The first round of the WNBA playoffs is now over, the Conference finals start tonight. Everything went as planned in the Western Conference as both of the top seeds moved on. The Eastern Conference first round featured an upset, as the top seeded Atlanta Dream were taken down by the Chicago Sky. There is no shortage of star power in either conference finals matchup, especially out west as the Phoenix Mercury will be facing the Minnesota Lynx. In the Eastern Conference, Hall of Fame coach Lin Dunn and sure fire Hall of Famer Tamika Catchings will lead the Fever against the fourth seeded Chicago Sky. That’s “Catch” and Elena Delle Donne in the same series, as stated earlier….star power.
The Indiana Fever got here by defeating a talented young team in Washington, while they completed a sweep, it was far from a breeze. The physical nature of their first round series was a great way to prepare for the Conference Finals. The Fever have a great mix of veterans and young players, it doesn’t hurt when your core that won a championship is largely in tact. Indiana was one of the best defensive teams in the league, they faced the Sky five times this season and won three of the games. They will need to continue to thrive on that side of the ball as they’ll be facing one of the marquee scorers in the league in Delle Donne. This is the fourth straight conference finals appearance for the Fever, this is a very familiar stage for them.
The Chicago Sky may be one of the best teams in the league….after they go down by double digits. They have made a living digging themselves out of holes and getting the win, not just making it competitive, but finishing rallies with a win. There’s no better example than their first round series against the Atlanta Dream. In Game 3, the Sky found themselves down by 20 points. Yes, 20 points. They came back and won 81-80 to earn the right to move on to the Conference finals for the first time in franchise history. Delle Donne had a huge performance as she poured in 34 points on the night, including 17 points in the fourth quarter. The Sky outscored the Dream 30-13 in the final period, Delle Donne had 17 of the 30 and scored more than the Dream by herself.
The Fever Advance If: They must do what they did to Washington, separate the head from the body. After Ivory Latta went off in Game 1, the Fever made sure the number one priority was to disrupt her timing and rhythm all night. While a couple of other members stepped up for Washington, it just wasn’t enough. They have to take Delle Donne out of the series as much as they can, while Chicago has Fowles, Quigley, and Vandersloot, they can’t let Elena go off. Just ask the Dream how that went. They must also limit Sylvia Fowles who had a great first round as she averaged 13 points and 11 rebounds.
Fever X-Factor: Marissa Coleman, she’s one of the newest members to the team. She is a tough cover on the offensive end and has good size on the defensive side of the ball. While she took a backseat in the Washington series, an assertive Coleman could really push the Fever to another level as they struggle to score in the half court. Chicago will be out to limit Catchings in this series, an assertive Coleman could really make the Sky pay for the extra attention on “Catch”.
The Sky Advance If: Delle Donne continues her strong play, this is just her second year but her postseason numbers have taken a significant bump (25.7 points per game this year). Fowles will play a huge role in this series (like Delle Donne), but it comes down to the “others” for Chicago. If they can get production from the role players, the Sky will be able to alleviate some of the pressure on Fowles and Delle Donne. They must also get off to good starts, not a good idea to get down early to a good defensive team.
Sky X-Factor: Allie Quigley has been irreplaceable this season, no good team is complete without good production off the bench. With Vandersloot still getting her legs back, Allie will be a big key to this series. If she can take that 11 points per game average up to 14 or 15, the Sky will be a tougher team for Indy to take down.
This is what everyone’s been waiting for, the two best teams in the league (as records go) face off for the right to play for the WNBA Championship. Phoenix had won a league best 29 games this season, Minnesota wasn’t too far behind with 25 wins. These teams even took the time to end the other’s double digit win streak, this matchup has the feel of last year’s NFC Championship game in the NFL (Seattle vs San Francisco). Point being the two best teams played before the actual league championship. The Mercury held the edge in this year’s regular season series, winning three of the four games. One team has the league’s MVP (Moore) while the other has the Defensive Player of the Year (Griner) along with the Coach of the Year (Bordello).
Phoenix has an amazing trio of players, while two of them get a ton of the headlines, the third is what allows the Mercury to be so dominant. Everyone knows what Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi bring to the table, Candace Dupree is what separates this team from being pretty good to unfair. Dupree is averaging 14.5 points and 7.5 rebounds (leads team) per game in the postseason, routinely burning defenses for doubling either of her star teammates. Taurasi led the WNBA in assists this season, what makes her special is her playmaking. She’s taken on more of a facilitator’s role on this team, but she is still the stone cold scorer she’s always been. Griner has made strides this season on the offensive end, she’s really worked on her post moves and face up game. Coach Bordello has a beautiful free flowing offense that is very hard on opposing defenses. The Mercury were the best team in the league in scoring and field goal percentage. That’s not to say that the Mercury are a one dimensional team, they play outstanding defense as well. Never hurts to have the 2014 WNBA Defensive player of the year anchoring your unit. Griner’s impact was evident as the Mercury led the league in opponents points per game, opponents field goal percentage and three point percentage.
Minnesota, is trying to win their third championship in four years ( won in 2011 & 2013). The Lynx have a trio of their own in Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Agustus, and 2014 WNBA Regular Season MVP Maya Moore. While Phoenix has the league’s best offense, Minnesota is right behind them as the second best offense in the league. Similar to Indiana, the Lynx championship core is still in place. They have a tough task ahead in knocking the Mercury out of the playoffs. The Lynx move the ball extremely well on offense, it’s easy to look at Moore’s numbers (league’s leading scorer) and suggest it’s all Maya. That’s the furthest thing from the truth as Minnesota led the league in assists per game this season with 20.6. This isn’t foreign territory, as this is the third time in the four years that these two teams have faced each other for a chance to go to the WNBA Finals. While the Mercury won the regular season series, it doesn’t mean that this postseason series will go their way.
Phoenix Advance If: They can slow down the Lynx offense, it’s easy to say limit Maya Moore but that’s much easier said than done. Moore is targeted every night, that hasn’t stopped her from putting up insane numbers at a very efficient clip. It’d make more sense to take Augustus away, that’s who takes over when Moore is in foul trouble or catching a breather. Let Maya get hers, take away Augustus and the rest. Force Whalen and the “others” to beat them. The Mercury must pressure the ball, Minnesota led the league with the fewest turnovers per contest. If the Mercury don’t force turnovers, the Lynx will continue to shoot at a high clip.
Mercury X-Factor: Candace Dupree, she’ll be matched up on both Moore and Augustus at times on the defensive end. Her ability to slow them down while also making them work on the defensive end could pay dividends for Phoenix. Dupree has proven to be a tough cover, if she’s assertive and disruptive it will go along way.
Minnesota Advance If: They can figure out a way to stop Griner, she’s the one player that the Lynx haven’t had an answer for this season. It’d make more sense to make Taurasi a scorer rather than a distributor and take away Dupree if possible, Dupree is the glue. Make Griner prove that she can carry the entire offensive load or at least most of it, while she’s improved on that end of the floor, she’s not “there” yet. If their big three can get going from beyond the three point line, that would work wonders for the Lynx. Neither Whalen or Augustus hit a three in the first round.
Lynx X-Factor: They come as a pair, if the Lynx wish to advance it will have to depend on strong contributions from Brunson and McCarville. If they can figure out a way to slow down Griner without help from perimeter players, it will allow the Lynx to pressure the ball more. Own the glass, the Lynx are a better rebounding team than the Mercury. Griner averaged just 4.5 rebounds in the first round matchup.