Aces and Storm Headline a Blockbuster Playoff Round 2
With their respective sweeps of the Mercury and Mystics, Las Vegas and Seattle will duke it out for a spot in the finals.
By Laura Fay
It’s do-or-die time in the WNBA, and the stars are putting on a show. As Seattle’s Big Three clicks into high gear, the Aces starters continue their dominant run over the league. With both teams recording convincing Round 1 sweeps, the two most in-form teams in the league will square off in the semifinal best-of-five series that starts this Sunday.
Aces Stamp Their Names as Title Favorites
The Aces reclaimed the No. 1 seed on the last day of the regular season, and they’ve looked every bit the part in this finals series. Despite a shaky start against a severely undermanned Phoenix squad, Las Vegas pulled away for two double-digit victories that put the rest of the league on notice.
To say the Aces demolished the Mercury would be an understatement. Though they started Game 1 slowly, there was never any doubt about the outcome—which was only reinforced come the fourth quarter. Up just five points, Las Vegas threw down the gauntlet. They blitzed the Mercury 28–17 in the final term, padding a double-digit margin that belied the intensity of the contest.
Las Vegas took that momentum into Game 2, and this time didn’t give Phoenix any breathing room. It was a barrage from the tip-off. The Aces hit their first ten shots before burying the Mercury under an onslaught of three-pointers that more than avenged a semi-final loss to them last year.
Granted, neither side looks like they did just 12 months ago. While the Mercury have obviously been ravaged by bad luck and injuries, the Aces have stepped up their play at the prime point of the year.
Under head coach Becky Hammon, Las Vegas is playing more free than they have in years. They’ve expanded their game to beyond the three-point arc and have reaped the rewards in spectacular fashion. Eight Aces players hit from deep on Saturday, setting the new WNBA record with 23 made threes.
A decimation of the demoralized Mercury might not be the best test of Las Vegas’s title aspirations, but they fared better than fellow top seeds. Chicago and Connecticut were both taken to three games by their lower-ranked opponents, and the Aces won the regular season series against both of them. Seattle, their second-round opponent, went 1–3 against Las Vegas this year.
Their advancement also knocked out the Mystics, the only team to sweep the Aces in the regular season. With only a showdown against the Storm left to book a ticket to the finals, Las Vegas is well and truly in control of their destiny.
Big Three Shine as Seattle Sweeps D.C.
If there was any series we would have projected to go to three games, this battle between the Storm and Mystics was it. Still, while their higher-ranked peers were forced to travel across the country for Game 3s, Seattle held home court advantage and now stares down the Aces for a chance at the finals.
After Washington led for nearly all of Game 1, the Storm needed a miracle to clinch the win—and it came in the form of Jewell Loyd. After not hitting a field goal all game, Loyd scored 12 points in the final five minutes to seal Washington’s fate. As Elena Delle Donne’s last gasp three fell short, Loyd was the hero—but she wasn’t the only player to step up. Breanna Stewart was consistent as always, but has improved her rebounding game going into the finals. Stewart’s 23pt/12reb showing on Thursday was her third straight double-double. Stewart anchored the team when the Mystics threatened to pull away early, and Loyd dealt the final blow.
Both stars continued their fabulous form in Game 2. Loyd was a dagger from deep, collecting 19 points as Stewart rebounded from a shaky offensive first half to flirt with a triple-double. But this time, it was Sue Bird who stole the show. Playing in her final season, Bird extended her career by at least a few more games with an 18pt/10ast double-double. Both are season-high marks, as well as the first WNBA double-double from a player over 40. Clearly feeling the moment, Bird was surprisingly emotional on Sunday. After hitting a dagger three in the closing minutes, she stuck her tongue out and grinned all the way back down the court.
Her fairytale title run will continue, though now Seattle must leave Climate Pledge and face the Aces on the road. For the Storm, the key to that matchup is rebounding.
“When we’re even or winning the battle of the boards, we are successful”, coach Quinn said after the game.
She’s right. Seattle outrebounded the Mystics 33–25 throughout Game 3, and held a crucial 19–6 margin in second-chance points. Stewart was a walking double-double this playoff series, but she’ll face the toughest test of them all against A’ja Wilson. With the league’s leading rebounder on Las Vegas’s side, Seattle will live and die by their tactics off the glass. Needless to say, we’re in for a treat with this first semifinal match-up.
Wings Force Game Three, But Can’t Close it Out at Home
The Dallas Wings’ season came to an end last night when, after a courageous fight back, they fell short against the No. 3 ranked Connecticut Sun.
Dallas shocked the league on Sunday, pulling off a win on the road with their season on the line. This time, no amount of home-court advantage or push from Arike Ogunbowale’s return could get them across the finish line.
That was due, at least in part, to an injury to Isabelle Harrison. Harrison went down with an ankle injury after just one quarter and took no further part in the contest. After coming off the bench for the last month, Harrison was inserted into the starting lineup during Game 2 to contest Connecticut’s tall forwards. It largely paid off—Jonquel Jones still had 20 points, but none of the Sun’s other starters even reached double-digits.
With Harrison out, coach Vickie Johnson had to rely on Satou Sabally for increased minutes. Still working her way back from her own injury, Sabally was alright but didn’t provide the same presence as Harrison.
While the Wings kept it close for a half, that was largely due to extremely poor shot selection and missed free throws by the Sun. Once Connecticut’s shots started hitting, the game got out of hand, fast.
There are a lot of positives for a young Wings core. Teaira McCowan showed her true potential near the end of the season, and Marina Mabrey excelled when shifted over to the 2 guard position. Still, that production has skyrocketed Mabrey’s value going into free agency, and a lot of Dallas’s salary is tied up in Arike Ogunbowale’s super max contract. There’s going to be a lot of juggling in the offseason, but the Wings look like a team just one piece away from being truly great.
Peddy Injury Proves a Bridge Too Far for Undermanned Mercury
As Shey Peddy grabbed her ankle midway through the third quarter of Phoenix’s Game 1 matchup against the Aces, the Mercury had to know their season was over. With the bench in tears, Phoenix went on to get blown out in the fourth quarter and the entirety of Game 2, ending their postseason campaign at the first hurdle.
Nobody was surprised. The lineup that took the floor on Saturday was made entirely of former reserves—including one player who’d joined the team just two weeks prior. You’d be forgiven for thinking the injury report was Phoenix’s real starting five.
As such, it’s hard to find adjectives for the Mercury’s season. While the outcome is obviously disappointing for a team that made the finals just last year, that simply doesn’t do justice to all the obstacles Phoenix has faced this season.
Brittney Griner’s detention has hung over the team like a cloud. Intra-team fighting and strained player-coach relationships followed. Injuries snuffed out the smallest spark of a playoff run. All things considered, even making the postseason was a victory for this squad.
Nobody knows the way forward for Phoenix. Griner remains imprisoned across the world, and there is no guarantee of any WNBA return even if she does make it back onto US soil in the near future. Diana Taurasi has given no indications of retirement, but the 40-year-old franchise icon ended the season on the injured list. All-Star guard Skylar Diggins-Smith was absent for the last two weeks for personal reasons. When asked if she would return to the franchise, Mercury general manager simply said she was “under contract for next year”. It wasn’t the most encouraging sign.
Still, given the absolute heartbreaker this season has been for Phoenix, it’s probably just a good thing it’s over.