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Inside The W with Michelle Smith

You don’t need ball gowns or red carpets to know that it’s awards season in the WNBA.

And while voters face tough decisions about MVP and Coach of the Year, and some not-so-tough decisions about, say, Rookie of the Year, it’s time to give out a few WNBA awards that are just a little off the beaten path.

Most Likely to Succeed. As the playoffs begin, the Minnesota Lynx are in the driver’s seat to win their second straight title and become the first WNBA to repeat since Los Angeles in 2001 and 2002. As well as the Sparks have played for much of the season, the Lynx hit their stride in the stretch run and have the requisite experience to deliver another championship. Minnesota, by virtue of the No. 1 seed, also possesses homecourt advantage throughout the Playoffs.

Best Individual Performance. Nneka Ogwumike, June 30 vs. Atlanta. The MVP frontrunner turned in an epic game – a career-high 38 points on 13-for-14 shooting from the floor, to go with 11 rebounds and a career-high five blocked shots.

Best Moment. The WNBA saved its best, in this case, for last, with Sunday’s heartfelt farewell to Tamika Catchings. Catch led the Indiana Fever to a victory, soaked in the adulation of more than 17,000 fans who showed up on the same day as a Colts game and shed enough tears to let everyone know how much this league and this opportunity has meant to her through the years. The Fever, the league and all of those who showed up reciprocated. We were all lucky to have experienced her greatness and her generosity and it was a perfect ending to this landmark season.

Game of the Year. Way back on a Tuesday afternoon in June, two unbeaten WNBA teams with 23 wins between them met in Los Angeles for a titanic matchup. It was a historic day, the first meeting between two unbeaten teams from the WNBA, NBA, NFL, MLB or NFL in which each team had at least 10 wins and no losses. It was also the 20th anniversary of the inaugural WNBA game between Los Angeles and New York back in 1997. And then, as a cherry on top, it was a fabulous game, a back-and-forth contest with 17 lead changes that was ultimately decided by a Renee Montgomery 3-pointer with 2.9 seconds to go to win it. Doesn’t get much better than that.

Best Acquisition. Layshia Clarendon, Atlanta. The former role-playing guard in Indiana, Clarendon was traded four days before the season tipped off and suddenly became a featured performer for the Dream, averaging 10.4 points and 3.5 assists per game. Clarendon gave the Atlanta backcourt a new dimension and allowed Angel McCoughtry to do her thing out on the wing.

Most Surprising Storyline. The roller coaster in Phoenix. The Mercury were picked before the season began to win the championship, and while the Mercury could still make good on that prediction, they won’t have done it in a way that anyone expected, securing the No. 8 playoff spot with a 16-18 regular season record.

The Mercury were far more inconsistent than anyone could have figured, and while they might be one of the scariest teams for any playoff opponent, they are also one game away from the end of a season that could be mostly remembered as a disappointment.

Least Surprising Storyline. Breanna Stewart was the best rookie in the league. Shocking, I know. I mean, who would have thought that one of the most decorated players in the history of collegiate women’s basketball would come into the league and dominate? Not only dominate, but lead her young team to a playoff berth and to set a league record for defensive rebounds in a season. Who could have seen all of this excellence coming? Besides everyone.

Best Rookie Performance By Anyone Not Named Breanna Stewart. It was Stewie’s UConn teammate Moriah Jefferson who put up 31 points on July 1 in a win over Indiana, sinking the game-tying three to force overtime and the game-winning put-back in OT. Jefferson led an injury-ravaged team with 4.2 assists and added 13.9 point per game, the most of any player that played a full season on the team.

Biggest Bummer. There are four teams not in the playoff brackets, but no team has to be more bummed about the way this season went than the Dallas Wings (formerly the Tulsa Shock), who were playing their first season in a new city. The Wings have two of the best young guards in the league in Odyssey Sims and Skylar Diggins and were clearly hoping for a fresh start in their new hometown. But an 11-game losing streak in the middle of the season derailed Dallas’ playoff hopes and seemingly its confidence.

New playoff format up for first run

The WNBA will debut its new playoff format this week, looking for an opportunity to inject some added drama into the postseason with single-elimination games, a longer semifinal series (best of five) and the end of conference-specific matchups.

Will it work? We are about to find out.

Here is what we know: Postseason runs are going to come to an abrupt end for some teams and some of the league’s biggest stars in the single-elimination format.

Wednesday’s matchup between Indiana and Phoenix means that either Diana Taurasi or Tamika Catchings will be out of the playoffs after just one game. Same goes for Breanna Stewart or Angel McCoughtry in the other first-round game.

In the second round, New York and Chicago await, also facing the possibility of zero margin for error to move on after long WNBA seasons.

And meanwhile, Minnesota and L.A. have a break until September 28, during which time they can rest, practice and try to keep up the momentum.

Change can be good. Whether this one is, is about to be revealed.

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith will have a weekly column on throughout the 2016 season.

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