There’s a case to be made for all four teams in the Western Conference playoffs.
Minnesota is the defending champ and had the best regular-season record – not to mention a deep, young, talented roster.
L.A. has the league’s best rookie in Nneka Ogwumike, the league’s most hyped star in Candace Parker and one of the league’s best clutch players in Kristi Toliver.
San Antonio has Becky Hammon, a great coach in Dan Hughes, and a well-oiled machine that hums at both ends of the floor.
Seattle has veteran star power in the likes of Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson, and there might be just enough juice left to make a serious run at another WNBA title.
But after this weekend, only two will be left – and here’s a look at how it might play out.
Los Angeles-San Antonio
Becky Hammon is 35, and it’s been a long summer. She played the first half of the WNBA season, unlike many Olympians, and then went off to London, where she topped the Russian team in minutes (not to mention scoring and assists). Then it was back in the saddle in San Antonio, where she led the Silver Stars to 21 wins and came within a whisker of winning the WNBA assists’ title.
But since Aug. 23, she hasn’t been the Becky San Antonio fans have been used to. Up to that point in the season, she was shooting 46.7 percent from the field; after that, 37.3. And her three-point percentage is just 30.3 since then, and the three-point attack is one of San Antonio’s key advantages against L.A.
The Silver Stars need every advantage, as the Sparks shoot better, defend better, rebound better, get to the line more often (and make a higher percentage) and block more shots, so if San Antonio is going to upset the higher seed, the Silver Stars need the Becky of old, not the old Becky.
Of course, Sophia Young is probably San Antonio’s best player, but she can’t carry the offense alone. Inconsistent Danielle Adams can light it up on occasion, but she can also disappear: She’s had five games with more than 20 points, but 11 with seven or fewer. Jia Perkins (38 percent) and Shameka Christon (35.6) haven’t shot well and though Danielle Robinson has emerged as an elite WNBA player, she’s not a perimeter shooter – and without Hammon making those long threes, the San Antonio offense can stagnate.
Meanwhile, L.A. has added a three-point shooter, as Australian Jenna O’Hea returned after the Olympics and is making 50 percent of her threes, adding to the firepower of Kristi Toliver, who is the team’s leading scorer and, many claim, its best player.
What about Candace Parker? Parker’s plus/minus (which compares how a team does with her on the floor as opposed to without her) is a deadly -5.2, most of which comes from her lack of defense. Parker can be spectacular, and if she plays up to her massive potential in postseason, there’s no one on San Antonio's roster who can slow her down. The good news for Sparks' fans is that she’s averaged 23.7 points, 10.6 rebounds and 3.0 blocks in her last three games, so she might be ready to dominate all through the playoffs.
The rest of the starters are elite caliber as well, with two effective veterans (Alana Beard and DeLisha Milton-Jones) sandwiching rookie star Nneka Ogwumike (who has by far the best plus/minus on the team). Beard has gotten steadily better as the year has gone on, and though Milton-Jones isn’t the DeNasty of old, she’s still one of the better players in the league.
There’s not a lot of depth, as Jantel Lavender has never quite lived up to the hype, and Marissa Coleman hasn’t come close, but the starting five is very tough to match up with, and with Carol Ross in charge, the team is much more organized than in the past.
So who’s going to win? It really comes down to the two big names, and if the recent past is any guide, Candace Parker is much more likely to carry a team than Becky Hammon. Then again, those who have counted Hammon out before have almost always been wrong, and Parker has never been known for long stretches of consistent brilliance.
Still, it’s hard to pick against the Sparks – though it says here it takes three tough games for L.A. to advance.
Lindsay Whalen #13 of the Minnesota Lynx goes up for a layup against DeWanna Bonner #24 of the Phoenix Mercury. Whalen led the WNBA with 5.6 assists per game (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE)
Minnesota vs. Seattle
As with all Brian Agler’s teams, the Storm play great defense – and usually that’s enough for a better record than 16-18.
After all, Seattle shoots 43.4% from the field to just 39.1% for the opposition, but the Storm still were outscored on the year. Why? Weak rebounding and bad ballhandling.
The first is especially troubling given that Minnesota rebounds so well (+6.9 per game, by far the best margin in the league), but the Lynx also turned the ball over 61 fewer times.
So is this going to be a Minnesota romp? Well, if the Storm defense can slow down the hot-shooting Lynx (47.3%), and Lauren Jackson and Ann Wauters are both 100%, it could be a lot harder for the conference champs than people expect. Remember, Jackson only played nine games, and Wauters battled injuries, but if the two 6-5 veterans play well, they present a serious matchup problem for a Minnesota team that has no starters taller than 6-2.
And Seattle does have Sue Bird at the point, though her backcourt running mate, Tanisha Wright, has not played well this summer. But if Wright joins Jackson and Wauters in a return to top form, the Storm are a formidable opponent for anyone.
On top of that, veteran future Hall-of-Famers Tina Thompson and Katie Smith will be around to come off the bench, and youngster Shekinna Stricklen can supply some spark as well.
Of course, Minnesota doesn’t have to worry about any “ifs”. The Lynx just need their players to do what they’ve been doing for two years, and Seattle’s veteran skills just won’t matter.
Though the focus is usually on leading scorer Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore is the team’s best player, as her all-around game – especially defensively – makes up for Augustus’ slightly better scoring efficiency.
Then again, there are those who would claim that Lindsay Whalen is really Minnesota’s most important player, and she led the league with 5.6 assists (2.6 A/TO to Bird’s 2.4), was a 50 percent shooter and grabbed 4.2 rebounds a game.
But what about Rebekkah Brunson, the high-flying power forward who averaged 8.9 rebounds a game? Or inspirational and very effective Taj McWilliams-Franklin (1.4 blocks a game despite being just 6-2)?
And then there are talented guards Monica Wright and Candice Wiggins coming off the bench, along with emerging forward Devereaux Peters.
Put it all together, and it adds up to 27-7, the best record in the league, and one win short of the all-time best, so a Seattle upset really doesn’t compute. Maybe the Storm veterans can muster up visions of 2004 and win one game, but most likely this is a Lynx sweep – though it may not be as easy as some expect.