After defeating the Los Angeles Sparks on Sunday night to knock L.A. out of the playoffs and ensure the New York Liberty qualified for the postseason, Dallas Wings head coach Vickie Johnson reminded reporters what to expect next.
"Playoffs is a different season," she said. "Because one thing about our team is you don't know which team you're going to get. If you mess around and get the good team, it's dangerous."
All eight teams start at 0-0. But right now, the Aces and the Sun are awarded two off games, having clinched the coveted double-byes. Connecticut and Las Vegas don't have to survive single-elimination because they won't have to compete in it. But for seeds three through eight, there's no room for error. Until September 26, it's lose and you're done.
New York finished its regular season at home on a high note, defeating former franchise player Tina Charles and the Washington Mystics by double-teaming Charles to deny her space to work in the paint and by shooting over 51 percent from the field.
For both the Liberty and Wings to move past their opponents in the Mercury and the Sky, respectively, they'll have to play consistent defense and take care of the ball. It will be a tall order for two of the youngest teams in the league going up against two rosters with some of the most experienced veterans in the league in the Mercury's Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith, and the Sky's Candace Parker, Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley.
But even if the Wings and Liberty shock #WNBATwitter and advance, taller tasks lie ahead. Facing off against and beating the disciplined Lynx or possibly a Breanna Stewart-less (more on this later) Storm will only happen by playing hard, executing defensively and with experienced veterans leading the way.
No. 7 Dallas Wings vs. No. 6 Chicago Sky
Big Question: Can Candace Parker Energize the Sky into the 2nd round?
The matchup that matters: Copper vs. Ogunbowale: whoever can keep the other away from the rim best will swing the game.
Prediction: The Sky win by 10 points through sharper ball movement and better defensive intensity than Dallas.
The Chicago Sky have been here before. The Dallas Wings have not. However, the biggest question is whether Candace Parker can provide the Sky with what they've been missing the last two years.
After two straight playoff appearances that have ended in the first round, the Sky will be looking to make it third-time lucky in the first-round single-elimination game. On Monday, Courtney Vandersloot noted she believes Parker gives the Sky the best opportunity to finally make it to the later stages of the postseason. She asserts that Parker's their missing piece, and this is the stage to prove it.
After finishing the season an inconsistent 1-2 and posting a league-worst rebounding percentage of 43.5 and the second-worst net rating of -12.6 in the final three games, the playoffs offer an opportunity to start from scratch.
And while the Wings had the upper hand during the regular season, defeating the Sky twice out of three meetings, the key to the Sky moving on will be focusing on themselves rather than the questionable calls from the officials. In previous meetings against the Wings, head coach James Wade believed foul calls favored Dallas. He also thought the Wings would exaggerate movements on offense when his team was playing aggressively on defense.
"Our job is to go out there and play," Wade said. "And, you know, and we just have to not worry about we have to control the things we can control. The only thing we can control is us."
For the Wings, Arike Ogunbowale must continue the growth she displayed in Dallas' win against the Sparks. She was more selfless with the ball, dishing three assists and shooting only 11 shots in the 87-84 win.
No. 8 New York Liberty vs. No. 5 Phoenix Mercury
Big Question: Does a Rivalry Emerge in Phoenix?
The matchup that matters: Jazmine Jones getting her revenge on Skylar Diggins-Smith.
Prediction: The Mercury barely escape the Liberty, and while New York will be competitive, Phoenix will win a nail-biter that further cements one of the league's up-and-coming rivalries.
Liberty coach Walt Hopkins often speaks at length about this team's playing identity, which offensively means shooting threes in droves but also defending the three-point line. As Howard Megdal pointed out for FiveThirtyEight, the Liberty gave up too many open threes during their eight-game losing streak in the regular season. That's not their defensive identity, which aims to force shooters into long-contested twos.
The Mercury's identity is playing through their veteran Big Three, with support from Brianna Turner and Sophie Cunningham. Even with Diana Taurasi expected to play Thursday, the three-time WNBA champion still hasn't practiced with her team. If Taurasi plays with an ankle that isn't 100 percent, the Mercury will have to play hard and ride the intensity of their other star guard, Skylar Diggins-Smith.
The Liberty aren't the same team they were when the Mercury dominated them in August. Jazmine Jones will have some juice after sitting out one of those regular-season games, and the Liberty's secret weapon and traffic controller, Sami Whitcomb, will be available after she missed the previous two matchups with an ankle sprain.
Other than Natasha Howard, the Liberty are undersized, and they have little experience in the postseason aside from Howard and Whitcomb. Hopkins stressed that no matter how much success Griner has against them Thursday night, the Liberty cannot give up their defensive principles.
"It's important not to overreact," he said Monday. "BG in one of those games [against the Liberty] had 13 points and yes there was some good passing and things like that, but it's something we're still trying to find that balance of being hyper-reactive to a really great player. To some extent they're gonna find ways to score, so try not to compromise your defense, you try to keep them guessing."
What Lies Ahead in Round 2?
Let's start out with what we know. Whether the Wings or Sky advance, the Minnesota Lynx, one of the most disciplined teams in the league, will be waiting for them. Sun head coach Curt Miller explained this in mid-August, noting he believed that the Lynx and his team were "the hardest-playing teams in the league."
There's a trickle-down effect in Minnesota, starting from its head coach, Cheryl Reeve, who has a glass ceiling of a team culture. Not a lot breaks it. And as Layshia Clarendon (who goes by they, she and he pronouns) noted after the Lynx's win against the Mystics on Sunday, Reeve is capable of making adjustments and getting her players to execute said changes. Clarendon explained that in the playoffs, that ability is integral.
"We have one of the best f--king coaches in the game of basketball that has the ability to make adjustments," they said. "And that's something, when you get into the playoffs, that you have to be able to do at halftime, you have to be able to do in the game, and I don't know if there's anyone better than Cheryl Reeve."
Speaking of Clarendon, he will be available for the Lynx's playoff run after coming off a right fibula injury. On Sunday against the Mystics, she played a physical 24.7 minutes, especially on defense. For the Lynx, having their top floor general healthy enough couldn't come at a better time.
What isn't as certain, however, is what lies ahead for the Seattle Storm. As of now, the defending champs aren't sure if Breanna Stewart will be good to go for their single-elimination game against the higher seed that advances from the first round Sunday.
As of Monday, head coach Noelle Quinn said Stewart hasn't practiced yet and is still rehabbing from her foot injury. She'll be reevaluated Friday, and if she can practice before Sunday, her probability to play would shoot way up.
But the Storm aren't waiting for Stewie; they are trying to get better without her. Look for the Storm to use more of Mercedes Russell and Ezi Magbegor together, as they did against the Mercury in their season finale. Assistant coach Gary Kloppenburg told The Next's Em Adler that the defending champs are going to need Magbegor and Russell to step up.
"I mean, she knows our system so well, so you know I thought it [was] obviously difficult to lose [Stewart] defensively as well as offensively, but I feel like I think we can still impact these teams," he said. "We just have less depth, we have just one less rotation up front, so I think it's a lot on Ezi and Cedes to stay out of foul trouble."