WNBA playoffs ‘wide open’

The 2018 WNBA playoffs began Tuesday. For all intents and purposes, Minnesota’s post-season, which was scheduled for play at Los Angeles Tuesday night, may be over by the time you read this.

“The league has flip-flopped,” Washington Coach Mike Thibault told the MSR after Sunday’s Mystics-Lynx contest. The Lynx (7th) and the Sparks (6th), the 2016 and 2017 championship finalists, must battle it out in a knock-out game rather than in the finals. The winner will play either Washington or Connecticut.

“We haven’t been in this situation before,” Lynx guard Seimone Augustus admitted on Sunday.

Center Sylvia Fowles added, “We play L.A. throughout the regular season. We know what they bring and they know what we bring, so we just have to make sure we go out to L.A. prepared.”

Seattle and Atlanta this season earned the double bye into the semifinals by finishing one and two, respectfully. “Their drive to be good has surprised me,” first-year Storm Coach Dan Hughes told me a couple of weeks ago. His players “want to be a very good team, not just [a good one],” he pointed out.

How ironic that two former Lynx players from their championship run last year were very instrumental in their new clubs’ successes this season: Renee Montgomery (Atlanta) and Natasha Howard (Seattle). Minnesota certainly could have used both of them this season.

Montgomery left as a free agent, and Howard left via trade over the off-season. Neither was effectively replaced – this is among several questions the Lynx must address this off-season as they retool the team’s nucleus.

The Lynx (18-16) struggled with consistency throughout this season. Team defense and the ability to make stops when needed, along with a rare propensity to turn the ball over at crucial times, was more evident than in previous seasons. Their post-All Star weekend record was 3-6, including dropping three straight at home for the first time since a four-game skid in 2010.

“This regular season has been a little rough,” Augustus said. “If we go out and play the way we did [in Sunday’s win over Washington] with a lot of pride and a lot of passion, things will work out in our favor,” she surmised. “We have experience in this locker room.”

Hughes said that his most underrated player is a key reason for Seattle’s rise to the top this season. “I think she is one of the best, if not the best defensive player in 2018,” the coach said of 7th-year forward Alysha Clark. Clark last week received the July WNBA Cares Community Assist Award for her efforts giving back to children in the Seattle community, including regular visits to sick children, holding toy drives, and teaching basketball skills to local youth.

Hughes on Clark’s on-court efforts: “Her play defensively has been part of the success we’ve enjoyed. She is a player that always drives the toughest assignment — she has spearheaded an improved defensive team.”

Thibault stressed that in this year’s playoffs, now in progress, none of the eight clubs can be taken for granted. “The playoffs are so wide open. I think every team in the playoffs can win the championship. I really do,” he said.

“That’s due to the high talent level around the league.”