The two knockout rounds of the WNBA playoffs are behind us. The best-of-five semifinal series tip off Tuesday night, with No. 1 Connecticut hosting No. 6 Chicago and No. 2 Las Vegas meeting No. 5 Phoenix in Game 1. Despite the more drawn-out play of the semifinals, the games shouldn’t be lacking for drama.
To get you ready for the series, we break down the keys to each matchup, dive into the scouting reports and offer up our predictions.
The Sky beat the Sun twice in the regular season, but they have yet to face Jonquel Jones, who missed all three meetings while playing in EuroBasket this past June. In many ways, this is a completely different matchup between two teams who look a lot different than they did three months ago.
On Tuesday, the Sun swept three WNBA awards with Jonquel Jones winning WNBA MVP, Curt Miller being named Coach of the Year and Brionna Jones earning Most Improved Player honors.
“You can’t really focus too much on those past games because there was no Jonquel, there was no Alyssa Thomas. Heck, there wasn’t even Curt [Miller] for a couple of those games,” Chicago Sky head coach James Wade said shortly after landing in Uncasville, Conn for Game 1. “They’re a different team when he’s there, and Alyssa Thomas and JJ are the mainstays of that team.”
“It’s a unique matchup because we haven’t played each other at full strength,” said Miller, who missed two games while caring for his mother. “They’re starting a different lineup, they’re playing really well with their rotation right now. This just feels like a completely different matchup.”
The Sky’s season has been a rollercoaster, but they are playing some of their best basketball right now and undoubtedly have the experience to win a championship. Chicago finished the regular season with a 16-16 record, earning the No. 6 seed in the playoffs and defeating the Dallas Wings and Minnesota Lynx in succession to advance to the semis.
“You can really see how hard they are playing late in the season that really translates to their tempo and offensive attack,” Miller said. “When they play in and out of their actions with tempo, they are an elite offensive team with five weapons on the floor at any time.”
The Sun earned the No. 1 seed after riding a 14-game win streak to a 26-6 record, but they have not played a game in nine days since their regular season finale on Sept. 19. The coveted double-bye allows for crucial rest and personal preparation time, but it doesn’t necessarily benefit a team from a scouting perspective.
“We went into [Sunday] afternoon still preparing for three separate teams, and not until 7 p.m. did we find out crystal clear who we were going to play,” Miller said. “Chicago actually knew, if they won, that they were going to play us. So they probably had more of a head start of truly just focusing on us for the next round than we did splitting time between three separate teams.”
Continue to defend
We know Chicago can play with a heightened sense of urgency and effort defensively, but that defense needs to be at its season’s best against the Sun. The Sky have been successful when forcing turnovers and pushing the tempo, but we’ve seen them defend better in the halfcourt as of late, especially given their length and athleticism at the point of attack (in other words, early on in offensive action like on ball screens).
“You can see we’ve been more communicative and we’ve communicated well amongst each other,” Wade said. “We’ve been more active these last three games, and we knew that if we wanted to live in these playoffs, we’d have to step it up a notch defensively and everybody is accountable.”
ANOTHER Sloot steal 🤩 pic.twitter.com/jH6AwmmsJf— Chicago Sky (@chicagosky) September 26, 2021
ANOTHER Sloot steal 🤩 pic.twitter.com/jH6AwmmsJf
It will be important for Chicago to push the pace from the jump, not just in this first game but in the series overall. Seeing the ball go through the net early on, allowing their defense to dictate their offense and forcing Connecticut to play at their speed and pace will be key to maintaining confidence against the Sun’s suffocating defense.
This is arguably the biggest key for Connecticut against the fast-paced Sky.
“They pose a lot of challenges and are tremendous offensively. Their pace is really special, they can attack off made baskets and misses,” Miller said. “Everything starts with your offensive execution and everything starts with your transition defense. You can’t begin to think that you can have success against Chicago if you’re not able to play in transition all game long.”
Take care of the ball
The Sky punished the Lynx in their second-round win Sunday by converting turnovers to easy baskets, which has been a bit of a soft spot for the Sun this year.
The Sun are 24-3 in the last two seasons when they keep their turnovers to 12 or fewer. On the other side, the Sky were third in the league in forced turnovers during the regular season, with their opponents committing 15.6 per game. The Sun’s ability to take care of the basketball will be critical to coming out on top in this series.
Pound the ball inside
Jonquel Jones’ mere presence throws a huge wrench into the scouting and film study of the past matchups. Connecticut has the advantage of size and versatility with Jonquel Jones and Brionna Jones, so getting the ball inside to those two early and often will help the Sun dictate their offensive flow.
Both teams will look to be aggressive on the boards, limit their opponent’s second-chance points and take care of the basketball. The Sky and Sun each have success when they are aggressive on the offensive glass.
“We’re going to have to rebound. That’s the thing they hang their hat on,” Wade said. “We’re going to have to match it, box out, rebound as much as we can and take care of the ball. If we can do those two things at a great rate, we can pretty much find our way.”
After two thrilling, single-elimination playoff wins, the Mercury find themselves in a best-of-five series against the Aces and their dominant offense. Besides the sheer star power on both rosters, this matchup will showcase experience, strong interior play and emotion on each side of the court.
Las Vegas won two of three against Phoenix in the regular season. Each of those contests were decided by single-digit win margins, including one overtime game and one game-winning block.
“You’ve got a team with three Olympians,” said Aces coach Bill Laimbeer. “Brittney Griner is a very talented post player who is very motivated this year. [Diana] Taurasi is Taurasi. It’s just 3-balls all over the place. [Skylar] Diggins-Smith penetrates and creates all over. The rest of them are role players who do a very solid job. They’re a quality basketball team.”
The Aces, who entered the playoffs as the No. 2 seed after finishing the regular season 24-8, have advanced further in the postseason every season for the last three years. Last year, they lost to the Seattle Storm in the WNBA Finals.
This is now a veteran and highly talented playoff team that added a major piece to the puzzle when it signed Chelsea Gray in 2021 free agency. Gray finished the season fourth in assists, averaging 5.9 per game, while also contributing 11.1 points per game and several crucial, late-game baskets.
“I think we’re more talented now. Two years ago we had a fine team; last year we were short-handed across the board,” Laimbeer said. “We got Chelsea Gray and we feel like she passes well, she leads well, she’s been there and done that. She’s a big-shot player. She’s made big shots her whole career, she can get her own shot if necessary but can also set people up and find the right seams to make passes. She’s going to make some big shots in a series and that’s what we’re counting on.”
Control the glass
The single most important key to the Mercury’s success in this series is in the rebounding battle. As Griner and Brianna Turner look to control the paint against the Aces’ Liz Cambage, Phoenix will have to be aggressive on the offensive glass with second-chance points to have the upper hand.
The Mercury can expect Griner and Diggins-Smith to produce consistently, but they’ll need an additional level of scoring to keep up with Las Vegas’ high-octane offense. The Mercury escaped the first round with the help of Sophie Cunningham’s career-high 21 points. In Round 2, Phoenix had five players finish in double figures, including Taurasi who played on a clearly ailing left ankle.
Win at the free-throw line
The Mercury are at their best when they are aggressive and find a way to get to the free-throw line, which coincidentally is also the Aces’ game strategy. In their win over Las Vegas in July, the Mercury not only controlled the boards but also made more free throws than Las Vegas attempted.
DOMINANT. pic.twitter.com/B7jW4XPMKc— Phoenix Mercury - X (@PhoenixMercury) September 26, 2021
Dominate the paint
The Aces need to establish their post presence early and often with Cambage and A’ja Wilson. In such a post-heavy matchup, the team that consistently plays from the inside out, gets touches in the paint and forces their opponent into foul trouble will have the advantage.
I expect the Aces to pound the ball inside, assert themselves on the interior and open up perimeter shots to force the Mercury’s defense to make adjustments. This will put heavy pressure on Griner to put up big numbers on the offensive end and stay out of foul trouble.
The matchup between Griner and Cambage in the paint is as exciting as they come. A healthy Cambage is a huge plus for Las Vegas, but she is still working herself back into game shape after missing five games due to COVID-19.
“There’s still a ways to go with Liz. She’s back on the court, which is a huge positive for us, but COVID took a lot out of her both conditioning-wise and physically-wise,” Laimbeer said. “This series is going to be a work in progress for us and for her. I expect her to play as hard as she can. She’s not going to be able to play extended minutes at any one time, so I’m going to have to get her in and out of the game quickly.”
Wear them down
The Mercury are coming off of two close playoff wins, the last one an overtime thriller. Fatigue crept in down the stretch for Phoenix in that game, so Las Vegas has a clear advantage as the more rested team and will need to exploit it early.
Knock down perimeter shots
The Aces’ scariest weapon this year is their depth of individual talent. During the regular season, the Aces led the WNBA with 89.3 points per game, were second with 37.5 percent shooting from the 3-point line and had seven players average double figures. When their offense is clicking on all cylinders, they’re able to score consistently at all three levels.
Sun over Sky in five
Aces over Mercury in four
Rachel Galligan is a basketball analyst at Just Women’s Sports. A former professional basketball player and collegiate coach, she also contributes to Winsidr. Follow Rachel on Twitter @RachGall.