The 2018 W.N.B.A. season has combined the emergence of the league’s best young talent with a renaissance from some of its longtime greats, and the semifinals, which begin Sunday afternoon, will be no different.
The top-seeded Seattle Storm — led by Breanna Stewart, a favorite to be the league’s most valuable player, and point guard Sue Bird, an 11-time All-Star — will host the fifth-seeded Phoenix Mercury in Game 1 of their best-of-five playoff series.
The Mercury faced the most difficult path to the semifinals of the four teams still playing. They defeated the Dallas Wings on Tuesday night in Phoenix, then flew to Connecticut and defeated the Sun, 96-86, on Thursday night in a thriller. The victory ran Diana Taurasi’s career record in winner-takes-all elimination games to 13-0.
“If I had the answer, I would gladly tell you,” a smiling Taurasi said about her proclivity for winning do-or-die games. “A lot of it is luck. A lot of it is having great teammates — you don’t do it alone in this sport. You have to rely on your teammates and your coaches. We relish these moments where it’s up to you if you want to keep playing.”
Phoenix relies to a remarkable extent on its three best players: Taurasi, center Brittney Griner and forward DeWanna Bonner combined to score 77 of the Mercury’s 96 points in the win over Connecticut. For Bonner, who missed the 2017 season while giving birth to twins, it has been an epic revival, as she started all 34 regular-season games and led the W.N.B.A. in minutes played. Griner, too, has continued to evolve on the offensive end, stretching her shooting range well beyond the paint, while rim-protecting as she has since entering the league in 2013.
As for Taurasi, she has posted the best true shooting percentage of her career, .638, even as she assumed point guard duties midway through the season, allowing Briann January to function as an off-ball shooting threat.
“Since I have been coaching, this is the best she has ever played, and it’s more about her consistency,” Mercury Coach Sandy Brondello said of Taurasi. “She got herself ready to play. If you look at her body, she takes care of it and I think that is what a lot of the younger players can look up to. It doesn’t matter about your age: If you want to continue to play at a high level, take care of your body, do the little things and keep doing what she does. She is on another planet. That is why she is called the GOAT.”
Still, Taurasi and her team enter Sunday as decided underdogs against a Seattle team that finished 2018 with a 26-8 record, earning the double bye the W.N.B.A.’s playoff system bestows upon its top two teams.
In Stewart, the Storm have a 23-year-old matchup nightmare at both ends. Her 7.7 wins above replacement led the league by a significant margin, and the Storm play through her, taking advantage of both her scoring efficiency — better than 52 percent from the field and 41 percent from 3 — and the attention she receives. Stewart, her 6-foot-4 frame and 7-foot-1 wingspan making for an impossible-to-stop shot anywhere on the floor, often found open shooters out of double teams. The result was a Storm team that shot 37.6 percent from 3 as a team, with the All-Star Jewell Loyd and five rotation members above 36 percent.
Everything starts with Bird, who runs the show and posted the best defensive points per possession mark in the league, per Synergy, all at age 37.
“They’ve been the best team in the league,” Taurasi said of Seattle. “They’ve been the most consistent. Stewie’s playing at an incredible level. Jewell, Sue are playing amazing. I think this year, what sets them apart is Natasha Howard’s playing great, Alysha Clark’s playing great off the bench. It’s a tough challenge. It’s always hard when you play the best team in the league. They’re well rested. But hopefully we can build off the momentum of playing these last two games.”
In the other semifinal series, which also begins Sunday, the Atlanta Dream, seeded second, take on the Washington Mystics, the W.N.B.A.’s third seed.
The Dream reached the semifinals on the back of a defense that finished atop the W.N.B.A. in efficiency, allowing just 97.1 points per 100 possessions. The roster is littered with versatile, long defenders, from bigs like Elizabeth Williams, Jessica Breland (the league’s leader in defensive rating) and Imani McGee-Stafford to perimeter shutdown experts like Brittney Sykes and Tiffany Hayes. The Dream play at the fastest pace of any playoff team, with the first-year head coach Nicki Collen determined to turn missed shots into fast-break opportunities and get shots for Hayes and guard Renee Montgomery, who made more 3s this season than anyone else except Taurasi.
“You have a team that has a lot of guards right now in Atlanta who are all playing really well,” Mystics Coach Mike Thibault said of the Dream after Thursday night’s game, a 96-64 Mystics win over the Los Angeles Sparks. “They’re shooting the ball well, so the game might be a little bit more perimeter-oriented in some ways than it is in the post. They have good post players, but it’s different. Every style of team is different.”
The Mystics certainly play a contrasting style to Atlanta. And while the Dream have ensemble scoring, Washington heavily relies on Elena Delle Donne, 6-foot-5 and incapable of being stopped when she starts toward the basket or pulls up, impossibly high, and shoots 3s at a 40.5 percent clip.
Their offense is run by Kristi Toliver, who is no stranger to big shots in big moments herself, dating to her game-winning shot for Maryland over Duke in the 2006 N.C.A.A. title game. Toliver and Thibault both point to a meeting just before the All-Star break as a turning point in a season in which Washington has won nine of 10 since.
“That’s it, that’s the meeting,” Toliver said Thursday night. “Take pride in your defense. We talked specifically about four things we were going to do, and we have done them, and we have only lost one game in the process. I think we stick to that. We kind of make a commitment to one another and we do that, and we put ourselves in a good position.”
That position is six wins from a title, just like Phoenix, Seattle and Atlanta.