Top seeds Lynx, Sparks look to hold off challengers

ByMechelle Voepel via ESPN logo
Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Sparks have felt underestimated all year, and that might not change as we head into a new chapter of the WNBA postseason with two best-of-five semifinal series.

The Minnesota-Phoenix matchup pits teams that have won six of the last nine WNBA titles. The other semifinal, Los Angeles versus Chicago, has a team that won its last of two titles 13 years ago and a team that has never won a championship -- and has felt underestimated since losing 2015 league MVP Elena Delle Donne to a thumb injury on Sept. 7.

But one of the most intriguing things about the semifinals is how very little that went on in the regular season is actually an indicator of what we're about to see.

Phoenix had a losing record and was the last team to secure its playoff spot as the No. 8 seed. Yet the Mercury have ousted the Nos. 3 and 5 seeds in the single-elimination format and seem to be playing as we initially expected they would.

Despite losing Delle Donne -- whose return doesn't seem likely -- the Sky still secured the No. 4 seed and then won their second-round playoff game 108-98 over No. 6 seed Atlanta.

Los Angeles had one identity before the Olympic break, and a different one afterward. Now, with a week and a half away from competition to prepare for the semifinals, will the Sparks reboot and return to their more dominant selves of May-June-July?

Then there's the team that wants the playoffs to go exactly as the regular season did: Minnesota, which finished a league-best (and franchise-best) 28-6. The defending champions won't beat themselves. If they're to be defeated in a best-of-five series, it will take an extraordinary effort. Are any of the other three teams capable of that? Here's a look at both matchups.

No. 1 Minnesota vs. No. 8 Phoenix

Being a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament is usually not much fun. It means you have a first-round game against a team that's almost indistinguishable from you. So you and your near-twin, the No. 9 seed, duke it out just to see who has to face the top seed. (Save for 1998, the one year in the women's tournament when a No. 16 beat a No. 1. We won't mention the details, Stanford fans.)

However, this isn't the NCAA tournament, where the gap between a No. 8 and a No. 1 is typically quite vast. Going into this season, most people expected Minnesota and Phoenix would be the top two in the 12-team league.

The change in the playoff format, which did away with the division between conferences, was supposed to help prevent a matchup such as the Lynx versus Mercury happening before the WNBA Finals. They've met in either the Western Conference semifinals or finals four of the past five years.

But for a lot of this season, the Mercury were as up and down as a thermometer in the Midwest during September. In their two playoff wins, though, the Mercury have been more like a thermometer in Phoenix in July: up, up, up.

One can imagine Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve saw this coming during the Olympics, if not earlier. As an assistant with the U.S. team, she witnessed Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner coming alive during the Rio de Janeiro Games. She knew how much potential Spain's Marta Xargay had to impact the Mercury, which won WNBA championships in 2007, '09 and '14.

Minnesota had a couple of hiccups during the season, but nothing more than that. The Lynx won all three regular-season games with the Mercury, although it's been awhile: Their most recent meeting was June 7.

The Lynx -- who won WNBA titles in 2011, '13 and '15 -- led the league in both offensive and defensive rating. They have kept their cohesion as a unit ever since their first championship, which is amazing.

You can look at this series through the prism of the aforementioned star power, led by Minnesota's Maya Moore versus Phoenix's Taurasi, two do-everything legends. Or the Lynx's Sylvia Fowles versus the Mercury's Griner, two classic-style centers.

But even those who are more "role" players in this series are also stars in their own right. Such as Minnesota's Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson, and Phoenix's DeWanna Bonner, Candice Dupree and Penny Taylor.

Both teams are getting older -- Taylor will retire when the season ends -- and so it's a good time to really appreciate what these two organizations have brought to the WNBA. Even if they're not meeting in the season's last series.

No. 2 Los Angeles vs. No. 4 Chicago

It's probably helped the Sparks' cohesion to have a "no one picked us to win the 2016 title" chip on their shoulder. That way, they can direct any irritability more outward than at each other.

And it's definitely helped them to have the change in format. In the old system, the Sparks would have been facing Seattle in a best-of-three series and then, if they won, either Minnesota or Phoenix in another best-of-three.

That would have been daunting for a team that went 21-3 before the Olympic break and 5-5 afterward. Not to diminish the Sky, but in this set-up, they are now all that stands between Los Angeles and the Sparks' first WNBA Finals appearance since 2003. (Chicago's lone WNBA Finals appearance was in 2014.)

Much to their credit, the Sky have won four of their six games since Delle Done was hurt. And Chicago rested some of its starters in one of the two losses -- the regular-season finale against Seattle -- because there was nothing to gain from that game. So kudos to the Chicago players and coach Pokey Chatman for the mental toughness and pride it takes to compete this well without one of the biggest stars in the league.

The Sky put in another inspiring performance in Wednesday's playoff victory against Atlanta. But the Dream were vulnerable in the post with Sancho Lyttle being hurt and Elizabeth Williams, although she was Most Improved Player this season, still being a young player in growth mode.

In short, the Sky go from facing a team that had difficulty exploiting Chicago's potential weaknesses without Delle Donne to a team that should be able to expertly take advantage of her absence, both offensively and defensively.

L.A.'s Nneka Ogwumike is the favorite for MVP; Candace Parker also is a candidate for that award. And the Sparks bring Jantel Lavender off the bench. That is a fearsome post trio. As for the perimeter, Alana Beard is still one of the most potent one-on-one defenders, and fellow guard Kristi Toliver has improved her defense while still being a feared 3-point shooter. Veteran Essence Carson and youngster Chelsea Gray have been good pickups for the Sparks at guard, too.

This wouldn't be a good matchup for Chicago even with Delle Donne in the lineup. Without her, the Sky really need some players to overachieve the entire series to get three victories.

The Sky have a true, experienced point guard in Courtney Vandersloot, who is coming off her best overall performance in a playoff game. Cappie Pondexter, who won two WNBA titles with Phoenix in her career, is still very capable of being a big-time scorer. They have some youthful, athletic posts to go along with veterans Jessica Breland and Erica de Souza. And guard Tamera Young has been with the Sky longer than anyone; this is her eighth season in Chicago.

But the numbers don't add up very optimistically for the Sky. The Sparks were second in the league in defensive rating, third in offensive rating. The Sky were second on the offensive side -- but 11th defensively.

Los Angeles won the three regular-season meetings -- one in May, one in June, one in July -- by double digits. But that was before the switch flipped during the Olympic break.

Los Angeles lost 2-1 to Detroit in the 2003 WNBA Finals. Despite having franchise icon Lisa Leslie until 2009, and having her career overlap two seasons with that of Parker, and then adding in another No. 1 draft pick with Ogwumike in 2012, the Sparks have not been in that final showcase series for 13 years.

This is their chance, if they can play up to their abilities, to end that drought.