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WNBA 2022 playoffs: Breaking down every first-round matchup

The Aces and Mercury face off in a rematch of the 2021 WNBA semifinals. (Kate Frese/NBAE via Getty Images)

The WNBA playoffs are upon us.

Wednesday and Thursday kick off four first-round matchups as part of the WNBA’s newly expanded playoff format: Aces vs. Mercury, Sky vs. Liberty, Sun vs. Wings and Storm vs. Mystics. Each best-of-three matchup brings its own unique storylines and points of intrigue.

Here’s what to keep an eye on as the games begin.

(1) Las Vegas Aces vs. (8) Phoenix Mercury

X-Factor: Offensive rebounding

The Mercury will certainly have their work cut out for them with the Aces, but one way they can get an edge is on the offensive boards. Las Vegas and Phoenix are 10th and 12th, respectively, in the WNBA when it comes to grabbing rebounds for second-chance points. If the Mercury can pick up a few easy buckets on the glass, that could be the difference between keeping it close and letting the Aces run away with it. On the flip side, any extra opportunities for an offensive powerhouse like the Aces will spell trouble for the Mercury.

Player matchup to watch: Kelsey Plum vs. Sophie Cunningham

While these two won’t necessarily be guarding each other, I can definitely see a situation where they start trading 3-pointers. Plum has been explosive offensively for the Aces, averaging a team-high 20.2 points per game on 42 percent shooting from 3. And Cunningham has been a consistent presence amid the chaos of the Mercury’s season, averaging 12.6 points per game on 40 percent shooting from 3.

Stat spotlight: PPG/Points allowed

The Aces are the top scoring team in the league at 90.4 points per game, while the Mercury give up more points per game than any other playoff team. In other words, the Mercury need to do everything possible to slow down the Aces, or this series will get out of hand fast.

Prediction: Aces in 2

Tune in:

  • Game 1, Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET (ESPN)
  • Game 2, Saturday at 9 p.m. (ESPN2)
  • Game 3, Aug. 23 TBD
The Sky will lean on Courtney Vandersloot's playmaking against the Liberty. (Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images)

(2) Chicago Sky vs. (7) New York Liberty

X-Factor: Bench production

For the Sky, that’s Azurá Stevens, Rebekah Garder and Julie Allemand. For the Liberty, it’s a slew of players, but my eye is on Marine Johannès, Sami Whitcomb and Han Xu. These teams both have the luxury of bringing talented players off the bench, and each player has a unique aspect to their game that the starters don’t necessarily provide. For example, there’s the distinctive way Gardner cuts to the basket, or the creative playmaking of Johannès. Whichever team gets the best out of its bench will have a clear advantage.

Player matchup to watch: Courtney Vandersloot vs. Sabrina Ionescu

These two All-Star guards run the show for their respective teams, and both are stat stuffers with multiple triple-doubles to their names. Vandersloot is averaging 11.8 points, 3.9 rebounds, 6.5 assist and 1.2 steals a game, while Ionescu contributes 17.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 1.1 steals per game. Whichever team comes out on top in this series will largely depend on which point guard has the better run of play.

Stat spotlight: Liberty’s 3-point rate

New York has made a league-high 394 3-pointers this season, and a league-low 687 2-pointers. That trend will likely continue against a Sky team that is second in the WNBA in blocked shots (155), and how consistently the Liberty can make their shots from deep will go a long way toward determining the outcome.

Prediction: Sky in 3

Tune in:

  • Game 1, Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
  • Game 2, Saturday at 12 p.m. (ESPN)
  • Game 3, Aug. 23 TBD
Marina Mabrey has stepped up for the Wings in the last month of the season. (Tim Heitman/NBAE via Getty Images)

(3) Connecticut Sun vs. (6) Dallas Wings

X-factor: Marina Mabrey

In the absence of Arike Ogunbowale, who’s been sidelined since undergoing a procedure to repair a pelvic injury and will miss the series against the Sun, Mabrey has upped her scoring from 13.6 points to 21.8 points per game. Mabrey’s performance is a big reason the Wings secured their playoff spot in the final week of the season, and if she continues at a similar clip, the former Notre Dame guard can give her team a shot at the upset. On the other hand, if Connecticut shuts her down, that is a big chunk of offense missing for the Wings.

Player matchup to watch: Teaira McCowan vs. Brionna Jones

Two strong, tough post players, McCowan and Jones will bring intensity to this matchup. The 6-foot-3 Jones has been a consistent piece off the bench for the Sun this season, averaging 13.8 points and 5.1 rebounds a game, while McCowan has blossomed in the last two months. She’s averaging 11 points and seven boards on the season, and in August, those numbers have increased to 17.4 points and 11.6 rebounds per game.

Stat spotlight: Offensive rebounding

The Sun average a league-best 10.2 offensive rebounds per contest, while the Wings are third with 9.6. It’s going to be a battle on the glass, and the team that controls the boards — by either grabbing more offensive rebounds or stopping the opponent from getting them — will have a clear edge.

Prediction: Sun in 3

Tune in:

  • Game 1, Thursday at 8 p.m. ET (ESPNU, NBATV)
  • Game 2, Sunday at 12 p.m. (ABC)
  • Game 3, Aug. 24 TBD
The Storm take on the Mystics in what should be the most competitive series of the first round. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(4) Seattle Storm vs. (5) Washington Mystics

X-Factor: Post players on defense

In her second year, Seattle’s Ezi Magbegor is second in the league with 1.8 blocks per game. In her rookie season, Washington’s Shakira Austin is 18th with 0.8 per game. Both provide length inside and have the ability to alter and outright block shots. The way they impact the other team’s offense can change the outcome of the game — and the series.

Player matchup to watch: Jewell Loyd vs. Ariel Atkins

In the three meetings between the Mystics and Storm this season, Loyd and Atkins have performed at a high level each time. Loyd recorded 22, 17 and 15 points, and Atkins put up 11, 13 and 23 points as the Storm took the regular-season series 2-1. Loyd’s elite playmaking against Atkins’ stingy defense also has the potential to bring excitement to this matchup.

Stat spotlight: Assists

Seattle is second in the league in assists with 813 on the year, while Washington slots in at seventh with 729. The Storm are more likely to lean on ball-movement and creating for each other to score, while the Mystics like to create offense in one-on-one situations. Those differing styles should make this one of the most competitive series of the first round.

Prediction: Storm in 3

Tune in:

  • Game 1, Thursday at 10 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
  • Game 2, Sunday at 4 p.m. (ESPN)
  • Game 3, Aug. 24 TBD

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.