Vickie Johnson ignored the noise.
At the beginning of the season, she picked her Dallas Wings team to finish fifth or sixth in the standings and reach the postseason. Never mind that the Wings’ roster was painfully young — its average player has spent 2.7 years in the league — or that league observers pegged Dallas for another year picking near the top of the WNBA Draft. Johnson was adamant: playoffs, period.
“Everybody told me that I was crazy, that this is a rebuilding year,” says the Wings’ first-year coach. “I’ve been around the WNBA for 25 years. I know the basketball gods. If you don’t take advantage and you don’t appreciate the moment, the moment will be taken away.
“Who knows if we will have the same core group, healthy, moving forward? … I gave them no choice.”
Her team delivered.
The Wings finished seventh overall in the WNBA standings and will see their first playoff action since 2018 on Thursday night, when they face the sixth-seeded Chicago Sky in a single-elimination game on the road.
It helps that the Wings won the season series with the Sky 2-1, including one win in Chicago. But the playoffs are essentially a whole new season — one Chicago is far better versed in than Dallas. Dallas’ roster has a combined 10 playoff games in experience, compared with 112 for the Sky. Chicago stars Candace Parker, Allie Quigley, and Courtney Vandersloot collectively have played in 93 playoff games.
But what the Wings lack in experience they make up for with exciting young talent. Arike Ogunbowale is a household name who is a guaranteed highlight reel. The young guard was runner up for 2019 Rookie of the Year, was the league’s leading scorer last season, was voted an All-Star starter — and wound up winning game MVP. Her Notre Dame teammate, Marina Mabrey, lit up the league in the Wubble last year and this year is a Most Improved Player candidate. Satou Sabally was voted an All-Star this year in only her second season, while 2017 Rookie of the Year Allisha Gray has taken her game to new heights after winning the first-ever Olympic Gold medal in 3×3 basketball. That quartet, along with rookies Charli Collier and Awak Kuier, the top two picks in this year’s WNBA Draft, represent one of the top young cores in the league.
Ultimately, this game could be decided by guard play, where both teams have plenty of stone-cold shooters and scoring threats. Ogunbowale, Mabrey, Vandersloot, and Quigley can all hit threes, layups, inside shots, and more. Additionally, on any given night, Gray can discover a hot hand, as can the Sky’s Diamond DeShields (sister of ex-Ranger Delino DeShields Jr.), who scored 30 points off the bench in the Sky’s win over the Fever on Sunday.
One interesting matchup could be to showcase each team’s star guards by pitting Gray, Mabrey, and Ogunbowale on DeShields, Vandersloot, and Kahleah Copper, a first-time All-Star combo guard who was Chicago’s leading scorer at 14.4 points per game. A three-way guard battle would be a matchup made in heaven, as will the matchup between Copper and Ogunbowale, Dallas’ leading scorer at 18.7 points per game. The X factor in either one could be Ogunbowale’s shot selection; Johnson has stressed to her the need to be patient on offense and not settle for jump shots. The third-year guard averaged 18.3 points per game in those three regular-season games against the Sky but shot just 34% from the field.
The Wings also have several post players they can rely on in the paint. Sabally is back after missing several games with Achilles soreness and scored the last five points against the Liberty last week to secure Dallas’ playoff spot. So is Isabelle Harrison, a Sixth Woman of the Year candidate who missed two weeks due to COVID-19. She went a perfect 7 of 7 for 14 points on Sunday, her first game back, and finished the regular season with the league’s seventh-highest field goal percentage (54%). Kuier could also be a viable option for the Wings after her minutes increased in Harrison’s absence. They’ll square off against one of the W’s all-time greats in Parker, the two-time MVP who made her sixth All-Star game this year at age 35. She’s still a force to be reckoned with on both ends of the floor.
Perhaps the greatest advantage Dallas might have, then, is its bench. The second unit is averaging a league-leading 29.4 points per game, 13.3 of which come from Mabrey, a candidate for the league’s most improved player. The Notre Dame product started alongside Ogunbowale, her college teammate and best friend, the first five games of the season, but her spark and much-needed aggressiveness off the bench have elevated the team. She’s second in three-point makes on the team and arguably Dallas’ best pure shooter. If Mabrey catches fire, as she often does, she can take over a game.
Thursday night will be fun, fast, and frenzied. A young, talented Wings team against a veteran Sky squad. When the Wings play team defense, they are hard to score on. If they can do that, control the paint, and defend the three-point line, they just may pull off the upset on the road.
But the key might be less about what Dallas can do but trying to avoid doing too much. It’s easy to imagine a young team pressing too hard in its first postseason appearance. But, as Johnson warns, “mistakes cost games in the playoffs. So it’s very important for us to pay attention to detail.”
Ultimately, Johnson’s mindset going into tomorrow night is the same as it was months ago, when she was the first — and perhaps only — person to envision this for her team.
“We are not waiting three years, two years, whatever,” Johnson says. “We are good enough to win now.”
Now it’s on her team to prove her right one more time.