In her first WNBA playoff game, on the day she was named the league’s Rookie of the Year, point guard Crystal Dangerfield initially couldn’t hit a shot.
She was 0-for-6 from the field in the first 20 minutes, the most field goals she has missed in a first half this season. Then she missed her first shot of the third quarter. It could have sunk her and the Minnesota Lynx. But Dangerfield isn’t easily discouraged.
She made her first basket at the 5:54 mark of the third quarter, and then came on strong. In a tight second-round, single-elimination playoff game, No. 4 seed Minnesota beat No. 5 Phoenix 80-79 to move on to the semifinals. In the second game of the doubleheader, seventh-seeded Connecticut eliminated No. 3 Los Angeles 73-59.
The best-of-five WNBA semifinals open Sunday. Connecticut faces top-seeded Las Vegas (ESPN, 1 p.m. ET) and Minnesota faces second-seeded Seattle (ABC, 3 p.m. ET).
Dangerfield scored 15 of her 17 points in the second half, and nine of those came in the fourth quarter. This season, Dangerfield averaged 6.5 points in the fourth quarter, second in the league to another rookie, Atlanta’s Chennedy Carter (6.7 in the fourth).
“I think Crystal was pretty uptight, despite our best effort,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said of Dangerfield’s slow start. “I think she was doing things that were uncharacteristic. She fought the defense too much. She is usually really good at shifting away from the defense to get a clear shot off. That rookie got some great experience in hard situations. I saw as the game wore on, she was a little more loose.”
Dangerfield said she wasn’t overwhelmed by the ceremony earlier Thursday when she was presented the rookie award; Reeve also was honored as WNBA Coach of the Year. But Dangerfield acknowledged, “I think most of the nerves was it was my first playoff game.”
Lynx teammate Napheesa Collier, who was Rookie of the Year last season, played alongside Dangerfield for three seasons at UConn and knows how clutch she can be.
“She apparently just has ice in her veins, she comes alive in the fourth quarter,” Collier said. “I’m excited that we’re going to our first semis together. It’s going to be fun.”
Dangerfield, the No. 16 pick in April’s WNBA draft, is the only second-round pick to win the rookie of the year award. Thursday, she also got backcourt help from Odyssey Sims (14 points, 4r assists, 4 steals) and Rachel Banham (11 points).
“This was a win-or-go home situation,” Dangerfield said, “and we weren’t ready to go home yet.”
What’s next for Taurasi?
Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi turned 38 in June, and then had an outstanding 16th season in the WNBA, averaging 18.7 points and 4.5 assists. But despite her 28 points and nine assists on Thursday against Minnesota, Taurasi and the Mercury leave the bubble before the semifinals.
“We just needed one more play, and we just didn’t get it at the end of the game,” Taurasi said. “What’s done is done; we fell short.”
Taurasi didn’t take the last shot for the Mercury; that went to Skylar Diggins-Smith, who had a good first season playing for Phoenix but struggled Thursday, going 3 of 15 from the field for eight points. She missed the final shot. Asked if she was disappointed to not have the ball in her hands at the end, Taurasi shrugged.
“Sandy’s call,” she said, referring to Mercury coach Sandy Brondello.
The Mercury lost two key players in August: Center Brittney Griner left the bubble for personal reasons, and Bria Hartley suffered a season-ending knee injury. But Phoenix responded well to adversity to get the No. 5 seed.
“We showed incredible character,” Taurasi said. “We went through a lot of stuff this year, on and off the court. We stayed together. We could have easily quit. We were one possession away. It’s going to hurt for a little bit.”
Phoenix survived the first round against Washington on a buzzer-beater by Shey Peddy. But Peddy was inadvertently hit in the face by Minnesota’s Sims on a drive to the basket Thursday, and was limited to just over 14 minutes. Her absence hurt mostly on defense, as she had done a good job on Dangerfield early on.
“I’m sure it changed the dynamic of the game for us a little bit,” said Taurasi, who is now 14-2 in winner-take-all career playoff games.
But she added that there was a bright spot to leaving the bubble, where WNBA players have been since early July.
“I get to see my son tomorrow,” Taurasi said.
As for her future, she added, “The plan is to come back next year, hopefully better, and try to go after it again. But at this age, a lot can happen. With everything that’s going on with COVID, and thinking about [maybe] playing in a bubble again, there’s a lot of factors that go into it more than just being healthy.”
She said she would talk with her wife, former Mercury player Penny Taylor, and the team about everything.
“My contract’s up,” Taurasi said, “so there’s some things I’ve gotta figure out.”
Defense leads Sun back to the semifinals
Alyssa Thomas threads the needle with a pinpoint bounce pass to DeWanna Bonner, who finishes with an and-1 layup and lets out a roar of excitement.
Last year, the Sun made it all the way to Game 5 of the WNBA Finals, where they lost to Washington. This year, after an 0-5 start, they had to reboot and start fresh, and it has worked.
Connecticut took control of its matchup with Los Angeles and never let up. Holding the Sparks to just 59 points was a defensive tour-de-force by the Sun. Coach Curt Miller attributed that to great individual defenders — including Alyssa Thomas, Jasmine Thomas, Briann January and Brionna Jones — who have defended well together.
The Sparks scored 23 points in the opening half, their fewest in a playoff half since they scored 15 in the first half against Seattle in 2008. The Sparks’ eight points on 4-of-19 shooting in the first quarter were their worst for any quarter this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
The Sun held Sparks point guard Chelsea Gray to no assists, something that had not happened to her in a game since 2016. Along with the defense, Miller credited the Sun’s ability to take care of the ball on offense. They had just eight turnovers Thursday.
“I think we’re now 10-1 when we turn the ball over less than 13 times in a game,” Miller said. “It helps us set our defense, it gets us more shot attempts than the opponents. It was a huge story tonight.”
Sparks, without Ogwumike, suffer disappointing loss
Los Angeles didn’t have Nneka Ogwumike on Thursday because of a migraine, which was tough timing for the Sparks. They had earned the No. 3 seed with their 15-7 record, but their playoff stay ended after 40 minutes.
“They should have more than one night to prove they are a good basketball team,” coach Derek Fisher said of the playoff format, which went to single-elimination first- and second-round games in 2016.
With Ogwumike out, the load for the Sparks went to Candace Parker, who had 22 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists.
“We’ve had a next-up mentality all season,” Parker said. “We kept the routine we normally have going into a game like this.”
Parker said Ogwumike’s absence isn’t an excuse for how much the team struggled offensively. She said the Sparks’ past three game — all losses — turned into an emotional slide that started with the first loss in that string: an 80-72 defeat to Washington. She said it changed the team’s positive vibe, and the Sparks couldn’t get it back.
Parker, 34, was also asked about her thoughts going forward after 13 seasons with the Sparks.
“I want to be in L.A.,” she said. “But at the same time, we’ve got to get better. We can’t keep saying, ‘Next year.'”
Fowles back, but Dantas was big
Sylvia Fowles, who had been out since Aug. 13 because of a calf injury and played only seven games in the regular season, returned for the Lynx on Thursday. She started and played 18 minutes, finishing with six points and four rebounds. But Damiris Dantas, who has filled in so well for Fowles this season, led the Lynx with 22 points. She also had eight rebounds.
And on a night when Collier didn’t get many touches — she had seven points on 2-of-6 shooting — Dantas’ productivity in the post was all the more crucial.
Dantas, in her sixth year in the WNBA, averaged 12.9 points and 6.1 rebounds, both career bests, in the regular season.