Wild Card Playoffs Produce Firecracker Finale

Congratulations to the Los Angeles Sparks as 2016 WNBA Champions, fitting for one of the WNBA’s original teams and traditional powers to capture the title in the league’s 20th season.

Congratulations to the WNBA —
• For a phenomenal Game 5 and the 5-game series it decided in front of a capacity crowd at Target Center
• For success in modifying its playoff format to produce perhaps the greatest Finals series in league history
• For drawing eyeballs from around the sporting world surrounding its dramatic Game 5, on the same night sharing the airwaves with Thursday night NFL and an equally riveting Game 5 in the National League Championship Series

I have been the Fever’s PR director for 14 seasons and for most of the past decade have proudly considered the 2009 Finals series between Indiana and Phoenix as the most dramatic and best overall series in league history. I hereby offer that distinction to the Sparks and Lynx.

Mercury vs Fever

The 2009 series went five games and included the highest-scoring game in WNBA playoffs history – 120-116 in overtime in Game 1. The 2009 series had big stars and high drama, and three consecutive sellout crowds between Phoenix and Indy. It drew rave reviews by media and critics.

The 2016 series, the fifth WNBA Finals to reach the limit, matched each of those features and was capped with last-second drama in Game 5. For emphasis, the game-winner was scored on a contested fadeaway bucket by league MVP Nneka Ogwumike. The Sparks dropped the Lynx on their home floor to become only the second road team ever to win a deciding Game 5. The Sparks beat the defending champion, who beat the Fever in another Game 5 on the same floor last season, and a Minnesota club that had won three of the past five titles.

Nneka Ogwumike

The 2016 series clearly featured the undisputed top two teams in the WNBA. The Sparks and Lynx both raced through the WNBA season vying for bragging rights at every turn – from their June encounter pitting unbeaten teams with double-digit wins, all the way to Thursday night’s dramatic finale.

Bravo.

Thursday night put an exclamation point on the league’s first-ever wild-card playoff system featuring two rounds of one-and-done elimination games.

From an Indiana standpoint, we didn’t care too much for the early playoff elimination that represented Indiana’s earliest playoff exit since … well, ever. One game.

But the final two rounds – the semifinals and finals – were just what WNBA executives had in mind last winter when they announced the change. The only humble recommendation this PR guy might make is to suggest a short three-game series in place of the one-game second round. The #3 and #4 seeds deserve better. New York, for instance, had a week off while waiting for first-round games on a Wednesday night. The Liberty welcomed #8-seed Phoenix who was a preseason favorite to reach the Finals.

The Mercury beat the Liberty fair and square, and earned the right to advance to the semifinals. But I thought the price of a one-game exit was pretty steep for a #3 seed.

I don’t mind the “wild card” games with the #5 through #8 seeds on the first Wednesday of the postseason. Certainly they are the first games of the playoffs. They are very much the equivalent of wild card games in MLB and the NFL.

I’d love to see a second round expanded to allow those #3 and #4 seeds the value and respect of a short three-game series. Because, from that point and all the way to the dramatic finish of the Finals, the 2016 playoffs provided a firecracker of a finish to the league’s 20th season. Future seasons may not equal the drama of the Sparks and Lynx, but the format has been stamped with approval.

Bravo.