2019 WNBA Playoffs: Five burning questions

The WNBA playoffs begin Wednesday. Six teams will battle it out in single-elimination as Washington and Connecticut await their opponents in a best-of-five semifinal. Half the field will be gone in a blur. To preview this year’s playoffs, let’s take a look at five burning questions that will determine who wins it all. 

Is Kristi Toliver healthy? Will it matter? 

That pesky bone bruise. 

With all due respect to the Tokyo 2020 field (especially Australia), the main event in women’s basketball next season would be a Seattle-Washington Finals rematch. 

Back to present day. Toliver last played on August 8. Washington went 10-1 in the 11 games without her. The lone loss occurred on the road against the Sky, who have secured the No. 5 seed. 

The Mystics kept winning, but there’s no replacing Toliver’s pull as a playmaker and off-the-bounce shooter late in games. She set a career-high in assists per game (6.0) and percentage (30.6) and was on fire from all over the floor.

via WNBA.com

If she returns at full strength, we’ll probably look back on this stretch as a blessing in disguise. Mike Thibault got an extended look at two different lineups that gave one of his top reserves a chance to log heavy minutes with the starters. 

They outscored opponents by 32.7 points per 100 possessions in 79 with Aerial Powers in Toliver’s place and had a 32.1 net rating in 82 minutes going big with Emma Meesseman in that slot. 

As one would hope, they held it down on the glass with either group. They collected 78.3 percent (Las Vegas holds the season-high at 73.1) of available defensive rebounds with the big lineup and 71.1 (would place third across an entire season) with Powers. 

Powers averaged 15 points, 4.4 free throw attempts and shot 35 percent on 5.3 3-pointers per game in 24 minutes per game while Toliver has been sidelined.

Elena Delle Donne and Meesseman stretch teams out and can attack mismatches mercilessly. So even without Toliver, it becomes a question at times of who you might be willing to leave open.

Everybody shot it well in the past 11 games. Ariel Atkins (42.1 percent on 3.5 3PA/gm), Delle Donne (42.1 percent on 3.5 3PA/gm), Meesseman (47.1 percent on 3.1 3PA/gm), Natasha Cloud (34.1 percent on 3.7 3PA/gm), Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (37.8 percent on 3.4 3PA/gm) and Tianna Hawkins (43.8 percent on 4.0 3PA/gm) are threats from deep. 

Happy planning.   

What will teams do defensively against the Mystics? 

You need five scoring threats on the floor. Thibault has said it all season long coming off the Finals sweep at the hands of Seattle. Their attempts to play through Toliver and Delle Donne were bottled up, and the rest of the roster wasn’t able to make the Storm pay. 

This season is a different story. The ball has consistently found the open player, and that thing is going up once it gets there. 

If a team can cobble together some switch-able combinations, they can at least turn the shot clock into a friend. And this ties back in with Toliver’s status. The rest of their guards can’t do quite as much as her with the different looks coming their way. 

Aside from one or two pairings, no team in the playoff field stands out above the rest to pull off a switch-heavy approach. The next question, then: Which players should they be willing to treat differently? 

Start with Natasha Cloud, who had a career year from deep last season (38.6 percent on 83 attempts) and shot 32.6 percent this season on 138 attempts. She’s the only other point guard in the rotation. Her contrast with Toliver forces teams to be ready for two very different players—one big guard that can turn the corner and a shooter that’ll torch you given room to pull up. 

Cloud’s ventures beyond the arc might still feel new enough that a team really wants to make her prove it. With or without Toliver, though, the biggest key could come down to finding somebody that can duck under screens and meet Cloud on the other side before she’s at the rim. It’s tough to control who gets the open triples. With the right approach, a team can force Cloud to do more damage from inside the arc.  

Then there’s LaToya Sanders, the nimble and wiry shot blocker that drives so much of Washington’s defensive success because of her versatility (including some switching). She doesn’t shoot the three but can screen for somebody that will or slip to the front of the rim if you lose track of her. She’ll knock down open midrange shots, though. She shot 43.7 on 103 attempts this season and 57.3 percent on 96 attempts last season. 

Better to go down forcing them to beat you two at a time than with open triples, right? 

Winning a title is never easy. Even with all the stars that have been sidelined this season, a non-Washington champion will have undoubtedly earned it having to go through the Mystics to get there. 

Sun in a series? Sun in a series! 

Connecticut locked down a precious top-two seed after the back-to-back single-elimination exits. Now we finally get to see them in a best-of-five series. They were 15-2 at home this season and will host Games 1 and 2 of the semis. 

Courtney Williams has come alive in the second half after shooting 38 percent from the field prior to the All-Star break. She almost carried them to a win over Phoenix last year. Will she deliver multiple 20-plus point outings this year? 

The picture gets bleak without Williams making a bunch of tough shots. Midseason acquisition Theresa Plaisance (back) hasn’t been operating at full capacity. Minutes with Jonquel Jones on the bench will be a total wildcard.

Their August 23 win over the Aces brought this all to life. Jones was limited to 26 minutes because of first-half foul trouble, but they got 11 minutes out of Plaisance, at least giving them another big on the floor that can shoot.

Williams, Jasmine Thomas and Alyssa Thomas each played 35-plus minutes. Williams poured in 24 on 11-of-20 shooting. AT went the full 40 and scored 27 on 11-of-18 shooting. 

47 percent of Thomas’ shots this season were non-restricted area paint attempts. Runners and floaters, especially over the outstretched arms of an opposing center, are really tough to live on. 

Forcing her to make contested shots and sticking to 3-point specialist Shekinna Stricklen could really wear on this team. Bria Holmes and Morgan Tuck add tremendous value off the bench with their skill and size if they’re making shots. Will seven players be enough? 

What’s L.A. getting from CP3? 

Candace Parker’s season has been disrupted by two different injuries. But the Sparks have been terrific at home all season long. One win gets them to the semis. 

Despite the coaching change and numerous additions, is this Sparks team really all that different from what we saw last year? 

They have an obvious leg up not having to play in round one or travel for round two, but their success still relies on the same five ingredients: Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, Chelsea Gray, a stopper and a shooter.

Tierra Ruffin-Pratt has replaced Alana Beard. Riquna Williams simply picked up where she left off after entering the starting lineup last season. 

Last season’s perimeter depth was an outlier. Odyssey Sims and Essence Carson are gone. The young guns (Sydney Wiese, Marina Mabrey, Alexis Jones) are more limited to spot-up shooting.

With Parker in and out and Maria Vadeeva’s (knee) time missed post-EuroBasket, Derek Fisher didn’t have much of a chance to toggle between big and more traditional lineups. One thing that stands out in comparing L.A. to Washington: Meesseman is by far the best offensive player of the reserves. There is no stellar defender in that bunch from either team. So even in a more traditional alignment, what will L.A.’s reserves do to stay on the floor and give Fisher good reason to rest Parker and Ogwumike? 

For the Sparks to make a run, we’re really talking about winning a Game 1 or 2 on the road to start the semis. 

I keep coming back to the game last July in Vegas. Parker put 34/11/9 on the Aces. She was toying with them. It looked easy. 

We’re about to find out how close she is to feeling that good. A Finals return is a pipe dream with anything less. 

Can the Aces keep up? 

Their offense hasn’t always been pretty. Some of the biggest factors have been understandable. Jackie Young shot 32 percent from the field. Kelsey Plum is now coming off the bench. Kayla McBride has slowed down, shooting 35 percent in the second half. 

The Aces are going to throw it to Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson and see how far that duo can carry them. What other choice do they have?

Their defense should be seen as more of a concern. In 11 games since the completion of the earthquake game, they’re allowing 103.5 points per 100 possessions—the ninth-worst mark in that span.  

What if this is a more accurate depiction of who they are? 

Remember the top-ranked defensive rating we’ve been referencing all season? Holding Seattle—an extremely limited offensive group—to 62, 69 and 56 points in the first half had a lot to do with that. So did three blowout wins over New York and Dallas. 

The current 11-game stretch included eight games against playoff teams, a loss to Indiana, a close call as they gave up 90 to the Dream and Thursday’s loss in Atlanta. Even the performances in the latter three weren’t encouraging. 

Chicago, Connecticut and Washington are too good offensively for this not to rear its head, and these Aces don’t look ready to string together a bunch of wins in shootouts. 

Pick ‘em

Round one

(7) Minnesota over (6) Seattle

(5) Chicago over (8) Phoenix

Round two

(3) Los Angeles over (7) Minnesota 

(5) Chicago over (4) Las Vegas

Semifinals

(1) Washington over (5) Chicago in 4

(2) Connecticut over (3) Los Angeles in 5

Finals

(1) Washington over (2) Connecticut in 4 

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