The 2021 WNBA Playoffs tip off Thursday, and you need a preview to guide you through what to expect, what to watch for, and who to keep an eye on.
The New York Liberty snuck into the playoffs after the Washington Mystics lost early Sunday afternoon, then fate swung their way again when the Los Angeles Sparks fell to the Dallas Wings later that evening. Those results cemented the No. 8 seed for Liberty, who gain the spot in the three-way tie because of a win over the Mystics on Friday, and completed the field for the 2021 WNBA Playoffs.
On the regular season’s final day, the Minnesota Lynx also locked up the No. 3 seed by ending the Mystics’ injury-plagued campaign, 83-77. That also force the Seattle Storm into the No. 4 spot.
Since 2016, the top-two teams from the regular season have received double byes to the semifinals, and in every WNBA playoffs since, a top-two seed has come away with the league crown. This year, the double byes belong to No. 1 seed Connecticut Sun and No. 2 seed Las Vegas Aces. Have the last four years merely been a preview to what we’ll see again in the 2021 iteration of the WNBA Playoffs?
With the field set and context explained, let’s take a look at what figures to be an exciting postseason.
WNBA Playoffs Preview 2021
First Round (Single-Elimination): Sept. 23
8 New York Liberty at 5 Phoenix Mercury
The last matchup to be decided, the Liberty snuck into the playoffs for the first time since 2017 and are rewarded with a matchup against Brittney Griner and the Mercury. Phoenix won the season series with New York, 2-1, in the regular season, but will a one-game format go its way?
Griner is averaging more than 20 points per game for the third time in her career, and Skylar Diggins-Smith has been her outstanding running mate. Diana Taurasi has been out since Sept. 6 with a left ankle injury, but even without her, the Mercury should be favored to advance. Phoenix excelled this year against teams at .500 and below, finishing 15-5 against that competition.
The Liberty enter the 2021 WNBA Playoffs led by Betnijah Laney, who was the team’s top scorer in her first year in New York. It will also be the first playoff action for Sabrina Ionescu, who is tied for the team’s third-leading scorer with 11.7 points per outing, leads the Liberty in assists, and is second on the squad in rebounding with 6.1 dimes and 5.7 boards per contest. New York relies on the three-ball more than any other team in the W and will need to get scorching hot to upset the Mercury.
7 Dallas Wings at 6 Chicago Sky
The other first-round matchup pits the Sky against the Wings to see which team can fly higher.
Chicago had an up-and-down campaign before closing at 16-16 for the regular season. It comes into this one led by the trio of Kahleah Copper, Candace Parker, and Allie Quigley. Copper has a fun matchup with Arike Ogunbowale in her future, while Parker will look to bring the Sky to postseason in her first year with her hometown squad. The Sky also have the luxury of bringing Diamond DeShields off the bench.
Dallas secured the No. 7 seed behind Ogunbowale and a deep cast of scorers. Ogunbowale leads five Wings who average in double figures and is fifth in the league in scoring, posting 18.7 points per game over the season. She’s flanked by Marina Mabrey and Satou Sabally, who offer plenty of offensive potency themselves. If Ogunbowale gets hot and this is a close one down the stretch, the flamethrower is known for clutch players (see: 2018 NCAA national championship).
Second Round (Single-Elimination): Sept. 26
Highest-Remaining Seed at 4 Seattle Storm
Awaiting the highest-remaining seed are the 2020 WNBA champions and winners of the inaugural Commissioner’s Cup, the Seattle Storm.
Breanna Stewart and company will look to make it back to the WNBA Finals to finish off a back-to-back after taking the title in the Wubble. Stewart’s availability is in question as she deals with a foot injury, but that’s not the only reason the Storm look fallible this year. The team has looked the most beatable of the top-four seeds and is just 5-5 in its last 10.
Whether or not Stewart can play could be crucial as Jewell Lloyd (17.9 ppg) and Sue Bird (10 ppg) are the only other double-digit scorers on the team. Seattle is still deep, though, with 10 players averaging at least five points per game.
It will be a challenge to repeat as champions, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
Lowest-Remaining Seed at 3 Minnesota Lynx
The Lynx win in their regular-season finale assured them a contest against the lowest-seeded winner of the first-round matchups.
Minnesota’s victory over Washington on Sunday capped off a 22-10 season, and the team now comes into the 2021 WNBA Playoffs riding a four-game winning streak. The group is led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Sylvia Fowles, who is one of just two players to average a double-double this season at 16 points and 10 rebounds per outing. Fowles, along with the trio of Napheesa Collier, Kayla McBride, and Aerial Powers, are coming into the playoffs on a tear, with just a single loss in Minnesota’s final 10 games.
Semifinals (Best-of-Five): Sept. 28 – Oct. 8 (if necessary)
Highest-Remaining Seed vs 2 Las Vegas Aces
On the other side of a pair of double-elimination rounds, the highest-remaining seed will take on the Aces in the semifinals. While the top-seeded Sun use stifling defense to shut teams down, the Aces exist on the other end of the spectrum, boasting the highest-scoring offense in the WNBA.
The Aces are riding a four-game winning streak into the 2021 WNBA Playoffs and are 8-2 over their last 10 contests. This is a team that’s great at creating distance from its opponents and has the second-largest average point differential (9.1 ppg) in the league. Las Vegas has scorers that go seven deep, with seven different players averaging double-digits this season. A’ja Wilson, Liz Cambage, and company have been helped even more by Kelsey Plum’s willingness to come off the bench – where she still finished as the team’s second-leading scorer – in 2021.
Lowest-Remaining Seed vs 1 Connecticut Sun
As a reward for fighting its way through to the WNBA Semifinals, the lowest-remaining seed will have the honor of taking on the top-seeded Sun.
Connecticut comes into the 2021 WNBA Playoffs as the league’s most impressive team from the regular season, which it’ll will serve as a preview in the team’s quest for its first league championship. A frontrunner for the championship, with MVP candidate Jonquel Jones paving the way, now would be as good as time as ever for Connecticut to get over the hump.
The Sun ripped through the league this season, finishing with the best record, and look to be a tough out by the time the semifinals roll around. They’re riding a 14-game win streak and have held opponents to a stifling 69.9 points per game this season. The team was also just bolstered by the return of Alyssa Thomas, the forward who missed most of the season because of an Achilles’ tear overseas.
So, What’s Gonna Happen?
As explained before, teams with double byes to the semifinals have won every WNBA championship since the format changed in 2016, so it’s likely that will happen again. But it’s not a guarantee: the Lynx have been strong to end the season, you can’t count out the Storm, especially if healthy, and maybe this is the year someone goes on a Cinderella run.
The only way to know is to tune in Thursday and see for yourself!