2017 WNBA playoffs preview

Minnesota and Los Angeles have been waiting at least a week for their semifinals opponents. The top two seeds host games one and two of the 2017 best-of-five WNBA Semifinals on Tuesday and Thursday. The Lynx play Washington, and the Sparks play Phoenix.

The winners advance to the finals, which starts September 24.

Both top seeds are projected to meet in the championship series for the second consecutive year. But those projections are paper-worth.

The Lynx won the regular season series 3-0 against the Mystics. But two words tell you why that sweep means nothing now: Kristi Toliver.

Toliver killed Minnesota last season in the finals, hitting one big shot after another for Los Angeles. This is exactly why Mike Thibault signed her as a free agent over the off-season. The guard’s outside shooting spreads the floor, a key offensive strategy the coach most likely will employ against the Lynx, who finished the league’s offense and defense rating leader.

Can Minnesota regain their early season mojo when they went 20-2, and everybody virtually handed them the trophy. Then came Lindsay Whalen’s injury after the All-Star break, and the Lynx finished 7-5 without her.

I am probably the only media member who covered all four of Whalen’s years as a Minnesota Golden Gopher. I sat next to the late MSR senior columnist Kwame McDonald when he nicknamed her “Cold Blooded” after she took a player hard to the hoop during her freshman season, then stared at the helpless defender like a no-nonsense enforcer.

Whalen’s leadership and heady play was sorely missed during her forced absence. Never mind that she’s slow — Whalen never was a speed burner, but if you need a big play, a clutch shot, a team motivator, there’s probably no one in the league better than her.   I’ve seen it too many times.

Washington, on the other hand isn’t a pushover, not with Elena Delle Donne, Emma Meesseman and Krystal Thomas, along with Toliver. This said, the bench may prove the difference: Ivory Latta leads a Mystics bench that outscored its opponents 17 times this season — this is half their games, averaging 22 points.

Renee Montgomery, Jia Perkins and Plenette Person are Minnesota’s top reserves.   Montgomery as a starting point guard tried her best in Whalen’s absence, but her strength isn’t running a ball club — it’s bringing chaotic energy off the bench.

The team’s last three games, in which Minnesota needed to win all three to clinch the top overall seed, and it looked like Montgomery had returned to her former knock-down-shots, turnover be dammed self. If so, she can cancel out Latta’s equal ability to raise her club’s fortunes when she’s in the game.

But if Natasha Howard finally shook off her season-long on-court funk, where she looked out of sorts, and regains her knack for making a big play when needed — which she did during the team’s final games — the Lynx’s bench might have the advantage over Washington.

The Los Angeles-Phoenix other semifinals is equally intriguing. Both clubs are semifinals tested and both have something to prove.

For the Sparks, it’s about proving they can indeed defend a title. L.A. at times during the season looked like they missed Toliver, but they come into the playoffs on a roll, especially after winning the season series against rival Minnesota 2-1.

Nneka Ogwumike still is the woman there, and Candace Parker looks like she’s now more comfortable taking a second seat. Chelsea Gray also has won her teammates’ confidence as point guard.

For Phoenix, it’s about redemption from a very slow start, and might be reaching its peak at the right time, especially Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi. This is a Jekyll and Hyde team — always has been, save for their 2015 title-winning season. As much as Taurasi can get on your nerves, her volatility nature often hurt her club as well, and Griner, although she’s stepping up her game more, still has early foul trouble tendencies.

Coming off a big win Sunday in a come-from-behind, then dogfight to the finish win at Connecticut, the Mercury veterans outlasted the Sun’s youth and playoff inexperience.   Washington rode Toliver’s hot hand and knocked off New York, who suffered their first loss since early August. But for the second straight year the team goes home early after being a favorite to advance.

Finally, both Sunday winners come into Tuesday’s respective match-ups with momentum — it is up to their rested opponents to either prove rested and ready, or rusted and slow starting.

Check back for more WNBA playoff post-game dispatches.


Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.