Somehow, so very quickly, we find ourselves one step away from the WNBA Finals, close to the culmination of a remarkable season.
And the matchups that comprise the semifinal round are every bit as interesting as the regular season proved to be.
Seattle and Atlanta, by virtue of their top two seeds, have been waiting for their turn to begin the postseason and that moment has arrived.
The Storm will take on a Phoenix team that has reached – and failed to advance – out of the semifinal round in each of the last two seasons. Between the two teams, there are five WNBA titles.
Meanwhile, neither Atlanta nor Washington have ever won a WNBA title. The Dream have reached the Finals three times and have never won a Finals game. The Mystics have never played in a Finals game.
Let’s take a look at some of the major storylines heading into the semifinals series.
East vs. West. Three years into the WNBA’s new playoff format, in which the top eight teams make the playoffs regardless of conference, this set of semifinals series at neatly divided by east – Atlanta vs. Washington and west – Seattle vs. Phoenix. That also means that the Finals will match two teams from opposite conferences for the first time since the format change.
And the rest… Seattle and Atlanta have been able to end what was a grueling WNBA season with what teams value most right now. Time off. A week to rest weary legs and minds. A week to practice and prepare and plan. Contrast that with Phoenix, who played twice this week and had to travel to the East Coast for a second-round game against Connecticut before turning around and going back across the country. Washington, meanwhile, played one home game and has also had some opportunity to recover in advance of their trip to Atlanta to face the Dream.
Sue vs. Diana. Two of the greatest players in the history in a playoff series that will send one or the other to the WNBA Finals, perhaps for the last time. The history between these two friends and teammates is well-documented. They have faced each other in the playoffs five times. They have won Olympic gold medals and NCAA titles together. The respect between them is immeasurable. Watching them do battle on the court, leading teams toward a title at this late point in their careers when they are still both playing at such high level, is priceless. If this was the only reason to watch this series, and goodness knows it isn’t, it would be enough.
Griner vs. Stewart. The second of two incredibly compelling matchups in this series. Griner has become the player that everyone hoped she would be, rounding out her offensive and defensive games and becoming both a dominating force and a fabulous complement to Taurasi and DeWanna Bonner on the perimeter. Stewart, in her third season, is blossoming. She finished second in the league in scoring during the regular season at 21.8 ppg, third in rebounding at 8.4. She had an MVP season leading a team that has played in just two playoff games since 2013 to the best record in the league.
Guardian Angel. The Dream will go into this postseason series after an impressive regular season that included 15 wins in their final 17 games. And they will do it without star Angel McCoughtry, who sustained a knee injury that ended her season on August 7. McCoughtry was averaging 16.5 points and 6.0 rebounds a game before she was injured. She will be missed in this series, even though the Dream won four of five games after she was gone for the lineup. This is the playoffs and McCoughtry has playoff experience that will be vital to a title run. She will just have to provide it from her seat on the bench.
Elena’s Turn? Elena Delle Donne is one of the biggest stars in the WNBA and one of the best players in the world. She played in the WNBA Finals twice when she was with the Chicago Sky, but came up empty. Healthy and hungry and playing spectacularly well, Delle Donne is ready to take her shot with a strong team around her, including guard Kristi Toliver, who won a title two years ago with Los Angeles.
X-Factors. Who will it be? Will Jessica Breland be the difference-maker for a Tiffany Hayes-led Dream team against the Mystics. Will Stephanie Talbot give Phoenix the productive minutes they need to topple the top seed? Will it be a rookie like Ariel Atkins (Washington) or Jordin Canada (Seattle) who makes the big play?
We can’t wait to find out.
Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on WNBA.com throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.