The Liberty rolls into the playoffs as the WNBA’s hottest team with a 10-game winning streak.
One game, however, can change everything.
The first two rounds of the WNBA playoffs are single-elimination, meaning teams can’t afford to play poorly and expect to advance.
The sixth-seeded Washington Mystics survived their first single-elimination playoff game and will face the third-seeded Liberty at 5 p.m. Sunday at Madison Square Garden in a must-win second-round game. The winner will face the second-seeded Los Angeles Sparks.
The Liberty was in a similar position last season, seeded third, earning a first-round bye and hosting the No. 8 seed Phoenix Mercury in the second round at the Garden. The Mercury upset the Liberty, 101-94, and advanced to the semifinals.
“I think we’re a better team this year than last year,” Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer said this past week. “I think last year, we got the most out of what we could and we really weren’t able to turn it up for the playoffs. I think this year, this team has another gear in it. They have more in the tank. I’m looking forward to see how we do in the playoffs. I think we can do well.”
The Liberty was 12-12 this season before its 10-game winning streak, which included wins over the top-seeded Minnesota Lynx, Connecticut Sun, Sparks and Mystics.
This is the second season the WNBA is using the current playoff format, with single-elimination games in the first two rounds and the eight best teams qualifying for the postseason regardless of conference.
Liberty forward Tina Charles, who led the team in scoring (19.7) and rebounding (9.4) this season, isn’t a fan of the playoff format.
“I don’t like it,” she said. “I’m very original and old-school when it comes to anything, period. When it comes to reading a book, I’d rather have a book in my hand. When I came into the league, it was best-of-three, best-of-five, it was East and West. I’m very old-school and I like it like that.”
The Liberty went 2-1 against the Mystics this season, winning both games at the Garden. The teams last met on Aug. 25, with the Liberty winning, 74-66.
The Mystics, in the playoffs for the first time since 2015, already have had success with the one-and-done format. They advanced to today’s game against the Liberty with a hard-fought and physical 86-76 win over the young and talented Dallas Stars on Wednesday night. Mystics star Elena Delle Donne scored 25 points and grabbed 11 rebounds.
Last season, the Mercury upset the Indiana Fever on the road in the single-elimination first round and used that momentum to win at the Garden.
“As coaches, you don’t like it,” Laimbeer said of the one-game playoff. “Foul trouble, sprained ankle, bad call. Any of the above can affect the course of the game, and you’re one and done. But I understand why the league has gone this way and you have to make the most of it.”
With Barbara Barker