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The Weekly Roundup: It’s Playoff Time! Double Byes, the Gold Mamba’s Career Night, and More
Evaluating the significance of the double bye and inside Jewell Loyd’s NBA Jam-like first quarter
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Welcome to the WNBA playoffs! It took until the final day of the regular season, but the 2021 postseason picture is at last complete. Needing both Washington and Los Angeles to lose their regular-season finales Sunday afternoon to clinch the final playoff spot, lady luck smiled upon the New York Liberty. The Mystics and Sparks each dropped a heartbreaker to close out the regular season, and the Liberty punched their playoff ticket. While the Liberty needed a little help on Sunday, they kept their playoff hopes alive with an inspired performance Friday night, knocking off Washington 91-80 in front of an enthusiastic Barclays Center crowd.
This week, I’ll take another look at Jewell Loyd’s phenomenal performance against Phoenix in a battle for a first-round bye. In particular, I’ll recap her first quarter that had many stat-watchers wondering aloud, “is that a typo?” I’ll also touch on some neat features the Her Hoop Stats team recently released just in time for the playoffs. But first, let’s dive into a topic that will no doubt put smiles on the faces of Connecticut and Las Vegas fans: the importance of the double bye.
The key to a WNBA title: the double bye
There’s no such thing as a sure thing. However, teams seeded No. 1 and No. 2 in the WNBA playoffs making the Finals is pretty darn close. Since the W adopted its current playoff format in 2016, nine of the 10 Finals teams were top-two seeds (the 2018 Washington Mystics are the lone exception). The reason for this dominance is multifaceted. First, barring the impact of injuries, the two teams at the top of the regular season standings are generally the best teams in the league. So, naturally, one would expect them to qualify for the championship series. Second, they are guaranteed home-court advantage until the Finals. Third, and most importantly, they receive a double bye into the semifinals and avoid the chaos that two rounds of single-elimination basketball inevitably bring.
To be sure, five years’ worth of WNBA playoff action is a small sample size. Also, home-court advantage is significantly less of a factor this season. Still, the double bye’s value remains, and both WNBA prediction models and, to a lesser degree, sportsbooks reflect this reality. On July 9, the Connecticut Sun sat 1.5 games behind Las Vegas for the No. 2 spot. FiveThirtyEight pegged their chances of making the Finals at 33%. After clinching the No. 1 seed last week, the Sun’s chances of being one of the last two teams standing now stand at 85%. Over the same timeframe, the probability implied by FanDuel’s championship odds of the Sun taking home their first WNBA crown increased from 13.2% to 29.4%. The Las Vegas Aces, the other double bye recipient, have a 70% chance to qualify for the Finals. No other team cracks the 25% barrier.
Of course, championships aren’t won on paper, but recent history must have Aces and Sun fans awfully confident about their team’s championship prospects.
The Gold Mamba strikes at just the right time
In her previous seven games entering Friday night’s contest versus Phoenix, Seattle guard Jewell Loyd had shot 33.0% from the field and averaged 11.1 points per game. Those are underwhelming figures for someone in the MVP conversation earlier this season. During the pregame show, Storm color commentator Elise Woodward described the importance of Jewell Loyd finding her rhythm before the playoffs: “We’ve seen Jewell Loyd take over games in her career...and it can happen anytime. And especially when she gets hot in the first quarter, you can ride the wave of Jewell Loyd getting buckets.” Friday night was a tsunami of buckets, as the Gold Mamba broke out of her shooting slump in historic fashion during a game her team needed in order to clinch a first-round bye.
“She was due for one… offensively, that first stretch when she was cooking like that, I got goosebumps, because it felt good for her to see the ball going,” Storm coach Noelle Quinn said, describing her emotions during Loyd’s big night. “And I felt great for her because she worked so hard, and she just deserves these moments… And for somebody like me who's always in our corner, moments like that I love and appreciate it, just because if you honor the game, it rewards you. If you stay the course, it rewards you. So, I loved it, I was kind of a fan in those moments. She deserved that.”
While her career-high 37 points, the highest single-game total in the league this season, was impressive, Loyd’s first quarter was sheer brilliance. Her scoring average this season entering Friday night was just over 17 points per game. She hit that mark in the first 4:16 of the contest. At this point, she was on pace for a video game-esque 160 points. She tied the WNBA record for points in a quarter in the first 5:38. Her shot chart in the first quarter is something most players would be thrilled with for an entire game.
She knocked down pull-up jumpers with ease, was perfect from behind the arc, drove to the rack against the likes of Brittney Griner with no fear, and created fast-break layup opportunities with her speed. In both the first quarter and during key moments late in the fourth, Jewell Loyd’s offensive arsenal was on full display.
The Storm don’t need this type of performance nightly from Loyd to make a deep run in the postseason (though, it sure would help!), particularly if Breanna Stewart returns to the lineup. However, Seattle must be looking for more consistency from their star guard. She now has two 30-point games and averaged over 20 points a contest in the Storm’s first 11 games. On the flip side, Loyd posted single-digit point totals five times, tied for the lead among the league’s top ten scorers. Hopefully for Storm fans, Loyd can parlay this career night into a string of postseason games where she reliably realizes her offensive potential.
Historical trends and season summaries and expanded databases, oh my!
Curious about how free throw shooting has improved in the WNBA like I was a couple of months ago? Wondering the extent to which teams are now sacrificing offensive rebounds to protect against the fast break? Her Hoop Stats’ new historical trends tool can help you answer these questions and many more about statistical trends across the W’s 25-year history.
The Her Hoop Stats team also released a useful season summaries feature, which provides a comprehensive overview of each WNBA season, from individual statistical leaders to a complete schedule grid showing the season series for all matchups.
In the words of countless infomercial pitchmen: but wait, there’s more! Her Hoop Stats has expanded its database of college basketball statistics back to the 2009-10 season. So, if you want to settle (or add fuel to?) the debate of whether the 2011-12 Baylor squad or the 2013-14 version of UConn was the better 40-0 team, Her Hoop Stats now has the tools to help you accomplish this goal.
WNBA schedule this week (All times Eastern)
Here is a listing of this week’s playoff games, start times, and where you can catch the action.
Adam’s Power Rankings
Check out the Her Hoop Stats Twitter page (@herhoopstats) tomorrow for our final power rankings of the season! Based on the criterion of who would win if teams played tomorrow on a neutral court, here is my contribution to those rankings:
Her Hoop Stats content in case you missed it
With free agency looming for Sue Bird, Jewell Loyd, and Breanna Stewart this offseason, what does the future hold for the Seattle Storm? Christy Winters-Scott and Gabe Ibrahim discussed this, the return of Alyssa Thomas, and more in the latest episode of Courtside.
Now that the regular season is over, it’s WNBA awards season! Aneela Khan recently provided her picks for the league’s individual honors.
Heading into the end of the regular season last week, Jacob Mox and Calvin Wetzel explained each team’s best and worst-case playoff-seeding scenario. Jacob also produced a playoff scenario choose-your-own-adventure tool and flowcharts outlining the various scenarios as the week played out.
From Seattle’s recent woes to Phoenix catching fire, Richard Cohen examined which post-Olympic trends are likely to persist into the postseason in the latest installment of WNBA Dissected.
In Part II of his series on Top Shot, James Hyman broke down the various criteria that determine the value of a Top Shot highlight.
Other recommended content
For The New York Times, Jeré Longman and Romain Molina summarized the results of FIBA’s investigation into the sexual abuse of Malian basketball players.
In a piece for GoodSport, Jacqueline LeBlanc discussed with Nneka Ogwumike the importance of growing basketball globally, media visibility for women’s sports, and Ogwumike’s role in negotiating the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement last year.
For Queen Ballers Club, Shawn Medow described the obstacles faced by rookies trying to succeed in the WNBA.
The Connecticut Sun recently snapped the Phoenix Mercury’s 10-game winning streak. Alex Simon of The Next outlined the lessons Phoenix learned from the loss and the streak.
Which metrics most accurately reflect a player’s impact on winning? Media members and several NBA executives offered their thoughts in a survey compiled by Bryan Kalbrosky in HoopsHype.
Hannah Withiam of Just Women’s Sports offered several reasons for why the Liberty should be confident about the team’s future.
Who deserves to win the Sixth Woman of the Year award: Dearica Hamby or Kelsey Plum? Howard Megdal described WNBA voters’ dilemma and Las Vegas’ embarrassment of riches off the bench in an article for FiveThirtyEight.
Women’s professional basketball trivia question of the week
Who are the only two players in WNBA history who are in the top 10 for career points, steals, and assists?