WNBA Playoffs Roundtable Discussion
SLAM writers preview and predict.
The 2011 WNBA Playoffs are wide open, folks. Attendance is up. Ratings are up. With the NBA season looking grim, now’s a perfect chance to give the W a shot. Below, our women’s basketball writers (Clay Kallam, Cub Buenning, Stephen Litel, and Ben York) weigh in on what should be a phenomenal post-season. – Ed.
Western Conference: No.1 Minnesota Lynx vs. No.4 San Antonio Silver Stars
Clay Kallam: As a proud, long-time member of the Dead Wrong in Public club, I stare at the computer screen with full knowledge that not only am I usually wrong when it comes to predictions, but this year’s WNBA playoffs look so unpredictable, that Dead Wrong might not be enough – I’m thinking more Dead Wrong until the Dark Energy Leaches out of a Cold, Dead Universe Wrong.
But hey, that’s what they give me the big bucks, right? Oh, I forgot – that’s one of the things I got wrong about a career in journalism.
Minnesota (27-7, first) vs. San Antonio (18-16, fourth): The Lynx won nine more games (out of 34) than the Silver Stars, and to put that in perspective, nine wins is the combined total for Tulsa and Washington. In short, Minnesota is the heavy favorite, and deservedly so.
The Lynx are swimming in talent, with Candice Wiggins and Monica Wright both coming off the bench, and their only weakness is an adequate 73.7% team free-throw percentage. Otherwise, they defend, rebound, shoot and handle the ball as well or better than any other team in the league. Sure, they don’t have much playoff experience, but ask any coach if she’d rather have the most talented team or the most experienced team heading into postseason.
San Antonio’s is more experienced, but “experienced” could also be thought of as “old.” Yes, Becky Hammon can still make things happen, but she’s 34 – and she’s still the heart of this team. Unfortunately, she’s just too small to rebound, and the Silver Stars inability to control the boards will kill them in this series.
Prediction: Minnesota sweeps
Key player(s): Seimone Augustus
Cub Buenning: While the Lynx won all four meetings this year, each game was closely contested game, with the last two decided on last-second shots by the Lynx. The Silver Stars do bring some pieces to the match-up, but they might be a bit too inexperienced and there are just more formidable options on the opposing team’s roster. Becky Hammon can’t get 40 every night.
Prediction: Minnesota in three
Key player(s): With stars aplenty in this series, I feel it will be the frontcourt of the Lynx that will be the deciding factor. When Rebekkah Brunson and Taj McWilliams-Franklin (and Jess Adair for that matter) are a force not only on the boards but on the scoreboard, as well, the Lynx are basically untouchable.
Stephen Litel: The Lynx are on a roll heading into the Playoffs and swept San Antonio in the regular season. While games were close, Minnesota is on a mission and can take pressure off themselves by ending this series quickly.
Prediction: Minnesota in two
Key player(s): Danielle Adams. If Adams can show up and play as she was before her injury, it wouldn’t be a shock to see this series go three games. How Minnesota defends her and how quickly she adjusts will determine that.
Ben York: I’ve looked at this match-up from every angle imaginable, and I just don’t see a way that San Antonio wins this series. Minnesota is too deep, too disciplined, and on too much of a roll to be stopped.
I’ve been continually impressed with how hard the Silver Stars have played all season, especially with the amount of youth on the team, but that could also be their Achilles heel in the playoffs. Look for Becky Hammon to carry the team as much as possible but this is Minnesota’s series to lose.
There are times in the playoffs where talent trumps experience. The edge has to be given to the Lynx when this happens. The great part about Minnesota is that every player has bought into their specific role on the team and it has translated into a franchise-defining season.
Prediction: Minnesota in two
Key player(s): Lindsay Whalen. The way she has guided the Lynx offense the entire year is a thing of beauty. I don’t see that changing with the amount of experience she’s previously had in the playoffs. Keep an eye the chemistry between her and Seimone Augustus offensively; it’s incredibly fun to watch.
Western Conference: No.2 Seattle Storm vs. No.3 Phoenix Mercury
Clay Kallam: Seattle (21-13, second) vs. Phoenix (19-15, third): When Paul Westhead led Phoenix to the WNBA title, his mantra was “Shoot it before you turn it over” – and led by Diana Taurasi, the Mercury came out bombing, especially from beyond the arc.
This year, though, the Mercury had more turnovers than their opponents, and made only 11 more three-pointers. In fact, they took 132 fewer shots than the other teams, and only the fact that they made 46.1% got them into third place.
Numbers aside, however, they still have Taurasi, and presumably Penny Taylor is well-rested after missing games down the stretch – and if those two are on their games, Phoenix will be very tough to beat.
The Storm also needs an Australian to bounce back, one Lauren Jackson, who had midseason hip surgery and wasn’t her MVP self before or after missing 21 games. In fact, Jackson had just four assists all season (in 322 minutes) and shot below 40%, so she was clearly not at an MVP, or even all-WNBA, level.
Swin Cash had no medical excuse (that we know of) for what was at best an ordinary season, which meant Sue Bird had to pretty much do everything – and she did her best. Still, who knows which LJ will show up, or whether Cash was just saving it up for the playoffs.
In the end, though, Seattle has a real homecourt advantage at Key Arena, and the Storm won three out of four in the regular season, so …
Prediction: Seattle in three
Key player(s): Lauren Jackson
Cub Buenning: I am the biggest fan of the type of ball played by the Mercury, but the defense, experience and now health that the Storm can boast will be too much. Lauren Jackson is back and gives the returning champs the extra piece that had been missing for spurts of time during the regular season. The two teams played pretty even this year and each have championship pedigrees, but the Storm are now fully locked-and-loaded.
Prediction: Seattle in two
Key Player(s): Love Swin, Love Diana, Love Penny, Love Sue, too, but Katie Smith just might be the one player easily overlooked (despite her recent Western Conference Player of the Week nod). Smith’s ability to knock down big shots in key moments could prove to be the difference.
Stephen Litel: In a first round battle between two former champions, the odds go with the team with the home court advantage. Seattle also plays better defense as a whole. Expect Game Three in Seattle to be one of the best games of the Playoffs.
Prediction: Seattle in three
Key player(s): Lauren Jackson. Is she truly back from injury? If she plays at the MVP-level she’s known for, it makes winning the series much more difficult on Phoenix.
Ben York: Call it a gut feeling. Call me a moron. But I think Phoenix finds a way to put the entire package together at the right time. We’ve seen glimpses of brilliance from the Mercury, especially early in the season when they won nine of ten games completely dominating their opponents.
Yes, I realize the Mercury lost home-court advantage, but this is a resilient team that knows how to win in the postseason. Conversely, for that matter, so is the Storm. But I think the Mercury offense we saw early in the season returns in this series.
Phoenix’s momentum has slipped a bit of late, but it’s hard for me to bet against a motivated Diana Taurasi and a deep Phoenix bench (something they haven’t had in their championship years in 2007 and 2009).
While the Storm may have a psychological edge, I think the Mercury finds a way to overcome it.
Prediction: Phoenix in three
Key player(s): Penny Taylor. Now rested and fully healthy (again), Taylor presents problems for the Storm’s defense that they might not have an answer for. They can live with Taurasi averaging 33 points a game and winning, but not if Penny Taylor puts up another 20-25.
Eastern Conference: No.1 Indiana Fever vs. No.4 New York Liberty
Clay Kallam: Indiana (21-13, first) vs. New York (19-15, fourth): The very tired cliché about the window of opportunity is still hanging around, and luckily for me, as it applies perfectly to the Fever. It’s pretty much now or never for the thirtysomethings dotting this roster, and that sense of urgency could take Indiana quite a ways this fall. On the other hand, the Fever don’t rebound well, an aspect of the game that Pat Summitt famously said wins championships.
The Liberty, on the other hand, are a young team (albeit with an old coach) that doesn’t really do anything particularly well – except find ways to win. New York also has the marvelous Cappie Pondexter, who’s capable of stealing a game in this series pretty much all by herself, especially since Indiana doesn’t have anyone who can match up to her.
In the end, the series will be decided by the inconsistent Liberty roster. If up-and-down players such as Nicole Powell, Essence Carson, Kia Vaughn and Leilani Mitchell are all rolling in the same game, New York will win. If none of them are, the Liberty will lose, but to have a chance, John Whisenant needs at least two to be at peak efficiency. And Cappie to close the deal in crunch time.
That’s asking too much, I’m afraid.
Prediction: Indiana in three.
Key player(s): Cappie Pondexter
Cub Buenning: This is my upset special for the first round, because I believe in what I have seen out of this Liberty team. Indiana has been the best Eastern Conference team this year, but did not finish the year with the same zest with which they started. The Liberty, on the other hand, has played well and with Cappie Pondexter, Kia Vaughn, Nicole Powell, Plenette Pierson and Essence Carson, an upset is in order.
Prediction: New York in three
Key player(s): Tamika Catchings is surely the headliner in this series, but Cappie is the most dynamic postseason player and can throw a team on her shoulders at a moment’s notice. In addition, the Fever’s lack of playmakers in the backcourt might be exposed in this series with the guard-heavy squad from the Big Apple and I feel some great things to come these playoffs for Cappie.
Stephen Litel: Indiana stubbed their toe heading into the Playoffs and New York is rolling lately. This will be a fun series, but it’s difficult to imagine the Liberty winning Game Three on the road.
Prediction: Indiana in three
Key player(s): Tamika Catchings. If her right knee continues to bother her and she’s not able to play up to her normal incredible standards, it could cause trouble for Indiana. However, Catchings is a pro’s pro and expectations are she will play great.
Ben York: I’ve said it before, but the Indiana Fever is the Boston Celtics of the WNBA. They have a plethora of veterans who know how to win, they lock things down on the defensive end of the floor, and possess several reliable threats on offense.
Furthermore, we often underestimate how difficult it is to win at Conseco Fieldhouse. When that stadium is packed and fans are engaged, it’s nearly equivalent to the advantage the Storm has playing at Key Arena.
Plus, Tamika Catchings is playing out of her mind. The woman is on a mission. Couple that with a talented supporting cast and a favorable match-up against an inconsistent Liberty team, and I see the Fever taking care of New York early.
Prediction: Indiana in two
Key player(s): Going with the trend here – Tamika Catchings. She’s as driven as I’ve ever seen her to win. Plus, in the playoffs, Super Catchings usually shows up. No reason to think that she’ll have a letdown now.
Eastern Conference: No.2 Connecticut Sun vs. No.3 Atlanta Dream
Clay Kallam: Connecticut (21-13, second) vs. Atlanta (20-14, third): Despite the Sun’s higher seed, the Dream is really in control of this series – and by that I mean that how Atlanta plays will determine the outcome.
If the Dream makes some threes (26.1% on the season) and hit some free throws (69.4%), and Angel McCoughtry channels her emotions rather than indulges them, Atlanta wins. After all, the Dream went to the WNBA Finals last year, and their slow start this year is clearly attributable to the late arrival and subsequent injury of Sancho Lyttle. She missed 12 games, but even so, wound up averaging 10.0 ppg and 6.3 rpg. And with Armintie Price replacing the increasingly erratic Iziane Castro Marques, this is now a very solid lineup.
Connecticut’s frontcourt is very good, with Tina Charles and Asjha Jones, and Renee Montgomery is a pretty good point guard – but the other two starters (Danielle McCray and Kalana Greene) are just not up to WNBA postseason standards. Kara Lawson is steady but can’t defend, and Tan White has been lost in the ozone all year.
You can see where this is going …
Prediction: Atlanta sweeps
Key player(s): Angel McCoughtry
Cub Buenning: I feel that the Sun is the elite team of the Eastern Conference with developing young talent that is still figuring out the professional game. Atlanta has the goods down low (Erika DeSouza and Sancho Lyttle) to battle with Connecticut’s young superstar in Tina Charles, but I am not sure that the Dream have much else beyond the scoring star, Angel McCoughtry.
Prediction: Connecticut in two
Key player(s): The Sun needs big performances from their backcourt of Renee Montgomery and Kara Lawson, but Charles is one of the league’s most versatile post players with the ability to dominate inside and out. In just her second pro season, Charles was the league’s top rebounder, a top ten scorer and even threw in a late-season triple-double to boot (almost).
Stephen Litel: This will be another fun series with two teams with legit championship aspirations clash, but in the end, Connecticut is a slightly better team and more athletic.
Prediction: Connecticut in three
Key player(s): Erika de Souza. How well she matches up with Charles and affects what she does on the court will be a huge factor in the outcome of this series.
Ben York: There’s something beautiful about a team who has turned things around midseason and has a unified belief in each other – the Dream certainly has that. They didn’t start the 2011 season how anyone would’ve thought, but they’ve been on a tear of late and seemingly rediscovered their 2010 swagger.
As Clay said, there just aren’t very many (if any) holes in the Dream’s lineup currently. I think their experience from 2010 has taught them how to win in the postseason and that will prove to be the difference in this series.
When Atlanta is clicking, they can literally shut teams down. They’re at their best when they get to the line at an effective rate and force their style of play on the opponent. If the last month is any indication, they’ve figured out how to do this and it would be crazy to think it will stop on a dime.
Prediction: Atlanta in two
Key player(s): Erika de Souza. My man Stephen Litel nailed it; if she can give Tina Charles problems, the Dream will win. If Charles dominates as she has virtually all season, the Sun still has a chance.
What do you think? Let us know in the comment section below.