WNBA Playoffs: The Greatest Show on Earth

Feature image photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Whew, the WNBA Playoffs are closing out round one with some real nail-biters. Natalie and Heather are here and queer to break it all down. Heather has lost her voice from yelling at the TV.


Natalie: Well, Heather, we delayed our regular WNBA chat by a few days so that we could get the opportunity to talk about the second games of all the first round series…and boy did that Washington Mystics/New York Liberty game make it worth the wait! Have you recovered from that exciting game yet? Have the cats forgiven you and Stacy for scaring them?

Heather: Natalie, I have been sleepless with excitement, ready to talk to you about last night’s games! The whole night was everything I love about being a fan of the W. The bonkers close game that literally could have gone either way two dozen times between the Liberty and the Mystics. The super intensity that went into that game, especially from Natasha Cloud, who backed up every word she spoke after game one. The way the Liberty crowd gave her a roaring standing ovation when she left the floor. The way the players from both teams lifted each other up after the games.

And then over in the Wings/Dream game, that same thing. The game wasn’t close, but the way the players came together to love on each other after it. LT crying over their on the sidelines. Arike’s ten million watt smile somehow dialed up even brighter. I was thinking about you all night, and about how we talk often about how our love for the game and the player outweighs any love for a single team. I was OVERWHELMED with emotion.

And, lololol, no, my cats are still so annoyed! It was Shout O’clock during that Liberty game! (It was also my wife side-eyeing me the whole night because as much as I love the Liberty, I couldn’t help but be so proud and impressed with the Mystics.) How are YOU feeling this morning?

Natalie: A little heartbroken? Like you said, most of the time my love for the game outpaces everything else…so I’m thrilled to have an exciting close game like we had with the Liberty and Mystics and then to have a great performance like the Wings had last night against the Dream…but the first team I ever cheered for in the WNBA was the Washington Mystics so it’s hard to watch them go out and not feel a little melancholy about it.

Plus, I adore Natasha Cloud — it’s Bisexual Awareness Week so I have to celebrate the WNBA’s BiCon — and as great as it was to see her dominate last night…as she walked off, there was a definite feeling like, “oh this is over.” I don’t know whether we’ll see her in a Mystics jersey again and I’m more sad about that than the Mystics actually losing that series.

Heather: Absolutely. That makes so much sense. I mean even Natasha Cloud said this week that she has a hard time imagining herself not in a Mystics jersey. They were the only team to look at her seriously out of college and she has been their beating heart through so much adversity. I think there are very few people in the world who are exactly who they say they are, and Natasha Cloud feels like one of those rare human beings. After the game, Sandy Brondello said something you and I have touched on a few times: the Mystics are a three seed without those injuries. It is, exactly as you said, heartbreaking to see their run and maybe this team as we know it come to and end.

If they’d forced a game three, I think they could have beaten the Liberty by 15 at home.

Natalie: I don’t know about 15 but I think it would’ve been close…especially if they’d gotten Shakira Austin back for that game. But it’s all just conjecture now: the Mystics are gone fishing, as they say in the MNBA, and the Liberty await their second round opponent.

What do you think the off-season holds for the Mystics? What changes do you think they need to make to be competitive next season?

Heather: So, I think the first thing is something you have talked about a few times: They’ve gotta figure out if Eric Thibault is their guy. He did some good things this year, including coaching the Mystics into being an absolutely ferocious defense. He’s a good half-court guy and he coached the team through a tough year. But is he the future? I don’t know. He struggles to make in-game adjustments, he out-thinks himself, he’s not great with his rotations, which is especially important when you’re playing with so much of your roster on minutes restrictions.

The other thing the Mystics have to do is think about life beyond EDD. And, look, I really love EDD as a player and a person. I was so impressed with the way she came out back when there were still only a few openly gay players in the league. (Obviously being a tall white goddess-looking person helped her be able to do that!) I think she is almost unstoppable when she’s healthy. But her poor body simply isn’t able to hold up for a whole WNBA season, so the Mystics have got to start thinking of her as icing on cake and not the cake itself, I think.

Also maybe look into what their floors are made out of?! How do they have so many huge and lingering issues? It’s like they’ve been cursed. I’d love your read on what would make the Mystics shine again next season.

Natalie: Coming into this season, I think the Mystics were very focused on trying to recapture the spirit of that 2019 team that won the championship but, as we learned last night, it’s very hard to recapture that magic. I think they do need to start thinking of the Mystics as Shakira Austin’s team and build around her. When she was playing overseas and during the earlier part of the season when she was healthy, Austin was delivering at an All-Star level and I think she could be that centerpiece moving forward.

Heather: I think that’s absolutely right.

Natalie: Like I said, I think Cloud’s done in Washington so they’re going to be looking for a PG. Do the Mystics make a case to Skylar Diggins that they’re the best destination for her or do they look ahead to the draft to see what talent is available to them? Maybe they do both…which would allow Sky to lead the offense and give a rookie time to adjust to the league.

But, after finding out what Cloud wants to do, I think you’re spot on with noting that the Mystics have to decide if Eric Thibault is their guy. I’m not sure he is, personally, and I’m also not confident in Mike Thibault’s willingness to make that call.

Transitioning over to the second game of last night’s double-header, I woke up this morning and was reviewing my notes from last night’s Wings/Dream game and had a thought: “A’ja Wilson has been the best player in these playoffs but the best team has been the Dallas Wings.” I’m curious what you think about that?

Heather: I agree with you COMPLETELY. It has been so long since I watched a team actually peak at the exact right time, but every single piece of the Wings puzzle has fallen exactly into place and they are all playing their best games and individuals and as a team. The whole starting line-up in double digits in the playoffs? They beat Atlanta on paint points, second chance points, fast break points, bench points. And I mean, think about that. All starters in double digits and the bench outscoring Atlanta’s bench 35-12!

There was this little hiccup that happened at the end of the Wings season where Coach LT benched Teaira McCowan because she had just lost the plot. She was giving up on plays, stopping to constantly argue with the refs, head down and taken out of the game. And LT didn’t start her. I thought that was so bold and just prayed it wouldn’t backfire — and it absolutely did not! McCowan has been playing like a damn STAR ever since then.

There is something so satisfying about a team like the Wings. They’re so good and they’re also so explosively fun — and, perhaps best of all, they’re not some precision machine manufactured to win a championship. They’re a team that has pieced together a kinda weird combination of players and have made it work. I am SO PROUD of them. And I honestly cannot wait to see them roll into Las Vegas. I think the Aces are gonna have their hands full!

I’m interested in what you think about what’s worked for the Wings, what you think their chances are against the Aces. And I’m also very curious about whether or not you think the Dream should move on from Tanisha Wright? That’s been a real hot topic for the last 12 hours.

Natalie: It’s hard to assess the Wings’ chances against the Aces…I mean, if the team that played last night shows up in Las Vegas? The defending champs are in some serious trouble. You know Satou Sabally’s my favorite player in the league so I was thrilled to see her have that AMAZING game in Game One of the series…but seeing them last night was such a thrill. Everybody was contributing, everyone was playing hard-nose defense…even Arike has been a star defender during this series.

Heather: Yes yes yes!

Natalie: Seeing a player like Awak Kuier come into the game and just do things that you didn’t even know she was capable of?! I loved it. The Wings’ play reminded me of — forgive another MNBA reference — the Spurs teams that Becky Hammon was on the sidelines for…just beautiful team basketball.

Heather: That’s suuuuch a great comparison.

Natalie: That said, while I understand completely the excitement that must come from this franchise finally getting over that playoff hump…popping bottles might have been a little too much. I know the players were saying “we’re not done yet” but when you’re popping champagne, it feels like you’re celebrating before the race is over.

Heather: So fair. I actually, when I saw that on Instagram, I was like, “Is it someone’s birthday?”

Natalie: To your question about Tanisha Wright, my answer is complicated. Do I think she’s a very good coach with the potential to be great? Yes…and I think the owners of the Dream think that as well. But I do worry that she’s lost the locker room and I don’t know if even the best coach can come back from that.

What are the twitter streets saying about Tanisha Wright’s future in Atlanta? What do you think?

Heather: I think what she needs is just a little more experience, which is the tough thing about the W. The shots are so short and fleeting. Her struggles have come from interpersonal player stuff and from not having a good feel for her rotations. The way she pulls all her scorers out at once! Or whoever’s got the hot hand!

Weirdly Twitter seems most upset about the lack of playtime and growth from Haley Jones. And I guess I say “weirdly” because it actually is still kind of a new phenomenon for so many people to be so invested in women’s college basketball that they have these attachments before players even get into the W, even if they don’t play on teams they root for in college. It’s wild! I guess I would love to see Coach Wright get one more year, but I also understand the pressure on teams like Atlanta. They don’t have these facilities and money like the Aces, the Liberty, the Storm, so to bring in big players — to contend in the Skylar Sweepstakes, for example — you gotta be able to offer a serious chance to compete.

Natalie: I understand those critiques about how Wright’s used Haley Jones (and Laeticia Amihere for that matter). I thought it was clear last night that Crystal Dangerfield was giving Danielle Robinson fits and Jones is just sitting there on the Dream bench. Would she do better than Danielle Robinson? I don’t know but it’s hard for me to imagine her doing worse. And to clearly need size on the interior and leave Amihere on the bench, not just in this series but throughout the season, feels like malpractice.

And, to your point about translating college fandoms…you’re right that there are a lot of college fans who — this year in particular — have followed their college faves into the W and so you hear a lot of criticism because those fans just want to see their faves play (as opposed to doing what’s best for the team/franchise). We’re only going to see more of that in the future…so I think one of the things a coach/GM is going to have to do is decide if those critiques are legitimate or not.

Heather: I think that’s spot on. Everything you said. Spot-on.

And! Natalie, this first round excitement isn’t even over! We’ve got the Lynx/Sun in a do-or-die game three TONIGHT.

Natalie: We do! A lot of the talk leading into the game has been about the 2-1 format in this best of three series which puts the final game on the lower seed’s home court. What are your thoughts on that?

Heather: It’s the WNBA being cheap-o’s again, is what I think! How can it not be 1-1-1? It’s very clearly the most fair thing!

The damn Mystics deserved a chance to have last night’s game on their own court!

Natalie: I think you’re right and it’d certainly be my preference, but also it’s weird to me that people are so upset about this: first, it’s so much better than the single elimination match-ups that the WNBA used to have for the first round of the playoffs and second, if playing on someone else’s home floor meant they were more likely to win, Connecticut wouldn’t be playing in Minnesota today.

What are you expecting to see tonight? What do the Lynx have to do to upset the Sun?

Heather: Tonight I am expecting to see a superheroic playoff performance from Alyssa Thomas that defies all the odds of the universe and her own body. There was this moment in game two where DeWanna Bonner, AT’s fiancee, got hit so hard in the nose she was bleeding through multiple towels. They took her to the back to stitch her up, and during a timeout, they asked AT about her, and she said, basically, “She’ll be fine. She’ll be back. We know what we have to do.” And I was just like, “Man what a goddamn competitor!” I have watched her dominate playoffs with basically no working joints and three broken bones. I expect her to show out tonight, in this year of all years.

But I also don’t expect the Lynx to just roll over. There’s a storied history in that arena. The names in those rafters are their own Hall of Fame. Napheesa Collier has blown me away this year and I assume she’s gonna do it again tonight. The Sun are 14-6 on the road this year and the Lynx are 9-11 at home (although some of that is their wacky 0-6 start). If the Lynx want to win, they’ve got to own the paint. That was the difference between Game 1 and Game 2. In Game 1, the Sun had 16 fast break points and 12 second chance points from killer rebounding. (To the Lynx’s 3 and 3 points each.) In Game 2, that was reversed. The Lynx had 15 second chance points to the Sun’s 5. And the Lynx have got to take care of the basketball. They turned the ball over NINETEEN TIMES in that first game.

Natalie: Heather Hogan coming thru with the stats! I love it!

Heather: I’m preparing for our career as announcers, when we take over from Rebecca and Ryan.

Natalie: Ha! If only!

Heather: What do you want to see tonight?

Natalie: Like you, I’m expecting AT to have a Natasha Cloud-like game. No one wants to win more than her and she is going to lay it all on the line to get Connecticut to the next round of the playoffs. For the Lynx, one thing we’ve talked about before is their lack of consistency. In Game 2, they had Kayla McBride show up in a big way with 28 points and 8 rebounds but can she bring that same energy to Game 3? Diamond Miller’s been a non-factor in these playoffs…can she step up? Are the Lynx going to get contributions from Tiffany Mitchell or Aerial Powers? If they can have someone other than Phee step up, then they’ve got a shot…otherwise, AT’s going to carry the Sun to victory.

Heather: I agree completely! I’m so excited! My cats less so. They are ready for a return to quiet nights!

Natalie: I bet they are.

One more thing before we talk fashion: So far we’ve seen the WNBA announce the winners of the three post-season awards: Sixth Player of the Year went to Alysha Clark of the Las Vegas Aces, Stephanie White won Coach of the Year in her first year with the Connecticut Sun and Jonathan Kolb of the Liberty took home Executive of the Year.

We don’t have votes (though the WNBA really should give us votes!) but if you had a vote, would you have come down on the side of the majority?

Heather: They really should give us votes! I feel like my only quibble is with Coach of the Year. I think it should have gone to Latricia Trammell because what she has done with that Wings team has been a joy to behold. I don’t think anyone had them going this far at the beginning of the year. Getting all those players to work together in a way no one else has been able to do? Making an unusual style of play not only succeed, but dominate? With players who don’t have a whole lot of postseason experience, besides Natasha Howard?

And I guess my fear is that Stephanie White is going to get this because of AT’s play, while AT gets overlooked for MVP. I think Stephanie White has done an AWESOME job in Connecticut but I think their success is more about AT and DeWanna. I am so curious to hear what you think about this!

Natalie: So, I actually thought the more controversial choice was Alysha Clark for 6th Player of the Year…and the voting wasn’t even close! I’m not sure who I would’ve voted for, ultimately, but I definitely would’ve had Kalani Brown and Dijonai Carrington as my final two. Clark’s done some amazing things in these playoffs so that makes it hard to criticize the choice but she was not who I would’ve picked.

Heather: Kalani Brown would have been my first choice too.

Natalie: Though, to add to your conspiracy theory, maybe they gave Clark 6th POY because A’ja Wilson is not going to win MVP either.

Heather: I really hope she does, though. These playoffs have only made me believe A’ja deserves it even more.

Natalie: It’s a regular season award.

Heather: I know :(

Natalie: So I’m still in the AT 4 MVP camp but if we’re ranked voting, it’s 1. AT 2. A’ja 3. Stewie 4. Jewell.

Heather: I literally cannot argue with that in any way!

It also just circles us back to what I was flipping out about when we first sat down today: We are in the presence of so much women’s basketball greatness right now!

Natalie: We really are. And only two months until the start of women’s college basketball!

Heather: I have a countdown clock going! And now let’s pass it over to Carmen!

Carmen: I do believe that the Dallas Wings heard that I called Chicago the top-to-bottom swaggiest team and said, we would like to have a word with you. Because this??? No misses.

But speaking of Chicago, going the next nine months without Courtney Williams… has, ahem… left me bereft.

Heather: Aww classic!

Carmen: And then, I know that I don’t often shout out the NY Liberty in my weekly duties. It’s not a reflection of their playing skill! Fashion is not everyone’s calling! HOWEVER… these SLAM t’s??? Pure fire. And the fit of Stewie, Stefanie Dolson, and Betnijah Laney walking into the arena to receive them? Wheeeeweeeee. The Liberty are not just out there playing like champions, they’re starting to dress like them to.

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Natalie

A black biracial, bisexual girl raised in the South, working hard to restore North Carolina's good name. Lover of sports, politics, good TV and Sonia Sotomayor. You can follow her latest rants on Twitter.

Natalie has written 396 articles for us.

Heather Hogan

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her wife, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Heather has written 1718 articles for us.

Carmen Phillips

Carmen is Autostraddle's Editor-in-Chief and a Black Puerto Rican femme/inist writer. She claims many past homes, but left the largest parts of her heart in Detroit, Brooklyn, and Buffalo, NY. There were several years in her early 20s when she earnestly slept with a copy of James Baldwin’s “Fire Next Time” under her pillow. You can find her on twitter, @carmencitaloves.

Carmen has written 700 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. ah good i was hoping this column was delayed for playoff feedback! watching the doubleheader last night was such an exercise in feeling the full depth of human emotion. to go from mystics/liberty back-and-forth overtime, full-bore excitement to watching my team just get their butts beat by the (admittedly fantastic) wings? agree that tanisha wright seems to be hitting some rough patches which, if my first-season-watched self can say that you know it’s obvious. a lot of who she had on the floor when didn’t make any sense, especially not playing haley jones against the super tall dallas line up! i love my dream starters but they can’t do it all and they shouldn’t have to

  2. That Mystics/Liberty just about killed me! I’m glad I was there live so it was socially acceptable for me to be screaming my head off, though at times I wished I could just turn the tv off because it was so stressful.

    I’m surprised to hear Natasha Cloud is so likely leaving the Mystics! She’s such a staple of that team, it’s hard for me to imagine her anywhere else.

    That is very interesting that everyone is so mad about T not playing Haley. I’m a big fan of Haley’s (love her podcast!) but she’s definitely not one of the rookies where I was like “oh she should definitely start.” She kind of struggled in college towards the end there, and I feel like there have been a few games where she has started and didn’t really blow me away. I do think we’re getting to the point where it’s helpful when PGs are also scoring threats and D’Rob’s not really that, but I don’t know if Haley is the answer. Again, I’m a really big fan! I just think she needs more time to cook before being the PG in a make or break playoff game. I have other issues with T’s coaching, but that’s not one of them. I’m with y’all that I’ve wondered more about LA’s lack of playing time than Haley’s.

    Then again, I’m not a fan of any particular school so I suppose I can’t understand the depths of that kind of allegiance! It’s definitely an interesting question how much those fanbases should play in. I definitely don’t think players should get spots only because they’re popular (especially not have any school allegiance and thus recognizing good players come from all over!), but there’s no denying that super hyped college players have always boosted the popularity of the game – in both men’s and women’s. I guess what I wonder is if college fanbases ride for their players even if they’re not a surefire game changing generational talent? Especially past their rookie years.

    Everyone says the stats back up Alysha Clark for 6POY and I’m a big fan of hers so I believe it, but I was so sure it was going to be Kalani Brown. To me, a player like her is exactly who this award is made for!! Like she comes in off the bench and wins games for them, it’s crazy!

    I’m with you that Steph might be profiting off AT’s success, but on Queens of the Court, they did an interview with AT who credited Steph with a lot of their success and specifically the freedom she gives her in running the offense. It made me really happy to hear that.

    Are you guys gonna continue the column with college basketball, or is it WNBA only? (I’d love and understand either decision!)

    • I don’t know that the Storm will be dissuaded by what happened with Tina, @pearlpants, if only because I think Skylar and Jewell have a history dating back to their time at Notre Dame. Plus, I think there’s a big difference between a late season roster addition like Charles and an off-season acquisition.

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