A look at Wednesday’s WNBA matchups.
by Clay Kallam
The WNBA Playoffs begin, but unless you have NBA TV, you won’t see that much of them. There are 18 possible games in the first two rounds, and only six will be on ESPN2 or ABC, meaning that for many fans, a sports bar or friends with DirecTV are the only way to see the games.
That’s a shame, really, because the contracted WNBA – down to 12 teams this year – is as competitive as it ever has been, and the Playoffs are filled with intriguing match-ups. Sure, Seattle has a big edge in its first-round match-up with L.A., but that’s the only series that looks like a sweep.
Here’s a look at the two series that begin Wednesday, starting with what could be the first big upset of the posteason in the East.
Atlanta (19-15, fourth) vs. Washington (22-12, first), 7 p.m., NBA TV: At first glance, this looks like a nice reward for the Mystics’ strong finish. After all, Washington won the last three games in the series (by comfortable margins), and the Dream are on a 1-6 stumble.
But look a little closer. Atlanta’s August schedule was brutal, and after a heartbreaking 95-93 loss at Indiana, the Dream’s chances of finishing first or second were slim – and in the East, there’s not much difference between finishing third or fourth. So Atlanta finished poorly, in part because the Dream had nothing to play for and in part because Marynell Meadors took a couple games to rest Angel McCoughtry, Iziane Castro Marques and her other stalwarts.
So in short, the Mystics better be ready to go because, by the match-ups, they are far from heavy favorites. Sure, Lindsay Harding should eat up Shalee Lehning at the point, but the Dream gets its offense from wings McCoughtry and Castro Marques – and one of those two must be guarded by 77-year-old Katie Smith. The other will face off with Monique Curry, and the last time the two teams played, Atlanta’s duo outscored their Washington counterparts 44-26.
Call the Sancho Lyttle-Crystal Langhorne match-up the battle of the most improveds, and also call it a tossup, especially since they have much different styles. At the end of the game, though, each will have her points and rebounds – assuming Lyttle doesn’t foul out in 19 minutes as she did the last time they played.
At center, Erika DeSouza is a Brazilian load, but Washington will counter with a pair of veterans (Chasity Melvin and Nakia Sanford) who should be able to keep her from doing too much damage.
Bench play is not a strength for either team (or for many teams in the league, for that matter), though Marissa Coleman has had her moments for the Mystics and Armintie Price has done the same for the Dream. With Kelly Miller apparently out, Coco Miller is now the backup point guard for Atlanta, and 6-7 Alison Bales is a solid frontcourt reserve. Washington counters with the inconsistent Matee Ajavon, who is consistent in one aspect of her game: She’s taken 49 three-pointers this season, and missed 40, which is something Atlanta, at least, can count on.
So who’s going to win? I like the Dream in the upset, as they are a little more rested, a little deeper and a little more explosive. If McCoughtry and Castro Marques both play well in two of the three games, Atlanta will have the firepower advantage, and will advance to the conference finals.
Los Angeles (13-21, fourth) vs. Seattle (28-6, first), 11 p.m., ESPN2: First, let’s give a little love to DeLisha Milton-Jones, who has spent her career as an underappreciated complementary player on Olympic teams and WNBA champions. But down the stretch in 2010, the soon-to-be 36-year-old caught fire, leading the Sparks into the Playoffs. DMJ, as she is known to message-board posters, wound up averaging 15.4 ppg on 47.0 percent shooting, and of course is one of the top defenders in the league.
That is a good thing, because if L.A. has any chance at all to knock off the Storm, Milton-Jones is going to have to contain MVP candidate Lauren Jackson, who is merely the best player in the world. The 6-5 Jackson had an ordinary season by her lofty standards, averaging 20.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 0.9 steals a game. She shot only 46.2 percent from the field and 91.0 percent from the line, and is as hypercompetitive as Milton-Jones.
The Sparks do have a similar match-up advantage with the resurgent Tina Thompson facing off against Camille Little – even though Little is the most underrated player in the league. Thompson finished very strong, like Milton-Jones, and got her 16.6 ppg on 44.6 percent shooting (35.2 percent from beyond the arc). At 35, she’s not the player she once was, but she’s still better than Little, despite Little’s superb season (10.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 50.0 percent shooting, solid defense).
After that, though, it’s all downhill for L.A. Ticha Penicheiro, continuing a theme, is playing awfully well for a point guard who turns 36 next month, but Sue Bird is squarely in her prime, and is a better shooter and tough match-up for Penicheiro. Swin Cash is older than Noelle Quinn, but is better than her Sparks’ counterpart, while Tanisha Wright’s consistency and ballhandling give Seattle the edge over Marie Ferdinand-Harris at the two.
Of course, if L.A. had Candace Parker, it would be a different story, but the Sparks don’t. In fact, they don’t even have Betty Lennox (also injured), so they have to rely on Kristi Toliver (a shoot-first guard who doesn’t defend) and Andrea Riley (a diminutive rookie who’s shooting 30.3 percent) as backcourt subs. Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton has had some moments in the frontcourt for L.A., but the dropoff from Thompson and Milton-Jones to Wisdom Hylton is significant.
Then again, Seattle’s bench isn’t exactly spectacular. Svetlana Abrosimova is capable but erratic, Le’Coe Willingham is tough but undersized and Jana Vesela is adequate but untested. Still, that’s a lot more than the Sparks have coming off the bench, which is why, when you put this all together, the Storm sweep into the Western Conference finals.