If you’re not enamored with Major League Baseball’s wild-card playoff, then you’ll probably dislike what the WNBA has done to spike early postseason excitement.
That’s how I felt with the WNBA concocting not just one, but two single-elimination rounds in a new playoff format commencing this season. Others were grousing too, including some players and coaches.
Then the games got underway, and Diana Taurasi and Angel McCoughtry went to work.
After downing the Indiana Fever on the road Wednesday and ending the legendary career of Tamika Catchings, Taurasi and the Phoenix Mercury, the No. 8 seed, went to New York Saturday facing another single-elimination contest.
As she has done so many times in her iconic career, Taurasi was devastating down the stretch, burying a long three-point basket with 1:28 to play to put the game out of reach for the Liberty in a 101-94 decision at Madison Square Garden.
She scored 30 in the game, and while she didn’t do it alone — Brittney Griner and the retiring Penny Taylor also came up big — the one-and-done format was made for Taurasi. In elimination games, Taurasi teams — UConn, U.S. Olympics and the Mercury — are a staggering 43-3.
McCoughtry dropped 37 points on the Seattle Storm Wednesday for the Atlanta Dream, then roared to a 21-point first half on Sunday against the Chicago Sky.
But the last WNBA game of this new format turned out to be a fitting prelude to the more longform semifinals that begin Wednesday.
Playing without injured star Elena Delle Donne, Chicago trounced the Dream 108-98, spreading the offensive wealth and clamping down on one of the most potent individual scorers in the league.
Courtney Vandersloot scored 21 points and dished out 13 assists and Jessica Breland scored 20 and pulled down 16 rebounds for the Sky, who had the benefit of playing at home. They also got 16 points from Cappie Pondexter and Tamera Young, another role player who embodied Chicago’s well-balanced approach.
McCoughtry managed only six points after halftime, and while Tiffany Hayes scored 30, Atlanta’s hot-hand play flamed out against a Chicago team that led 87–70 after three quarters.
By then, the frantic pace of the game had sapped the visitors. The high-energy McCoughtry took herself out of the game in the middle of the second quarter, absolutely gassed, and never really got back on track.
Aside from the prospect of an all-wild-card finals (like the Giants and Royals in the 2014 World Series), I still find the incongruity of the WNBA playoff setup frustrating.
Phoenix was 16–18 during the regular season, qualifying as the last team in the playoffs. Now the Mercury must switch to a best-of-five semifinal series starting Wednesday against the Minnesota Lynx, the defending WNBA champion and top playoff seed.
The Phoenix-Minnesota semifinal series a year ago, when they possessed the two best records in the league, helped prompt the playoff changes. Phoenix certainly has the star power to compete with the loaded Lynx, but the Mercury will need more than the one-game dramatics of Taurasi, as spectacular as they have been.
In the other semifinal series, also starting on Wednesday, Chicago plays the Los Angeles Sparks. The Sky likely will be without Delle Donne, last year’s WNBA MVP who’s been at the top of the individual scoring charts this season.
Surgery on her right thumb may prevent her from playing in this series. As scintillating as Chicago was on Sunday, getting that kind of consistency in a longer series against likely MVP Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker, and without Delle Donne, figures to be daunting.
I understand what WNBA officials were thinking when they wanted to shake things up in the playoffs. It’s fun to watch a winner-take-all game, especially with Taurasi being Taurasi.
But the big swing in playoff fare, from short-order hash to slow-cooker stew, doesn’t seem fair. One wild-card team has won two road games, the other won one game at home. Both will face opponents that have enjoyed a double-bye as the top two seeds.
WNBA players have plenty of burdens foisted on them: Condensed summer seasons, even more so in 2016, an Olympic year; commercial cross-country travel; and low salaries that necessitate long winters in overseas leagues.
It’s a life and a career they’ve chosen, of course, and nobody’s really complaining about all that now. They’re professionals, and the semifinal pairings are attractive.
In a mix between March Madness and rewarding season-long excellence, the WNBA has made the climax to its 20th season a bit more complicated — and exasperating — than it ought to be.