Feature image photos by Norm Hall, Meg Oliphant, Michael Hickey / Getty Images
The 2021 WNBA Playoffs kick off tonight on ESPN2 with a double-header between the Chicago Sky and the Dallas Wings, and the New York Liberty and the Phoenix Mercury. So of course Natalie and Heather got together to talk about it (after Natalie goaded Heather into buying Candace Parker’s new orange shoes, obviously).
Heather: Natalie, hello! And welcome to WNBA Playoff Day! Are you excited?
Natalie: I am excited… but also filled with a little dread? I’m not a fan of these single elimination games. It feels wrong that so much can hinge on just one game. What about you? Your team, the Liberty, is in one of those single elimination games so the stakes must feel higher for you?
Heather: Tonight feels like my Super Bowl to be honest. There’s the Liberty who miraculously made the playoffs in a scenario that seemed impossible (and that’s not a Liberty brag; they made it in because of other team’s losses). There’s the Wings, with my beloved Arike, who I love watching in post-season basketball more than just about any athlete since Tamika Catchings or Chamique Holdsclaw. There’s the Sky, with two former Lady Vols on the team, including Candace Parker who I want to see go out on top so badly. And then there’s the Mercury, who I always root against! There’s so much at stake!
You mentioned the single elimination thing. Maybe we should explain that for the uninitiated or confused. It is not a particularly beloved post-season format.
Natalie: It’s not. The first two rounds of the WNBA playoffs are single elimination games… it’s win or go home… whereas, the MNBA has opening round Best of Seven series. I’m not a fan of the format because it gives the top two teams in the league a double bye into the semifinals…which, ever since the WNBA moved to this format, almost guarantees that the top two teams will be competing in the WNBA Finals.
There’s no chance for upsets or for an underdog to really come in and do anything.
Heather: Right and that double bye feels especially important this year with it being both an Olympic year and with there being so many injuries. A few nights off to rest your best players — who are arguably some of the best players in the entire world — is an enormous advantage.
Natalie: Exactly… that’s why Jewell Loyd went crazy in Seattle’s last game because she wanted to secure the single bye so that she could get that extra rest for her team.
Heather: Right exactly!
Natalie: The playoff action kicks off tonight with Dallas and Chicago in the first match-up. Who have you got and why?
Heather: This is a tough one because I think the Wings and the Sky are the two teams in the league who are like… which team is going to show up on any given night. A lot of that, this year, is injuries. Candace Parker was out for a good chunk of the first half of the season with a foot injury. Satou Sabally, who it seems has been playing literally nonstop since she left Oregon, has been out for most of the post-Olympic break. And those two players make the hugest difference in the world for their teams. Both are presumably on for tonight! Then you’ve got both Arike [Ogunbowale] and [Diamond] DeShields — who covered SLAM! together recently, and which is sold out thank you very much! — who are each capable of going on a hot streak and dropping 40 points.
Though I’d say the pressure is on Arike for that tonight, and not as much on DeShields. I think where the Sky really have the advantage tonight is Courtney Vandersloot, a veteran point guard and WNBA all-star. The Wings have struggled all season to lock someone into the PG position. Even in their last game, they had four different players running the floor at different times. My heart says Wings, my head says Sky.
How about you? And! Same question for the second match-up between the WNBA villains, the Phoenix Mercury, and the inexplicable post-season team, The NY Liberty.
Natalie: I think you hit the nail on the head about the Wings and the Sky: these two teams are just impossible to predict on any given night. I’m glad to see Sabally back in the lineup for the Wings but I always worry about those late season re-additions (see also: Alyssa Thomas in Connecticut) in terms of upsetting the team strategy. I think you’re right to give the edge to the Sky because of their veteran leadership: Vandersloot and Quigley just ground this team so well…. and, of course you’ve got Parker who is someone who’s played on this stage before.
I like the Sky in that match-up but you’re right, Arike could go off for 40 points an just blow the Sky out of the gym. It really is anyone’s game.
The second game feels a bit easier to predict… even though there are still question marks about the relative health of that Phoenix Mercury line-up.
Heather: Hahah, right!
Natalie: Taurasi’s drive isn’t going to let her sit out a playoff run but how close to 100% is she? I think the Mercury had a great post-Olympics run while the Liberty have just collapsed down the stretch. I think if Skylar Diggins-Smith and Brittney Griner come to play, it’s an easy Mercury victory. And you know how much it pains me to say that!
Heather: That’s exactly it. You said the whole thing. I hate to say this, but honestly, I’m not even sure Phoenix needs Taurasi tonight. With Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith, you’ve already got two veterans who are top tier players and who have a LOT of experience winning single elimination playoff games. The Liberty haven’t played a second half of basketball since the Olympic break. It’s been one of the most infuriating collapses I’ve ever seen any team have in my three hundred years of watching women’s basketball. They have blown every. single. lead. they’ve gone into halftime with, and been basically ghosts for every second half of basketball they’ve played. Even at their best, this Liberty team would have trouble hanging with Griner and Diggins-Smith, and this team hasn’t been at their best in a minute.
Natalie: What’s the problem in New York, do you think? I’m mystified because there were so many bright spots for the Liberty early on: the return of Sabrina, the re-assertion of Laney, the emergence of Onyenwere. Is it a coaching problem? Are the players just not locked in? Or are they just tired/injured?
Heather: It’s gotta be a coaching problem. All of the pieces are there, like you said. Sabrina has not lived up to the hype, but she has become a solid team player in the second half of this season. Laney took a little dip, but, again, like you said, she’s come back just as strong. Onyenwere, Rookie of the Year!, has been an excellent contributor in every role she’s filled. Whitcomb and Allen have been solid from the outside, and both have brought lots of energy to the glass as well.
And then there’s Natasha Howard, who is the KEY to the Liberty, not only because she can score from anywhere, is tough as heck on defense, and dominates the glass — but also because Sabrina Ionescu cannot play small ball. She can’t. She has been a different player with Howard, with glimpses of the kind of player she was at Oregon when she had Sabally. They are a REALLY SOLID BASKETBALL TEAM. But the coaching has waylaid them this entire season. Turnovers after turnovers, collapses after collapses, you can see in their body language that they just feel tired and defeated. It’s weird because Walt Hopkins is supposed to be some kind of player development genius, but the exact opposite has been true for him in New York.
Natalie: I agree. I also think that the team lacks veteran leadership which I think is crucial. I look back at the decision to cut Layshia Clarendon earlier in the season and think it might be the biggest mistake they made all season. Maybe they weren’t putting up big points (though, Lay was taking care of the basketball which a thing the Liberty desperately need) but the intangibles they were bringing to that team…starting in the Bubble and then into this season. I mean, you think about the bubble season: the Liberty showed more energy and engagement then even though they won just 2 games than they’ve shown at points during this stretch. I think Hopkins thought he could manage it on his own and it’s apparent that he cannot.
Heather: I agree one hundred percent! And Lay also turned around the Lynx!
I’ll get to the semis in one sec, but since you mentioned the Bubble — I always thought it was going to hurt Ionescu’s career and the Liberty’s dynamics that she missed that time in the Bubble. There’s no way to replicate what happened there, at the moment in time politically and culturally, and with the way the Liberty and the WNBA have singled out Sabrina — even when Laney was running circles around her for an entire season — she needed that time to learn, to listen, to grow with the team and the league. I think that’s also been one of the main things this team has struggled with. There’s a reason when Skylar Diggins-Smith clapped back at Jaz Jones on Twitter this year about, “If you’re worried about whose getting airtime, start with your team’s PR people” that it shut everyone up.
Natalie: I think that’s a great point.
All you had in the Bubble was time to bond with your teammates and to miss out on that, as a first year player and as the face of the franchise, is crucial.
Heather: Absolutely — and to reiterate what you said, the person who WAS there, and who was also a founding member of the Social Justice Council was… Layshia Clarendon.
Heather: Hey so speaking of Lay, who’s gonna meet up in the semis? Do you see any world where any of the single elimination teams advance past the semis?
Natalie: I think this is really where injuries come into play: is Breanna Stewart back for the Storm and is she anywhere near 100%? Is Diana Taurasi back and healthy? Is Griner back in post-Olympic form? Are Bird and Loyd fully recovered?
The Mercury’s been playing great basketball, post-Olympics, and Minnesota’s looked great in stretches as well. Plus, you don’t want to count out the Storm because they’ve been on this stage before and dominated…and, if Stewie’s back, it feels like all they need to do is flip a light switch somewhere.
But do I think they get past the Aces or the Sun in a series? No, I don’t. I think we’re headed for an Aces/Sun Final.
Heather: Well Natalie, you’ll be shocked to hear it, but I agree with you completely! If you’d asked me at the beginning of the season, I would have said the Storm are absolutely going back to the finals. With that roster? Come on. But there’s only so much a human body can handle! These players are banged up and exhausted.
Natalie: Absolutely. I think Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi are capable of a lot of things…but no matter how great your vegan diet is, you can only outrun Father Time for so long.
Heather: I actually read an article with Brittney Griner this morning where someone asked her why she dunked so much this year, and she was like, “I’m getting old, man. I’m gonna be too sore or physically unable to dunk soon enough.”
No doubt we’ll talk again as the playoffs progress, but I did want to ask you about two other quick things today! The first is: Who’s your Player of the Year?
Natalie: It’s a tough choice but I have to give it to Jonquel Jones. The best player on the best team
Heather: That’s a great choice! She has stepped up beyond what anyone could ever have asked of her since AT got injured. She deserves all the accolades. Her only competition on my mind is Sylvia Fowles, who has just been next level in every way this year. One thing the Olympics proved (again) is that if you can’t contend with the US’ bigs, you can’t compete with them. Fowles has delivered scoring, rebounding, and especially defensively.
Natalie: I think Griner, Tina Charles and Sylvia Fowles were all in that conversation though…but Jones just stands a part
Heather: Absolutely. And then my final question for you is: Wasn’t it a hoot watching people be so shocked that so many gay players were on the list of WNBA Top 25?
Natalie: Fowles is Defensive Player of the Year, hands down. I’m just so impressed by how her game continues to improve.
Heather: Agree agree!
Natalie: Megan Rapinoe (and science) says you can’t win a championship without gays on your team so I wasn’t surprised. But I think…as someone who’s been a fan of this league for (gasp!) 25 years now…I don’t take their presence as out players for granted. The WNBA wasn’t always so welcoming.
Heather: The opposite, in fact. And honestly, if the WNBA was WHOLLY welcoming, that list of 25 would include a lot more openly gay players.
Natalie: Oh, absolutely.
Heather: I guess the only question left for me about tonight is: Can I stay awake for a 10pm game? Of course, with the Liberty only playing one half of basketball these days, maybe I won’t have to.
Natalie: I hope we have some great basketball tonight… and, maybe, some defense being played.