard Diamond DeShields. “We’re just getting ready to have a gauntlet matchup with them.”

Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner took home the 2019 scoring title. Photo by Abe Booker III/Sportspage Magazine

Since the playoff format changed three years ago, the 2014 WNBA champion Phoenix Mercury has gone 6-0 in single-elimination games and advanced to the semifinal round each year. Sandy Brondello is one of only two current heads coaches that have reached the playoffs in every season since 2014 with the same team, Cheryl Reeve of the Minnesota Lynx being the other.

It is this experience that Phoenix brings with them to Chicago. Brittney Griner was named the Peak Performer Award winner for scoring, having finished with a 20.7 point per game average. DeWanna Bonner led the team with 6.6 rebounds per game and Leilani Mitchell, a candidate for most improved player, dished 4.0 assists per game. Not to be outdone, Diana Taurasi played in only six games this season because of injury, but her veteran presence will be a factor if she plays on Wednesday. Taurasi is the all-time regular season points leader with 8,575.

“We’ve been in these situations before so we’re not looking at it like ‘Oh we haven’t won,’ because you just go and play. We’re going to believe. We know we can do this. It’s not easy, no game is easy. Anyone can beat anyone in this league so we just have to make sure that it’s our night,” Brondello said.

The other first round game will feature the seventh seeded Minnesota Lynx (18-16) visiting the sixth seeded Seattle Storm (18-16) at the Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett, Washington at 9 p.m. CT. The Storm and Lynx, the past two WNBA champions respectively, finished the season with identical records and will face off in a single-elimination game.

Seattle Storm forward Natasha Howard finished the season with career highs of 18.1 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. Photo by Abe Booker III/Sportspage Magazine

Playing without Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird for the entire season, the Storm was never dominant like they were a year ago when they took a 26-8 record to the top overall seed and the double bye. This year, they struggled with consistency, never able to sustain long winning streaks, but never facing long losing streaks either.

The Storm defeated the Lynx in three out of the four regular season games to take the tie breaker, and the right to host the first round single-elimination game. In order to obtain the sixth seed, they needed to beat the Dallas Wings on Sunday and hope for a Minnesota loss at Los Angeles.

“You know, it was an important game for us because we knew if we could win and L.A. could beat Minnesota, we could go home,” said Storm head coach Dan Hughes. “So we were motivated.”

The Storm needed players to step up to fill the void left by the absence of Stewart and Bird. Second year guard Jordin Canada added 9.8 points and 5.2 assists per game, while forward Natasha Howard pitched in for a career high 18.1 points and 8.2 rebounds per game.

The Lynx, playing in their league leading ninth consecutive season, revamped their lineup this season and was without the services of Maya Moore and Rebekkah Brunson, who each sat out for the entire season. Like the Storm, the Lynx were not dominant like previous years, but still good enough to secure a playoff berth.

Minnesota Lynx forward Napheesa Collier’s 13.1 points per game, 6.6 rebounds per game, and 2.6 assists per game puts her into contention for Rookie of the Year honors. Photo by Abe Booker III/Sportspage Magazine

A key figure for the Lynx success was the development of rookie forward Napheesa Collier, who is contending for rookie of the year honors. She put up 13.1 points per game, 6.6 rebounds per game, and 2.6 assists per game, which greatly reduced the gap the team sustained with the loss of Moore.

The Lynx feel that everything is coming together at the right time to make a playoff push. They won five out of their last six games and believe that they are peaking at just the right time.

“I think we need to take the momentum that we gained from the last six games of our regular season. We know how to be good, and now we need to do that on the road. That’s the hardest thing, and that’s why the home games are so coveted. We are going to see if we can win a hard road game,” said Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve.

Every team in the 2019 WNBA playoffs believes that they can beat anybody on any given night. On Wednesday, two out of the four teams in the first round will be able to prove that and advance to Round 2. The other two will begin preparing for the 2020 WNBA free agency period and draft sooner than anticipated.

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