WNBA playoffs: Can anyone derail the Connecticut Sun or Las Vegas Aces?

The WNBA’s two best teams appear bound for a championship showdown, but familiar playoff faces in Minnesota and Seattle could upset the apple cart along the way

The WNBA playoffs tip off on Thursday night with a pair of first-round sudden-death fixtures before shifting into full gear next week. Here’s a look at the teams, ranked in order of their chances of winning the title.

8) New York Liberty

Current form Not great! The Liberty’s splashy offseason – trading the No 1 pick in the draft for 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Natasha Howard while adding two-time WNBA champion Sami Whitcomb and 2020 Most Improved Player Betnijah Laney in free agency – yielded early dividends when they raced out to a 5-1 start. But New York will take the floor on Thursday night after having won just twice in the past 80 days while backing into a single-elimination first-round game against the Phoenix Mercury. Their regular-season record of 12-20 edges the 2010 Los Angeles Sparks as the worst-ever for a WNBA playoff team.

Player to watch Sabrina Ionescu, who became the face of her sport during a sensational four-year collegiate career at Oregon that saw her crack the American sports mainstream like few women’s basketball players before her, played only three games as a rookie before a season-ending injury. The Liberty are unbeaten this year when the 5ft 11in playmaker scores in double figures and have won six of eight when she’s tallied eight or more assists.

How far can they go A Liberty team without a true center has a matchup nightmare on their hands with Phoenix’s Brittney Griner, who’s averaging 20.5 points and 9.5 rebounds and remains one of the finest post players to ever lace them up. Their upset hopes may come down to long-range shooting: New York set the WNBA’s single-season record for three-pointers with 321.

Sabrina Ionescu
New York point guard Sabrina Ionescu has helped lead the Liberty back into the playoffs in her first full professional season. Photograph: Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

7) Dallas Wings

Current form The youthful Wings have won four of their last eight, including last week’s spirited fourth-quarter comeback against New York to secure a postseason berth and Sunday’s win over Los Angeles that denied the Sparks theirs. An inability to put a consistent lineup on the floor, due to both injuries and Covid-19 protocols, has too often made things complicated for first-year coach Vickie Johnson.

Player to watch Out for more than two months due to achilles soreness, Satou Sabally helped the Wings clinch a playoff berth in her first game back. The team’s third-leading scorer (12.4 points per game) is an above-average rebounder on both ends of the court and capable of creating scoring opportunities for herself or her teammates off the dribble.

How far can they go ESPN’s Kevin Pelton notes that Dallas’ roster has combined to play 10 playoff games and 146 minutes, the fewest for any playoff roster since the 2002 Seattle Storm. That experience chasm in a one-off on the road could tip the balance in an otherwise even matchup.

6) Chicago Sky

Current form Like the Wings, Chicago enter the playoffs with a 4-4 record in their past eight contests. They will enjoy home-court advantage against the Wings but didn’t defend it particularly well during the regular season, winning only six of their 16 games at Wintrust Arena.

Player to watch You already know the familiar faces: offseason free-agent addition Candace Parker is a first-ballot Hall of Famer and floor general Courtney Vandersloot once again was the WNBA’s assists leader. But emerging star Diamond DeShields, the Sky’s second-leading scorer, tends to be the most accurate barometer of Chicago’s success. She’s also in a rich vein of form, scoring a career-high 30 points in Sunday’s regular-season finale while becoming the first player in WNBA history to log at least 30 points, five rebounds and five assists off the bench.

How far can they go The high-scoring Sky (83.3 points per game, third-most in the WNBA) are more talented than their 16-16 ledger suggests. Should they get through Thursday’s tricky opener, they have the personnel in place to spring a second-round upset of the fourth-seeded Minnesota Lynx.

5) Phoenix Mercury

Current form The Mercury enter the playoffs on a three-game skid – although those defeats came against elite outfits Connecticut, Seattle and Las Vegas – following a streak of 10 straight victories. They could also be without Diana Taurasi, the league’s all-time leading scorer who’s been dogged by injury and hasn’t played since the first week of September. But the other two cogs in Phoenix’s big three – first-team all-WNBA candidates Skylar Diggins-Smith and Brittney Griner – make the Mercury favorites on merit even if Taurasi is unavailable.

Player to watch Diggins-Smith, who has been on an absolute tear since helping the United States capture gold at the Tokyo Olympics, finished the regular season as the only player in the league to average at least 17 points, five assists and three rebounds per game.

How far can they go Write off any team with Griner, Taurasi and Diggins-Smith at your peril, but it’s fair to say the Mercury dined on the WNBA’s bottom feeders this year, winning 10 of 10 games against opponents with sub-.500 records. Their season-long struggles against the league’s top teams don’t bode especially well for a deep playoff run.

Skylar Diggins-Smith, Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi
The Mercury’s big three of Skylar Diggins-Smith (4), Brittney Griner (42) and Diana Taurasi (3) combined to average 53.4 of the team’s 82.1 points per game this year – nearly two-thirds of Phoenix’s total offensive output. Photograph: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

4) Seattle Storm

Current form The reigning WNBA champions lost superstar Breanna Stewart to injury back on 7 September and her inability to return to practice in the weeks since has cast doubt over Seattle’s repeat hopes. An 81-53 thrashing last Sunday at the hands of Los Angeles – the worst regular-season home loss in franchise history – did little to quell the anxiety.

Player to watch Stewart, obviously. But it’s always best to keep an eye on Jewell Loyd, the former No 1 overall pick from Notre Dame who can play either guard spot, who poured in 37 points in last Friday’s win over potential second-round foe Phoenix.

.@jewellloyd WENT CRAZY TONIGHT 🤐

The Gold Mamba started the game by tying the #WNBA record with points in one quarter and finished with a career-high 37 points 🐍👏#CountIt pic.twitter.com/TOlVMyHiNG

— WNBA (@WNBA) September 18, 2021

How far can they go The Storm, who are looking to become the first back-to-back WNBA champions since the 2001-02 LA Sparks, will be as tough an out as anyone if they’re simply being cautious with Stewart. That’s what happened last year when Stewart missed the last two regular-season games ahead of a dominant unbeaten run through the postseason. And yes, they’ve scored three wins over Connecticut this summer including a stunning beatdown in the Commissioner’s Cup final. But truth be told, Seattle were betraying signs of vulnerability even before her injury.

3) Minnesota Lynx

Current form The in-form Lynx, who opened the season with four straight losses as various players completed their overseas commitments, enter the playoffs having won 17 of their past 20 games despite injuries to key starters Aerial Powers, Layshia Clarendon and Damiris Dantas (thanks in no small part to three-time WNBA Coach of the Year Cheryl Reeve). Their lone defeats during that stretch came on the road and against the tournament’s top two seeds: twice at Connecticut and once at Las Vegas.

Player to watch The obvious answer is Sylvia Fowles, who is widely tipped to collect a fourth Defensive Player of the Year award in her 14th WNBA season. But the difference-maker could be Powers, the free-agent signee from Washington who was first sidelined by a hamstring ailment then later with a thumb injury that required surgery and left her sidelined until the end of August. In the seven games since her return to Minnesota’s starting five, the 27-year-old Detroit native has averaged 18.0 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.7 assists.

How far can they go The 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017 WNBA champions haven’t made a deep playoff run since the last of their four titles. A bold offseason, which included the signings of Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa in addition to Powers, has them positioned to do so. A fifth championship in 11 years is very much within reach, even with a potential WNBA semi-final showdown against the vaunted Las Vegas Aces in their path.

2) Las Vegas Aces

Current form Motivated all year long by the bitter aftertaste of last year’s WNBA finals sweep at the hands of Seattle, the deep, talented Aces clinched a double-bye with a 24-8 record in the regular season, averaging 109.3 points per 100 possessions to lead the league in offensive efficiency and conceding 98.0 per 100 to finish second in defensive rating. Las Vegas also became the first WNBA team ever to have seven players average double figures in scoring, surpassing the previous mark of five.

#𝟭 𝗥𝗔𝗡𝗞𝗘𝗗 𝗢𝗙𝗙𝗘𝗡𝗦𝗘

🔺 First team in @WNBA history to have 𝗦𝗘𝗩𝗘𝗡 players averaging double-digit scoring.

🔺 League leader in Points Per Game.

🔺 Five players in Top 20 in Points Per Game. pic.twitter.com/e8FZoNpiQe

— JiSu Park Fan Club (@LVAces) September 21, 2021

Player to watch A’ja Wilson, the reigning WNBA MVP and 2018 Rookie of the Year who paces Las Vegas with 18.3 points and 9.4 rebounds per game, remains the straw the stirs the drink. But it’s former scoring champion Liz Cambage’s willingness to sacrifice offense for a focus on defense and rebounding that’s only strengthened the Aces’ claim as the WNBA’s most formidable frontcourt.

How far can they go It’s championship or bust for Las Vegas, the WNBA’s deepest team with not one but two Sixth Woman of the Year candidates in Dearica Hamby and Kelsey Plum, either of whom would be an everyday starter on practically any other team.

1) Connecticut Sun

Current form The Sun enter the playoffs on a 14-game win streak after closing out their slate on Sunday with straightforward 20-point win over the Atlanta Dream. They clinched the No 1 seed with a 26-6 record – setting a franchise record for victories – and ranked first in defensive efficiency by more than four points (93.7). It’s been more than 10 weeks since they lost a regular-season game and they’ve somehow looked even scarier of late, having extended their average margin of victory to 15.8 points since the Olympic break.

Player to watch As the best player on the best team, Jonquel Jones is the odds-on favorite to win her first Most Valuable Player trophy ahead of Griner, Wilson and Tina Charles. There’s no shortage of evidence from the advanced stats – for starters, Jones managed a true shooting percentage of 61.4% despite the highest usage rate of her career (26.3%) – but cruder metrics tell a similar story: Connecticut were 24-3 with Jones in the lineup and 2-3 in her absence.

How far can they go The defensively sound Sun are prohibitive title favorites after a banner campaign that will likely end with a bevy of individual silverware: MVP for Jonquel Jones, Most Improved Player for Brionna Jones and Coach of the Year for Curt Miller. And that was before they welcomed back veteran stalwart Alyssa Thomas from an achilles injury for the final games of the regular season. With nine days off until their playoff opener, most likely against Seattle or Phoenix, it seems only ring rust could slow Miller’s freight train.

Contributor

Bryan Armen Graham

The GuardianTramp

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