The 2019 WNBA Playoffs are officially here for the Minnesota Lynx and the total eight-team playoff field.
The opening round of the postseason kicks off on Wednesday night with four teams in action during the single-elimination round of the playoffs.
To begin the doubleheader on Wednesday night on ESPN2, the eighth-seeded Phoenix Mercury will travel to face the fifth-seeded Chicago Sky at 7 p.m. CT in Chicago.
Rounding out the night will be the seventh-seeded Lynx taking on the 2018 WNBA Champions and sixth-seeded Seattle Storm at 9 p.m. CT in Everett, Wash.
“A lot of people didn’t expect us to be here this year, with it being a rebuilding year as everyone says, so it’s about just having fun,” Minnesota rookie Napheesa Collier said via a conference call on Tuesday ahead of her first career playoff game. “This is obviously a big series for us and we are going to play as hard as we can, but just not to take things for granted and go out there and have fun as a team.”
For the Lynx, their first-round win-or-go-home game against the Storm will be a tough test against a team that is very hard to beat on the road. During the four-game series during the regular season, Seattle held a 3-1 advantage over Minnesota, winning the final three games of the series between the two teams.
“In those (four) games, they had a pace about them that was difficult for us to match-up. I think each game posed different challenges, particularly the last one,” Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve said. “I didn’t think we were engaged at a level that was necessary on our perimeter, we gave up three-point shots standing right next to people. Just having a better engagement. Give credit to Seattle, there is something about them that causes our players to lose that level of engagement that’s necessary.
“If we don’t improve in that area, then this is going to be a very quick playoff run for us.”
In the four meetings between the two squads this summer, Seattle has had Minnesota’s number while averaging 79.3 points per contest along with shooting 49.6 percent from the field and 39.7 percent from 3 while carrying a four-game plus/minus average of plus-3.8.
During that same stretch, the Lynx have averaged 75.5 points per game, shooting 46.7 percent from the field, 41.7 percent from 3 and has averaged nearly 18 turnovers with a plus/minus of minus-3.8.
“I think everybody gets geeked and pumped to play the Minnesota Lynx, which is a compliment to us and the success that we’ve had over the last couple of years. I think they have been so successful because everyone wants to beat the Minnesota Lynx, but we haven’t played our best basketball against Seattle,” Sylvia Fowles said. “We haven’t been able to get stops, but our offense hasn’t been to our liking either. We’ll get another chance at it (on Wednesday) and we’ll see where it goes from there.”
One player that has stood out for Seattle during the four-game span and a familiar face Minnesota will have to focus on early and often on Wednesday is former Lynx forward and the league’s 2019 Defensive Player of the Year, Natasha Howard. Howard, who has stepped into more of a leadership role with veterans Breanna Stewart (Achilles) and Sue Bird (knee) out for the year with injuries, has had her former team’s number so far in 2019 while averaging 16.5 points, six rebounds and one assist against Minnesota.
“I think each of our games posed something different. Natasha Howard opened up a can of whoop-ass on us in Minneapolis and scored 33. … For us, I think it’s just losing focus. It has to be a collective effort for this team,” Reeve added on Tuesday. “You can’t just do one thing, you have to have multiple efforts to defend the three-point line as well as the paint where obviously Natasha is. We are going to have a great understanding of what needs to happen by (Wednesday) night and we’ll do our best to get their (shooting) percentage down.”
For Minnesota, it will aim to get its All-Star and 2017 MVP center Fowles involved heavily early in the contest on the road. During the team’s five-game winning streak near the end of the regular season, Fowles played a big role in helping the Lynx get on a roll heading into the playoffs.
In Wednesday night’s game, that will need to continue to be the case if Minnesota wants to advance to the second round this weekend.
“(The play of Sylvia Fowles) is absolutely crucial. It’s going to be the reason why we have success. If there’s not that level of engagement, it’s going to be difficult for us to win, period,” Reeve said. “The same way they need Natasha Howard, we need Sylvia Fowles. We were a darn good basketball team, and Syl knows this, when we reach that level of engagement, we don’t lose. That has to happen for us to be successful, there’s just no two ways around it.”
Although every game will be a battle from here on out during the postseason for every team within the eight-team field, the Lynx are faced with a tough first-round test against a team in the Storm that is really tough when playing in front of their home crowd, finishing with a home record fo 11-6 this season while Minnesota tallied a road record of 7-10.
That, mixed with the fact that the Lynx no longer contain the valuable advantage of players having a large amount of playoff experience in 2019, adds yet another storyline to a transition year for Minnesota.
“We spent a lot of time getting to know each other over the course of this entire season, winning games along the way and maybe doing things that people didn’t expect us to do. … I need the team that we currently have, that doesn’t have a lot of playoff experience together, to simply draw on our regular season,” Reeve said. “At the same time, our staff is kind of going through this for the first time with this team. … At the end of the day, you can overthink things with regards to playoff experience, so it’s really about this teams energy and it doesn’t matter if it’s the first game of the playoffs.”
The winner of Wednesday night’s first-round game between Minnesota and Seattle will advance to face either the fourth-seeded Las Vegas Aces or the third-seeded Los Angeles Sparks in a single-elimination game in the second round of the postseason on Sunday.
The lowest remaining seed coming out of the first round will head to Los Angeles to face the Sparks at 2 p.m. CT on Sunday, while the highest remaining seed out of the four first-round teams will travel to Las Vegas to take on the Aces at 4 p.m. CT on Sunday. To view the full breakdown of the WNBA Playoffs, click here.
“I think we had all hoped for a different outcome to be able to be able to get home. We went through all of the scenarios and credit to Seattle, we are going to be here and then we are going to go to LA and we are going to spend a couple of days in LA. From there, we are going to go to Washington and only have one day in between before the semifinals start,” Reeve said. “This is fun, it’s part of the journey and I think could make for a good story. A team like ours, being on the road and picking up a couple of road games to get to the semifinals and try and get a home game for our fans by being in the semis.”
But before the Lynx can look ahead to what might lie ahead following the opening round of the playoffs, they will be faced with a tough challenge right out of the gate on Wednesday in Washington.
“I think once we understand what the gameplan is, it’s not about getting people hyped, you just have to go out there and get it done. You have to start from the get-go and we have to hold each other accountable for what we are trying to do and we have to make sure we start out on a good foot with a bang,” Fowles said. “It’s not something that I have to get myself pumped up for, because I’ve been in this position before and I know what is needed from me for our team to be successful.”
2019 WNBA PlayoffS Schedule
Before the opening round of the postseason begins on Wednesday night, here is an early look at the playoff schedule:
Enjoy the postseason, WNBA fans. It’s officially one of the best times of the year.