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WNBA 2021 semifinals preview: Keys, matchups and predictions for each series

Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson (Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

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.

Chicago Sky vs. Connecticut Sun

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.”

Keys for Chicago Sky

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.”

Fast start

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.

Keys for Connecticut Sun

Transition 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.

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(Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

Keys for both

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.”

Phoenix Mercury vs. Las Vegas Aces

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.”

Keys for Phoenix Mercury

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.

Balanced scoring

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.

Keys for Las Vegas Aces

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.

Predictions

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.

Cameron Brink likes Caitlin Clark for 2024 WNBA Rookie of the Year

Cameron Brink poses with Caitlin Clark at 2024 wnba draft in new york
Cameron Brink poses with fellow draftee — and possible WNBA ROY —Caitlin Clark. (Photo by Emily Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images)

Cameron Brink already has her rookie of the year pick for the upcoming WNBA season, and it’s Indiana-bound star Caitlin Clark

In the latest edition of Kelley on the Street, host Kelley O'Hara caught up with Brink in New York hours before the Stanford phenom went No. 2 overall to the Los Angeles Sparks at the 2024 WNBA Draft. When O’Hara asked who would win the WNBA's rookie of the year, she answered without pause.

"Caitlin Clark," she said, while a fan commented that she thought Brink would take home the award. Brink later added that the extra foul granted to WNBA players will be "good for me."

"I hope it’s me," Charisma Osborne, who was later drafted by the Phoenix Mercury, said when asked her ROY prediction. "But, I don’t know — we’ll see."

Watch more of Kelley on the Street:

Dash winger Maria Sanchez confirms trade request a day shy of NWSL deadline

María Sanchez of Houston Dash during a NWSL game
In December, Sanchez signed a new three-year contract with the club worth $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)

Maria Sanchez issued a statement on Thursday, confirming recent reports that she has requested a trade from the Houston Dash. 

In it, she revealed that the club has been aware of the request "since late March."

"This has all taken a toll and isn’t an easy thing to talk about, but I want to confirm that I’ve requested an immediate trade," she wrote. "My expectations and reasons have been clear. I trust that my current club’s management will honor my decision in a timely manner and proceed with accepting a trade."

"I’m eager to refocus and dive back into what I love most: playing football," she concluded.

Reports of Sanchez's trade request first surfaced on ESPN last week, and were later confirmed by multiple sources. 

In December of last year, Sanchez signed a three-year contract with the Dash valued at $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. It was the largest contract in NWSL history at the time — a figure that would be eclipsed by multiple contracts in the following months. 

Sanchez spent the offseason as a restricted free agent, meaning that Houston could match any other team's offer to retain her rights. Should the Dash trade Sanchez, her current contract terms would remain intact, limiting potential buyers to teams able to afford to take on an inking of that size.

The Dash has yet to address the trade, instead reiterating to ESPN that Sanchez is "under contract, a choice she made in free agency at the end of 2023." 

Both the NWSL trade window and transfer window close tonight, April 19th, at 12 a.m. ET. The window will stay closed through the next 11 regular season games, reopening on August 1st, 2024.

Seattle Storm debut state-of-the-art $64 million practice facility

Jewell Loyd #24 of the Seattle Storm during warms up during practice on July 11, 2020 at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida
Jewell Loyd, seen here practicing at Florida's IMG Academy, and her team are in for a major upgrade this season. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

The four-time league champion Seattle Storm unveiled their new practice facility on Thursday, with Storm co-owner Lisa Brummel dubbing Interbay's Seattle Storm Center for Basketball Performance the team’s "new home."

"It's just such a special space," Brummel told Fox 13 Seattle. "I think when the players get here, it's gonna be overwhelming."

The sprawling 50,000-square-foot, $64 million property is just the second designated practice facility to be designed and built expressly for a WNBA team, with the Storm further noting that 85% of all design and engineering team members involved in the project's construction were women and people of color. The finished product holds two professional indoor courts, two 3x3 outdoor courts, a state-of-the-art locker room, and players' lounge, plus designated areas for strength and conditioning, kitchen, dining, and nutrition, and recovery. 

"This facility reflects our commitment to providing our athletes an exceptional environment that supports their growth, health, and performance," said Storm co-owner Ginny Gilder in an official team release. "It’s built for women, by women, embodying our dedication to leading the way in professional women’s sports."

For their part, the team can't wait to make the faciilty their own.

"It's amazing," Storm guard Jewell Loyd told Fox 13. "Not having to drive everywhere around, knowing you have access anytime of the day to get into the gym, to workout." 

Head coach Noelle Quinn said she predicts the team is "never going to leave this building."

"Which is a good thing for me," she continued. "You talk about having an edge in performance. We want our athletes to not only perform on the court, but get whatever they need."

All of the Storm's staff and operations will now live under one roof, and the team also has plans to launch a youth basketball program operating out of the building.

Mystics relocate game to accommodate Caitlin Clark fans

Maya Caldwell, Erica Wheeler, and Lexie Hull of the Indiana Fever celebrate Caitlin Clark
Get ready — Caitlin Clark is coming to town. (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Caitlin Clark effect is quickly making its mark on the big leagues, as WNBA host teams around the country rush to upgrade their Fever games to larger arenas in order to accommodate surging ticket sales.

With Clark mere weeks away from her Indiana Fever debut, both the Las Vegas Aces and Washington Mystics have officially relocated their scheduled home games with head coach Christie Sides' squad. On Thursday, the Mystics became the latest to adjust their plans, moving their June 7th matchup from Entertainment & Sports Arena in Southwest DC to the more centrally located — and much larger — Capital One Arena "due to unprecedented demand."

The Mystics home court's capacity taps out at 4,200, while Capital One Arena — home to the Wizards, Capitals, and Georgetown Hoya's Men's Basketball — can fit nearly five times that crowd at some 20,000 spectators.

"The move to Capital One Arena will allow for additional fans in the stands as well as premium hospitality options, including Suites and the all-new all-inclusive courtside Hennessy Lofts," the team announced via Thursday's press release.

The Aces were one of the first teams to switch venues, aiming to take on the Indiana Fever in front of as many as 20,000 fans inside T-Mobile Arena on July 2nd. That’s a sizable a boost from their home venue, which holds just 12,000.

For those still planning to face the Fever in their home arenas, ticket prices have skyrocketed. Previously scheduled construction has already forced the LA Sparks to relocate their first five games — including their May 24th clash with the Fever — to Long Beach State's Walter Pyramid. The temporary venue is quite the downsize, holding just 4,000 in comparison to Crypto.com Arena's near-19,000. As of Friday, the get-in price for that game started around $400.

Despite fans launching a Change.org petition urging relocation, the Chicago Sky say they're unable to move their June 23rd Fever meeting from Wintrust Arena's 10,000-seat facility to the 23,500-seat United Center due to a concert. Tickets for that game start around $325 as of Friday.

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