Las Vegas coach Bill Laimbeer insisted he was surprised his Aces ended the regular season with the No. 1 seed in the 2020 WNBA playoffs. But things worked out pretty much the way he planned. Laimbeer pushed the right buttons, and now we’ll see if that continues and results in a championship for a franchise that — now in its third city — dates to the launch of the WNBA in 1997.
As the postseason opens Tuesday, the teams in the bubble in Bradenton, Florida, drop from 12 to eight. Teams played an abbreviated 22-game schedule, but the playoffs follow the traditional format: single elimination for the first two rounds, then best-of-five series for the semifinals and WNBA Finals.
With MVP candidates A’ja Wilson leading Las Vegas and Breanna Stewart guiding No. 2 seed Seattle, the Aces and Storm got a double bye and have a little time to rest: They won’t play until the semifinals start next Sunday.
Before then is the NCAA tournament-like first two rounds, which include last year’s champion, No. 8 seed Washington. The other playoff teams are No. 3 Los Angeles, No. 4 Minnesota, No. 5 Phoenix, No. 6 Chicago and No. 7 Connecticut.
Who are the key players to watch in the playoffs?
Wilson, 24, and Stewart, 26, were MVP front-runners all season long. The Storm have both the oldest (Sue Bird, 39) and youngest (Ezi Magbegor, turned 21 on Aug. 13) players in the postseason.
The league’s scoring leader, Dallas’ Arike Ogunbowale at 22.8 points per game, won’t be in the playoffs; the Mystics beat out the Wings for the final postseason berth. Wilson (20.5 PPG) is the top scorer headed into the playoffs, with Connecticut’s DeWanna Bonner and Stewart each right behind at 19.7.
The top six rebounders, led by Los Angeles’ Candace Parker (9.7 RPG), are on playoff teams. Ten of the top 11 in assists are in the postseason, led by Chicago’s Courtney Vandersloot (9.95).
How do the No. 6 Sky and No. 7 Sun match up?
Chicago won the first meeting 100-93 on Aug. 8. Connecticut won the second 77-74 on Aug. 14. The Sky lost six of their last eight games, and the Sun went 4-4 over their final eight.
From Aug. 12 to Aug. 22 the Sky won five of six and looked as if they would contend for one of the top four seeds. But after Azura Stevens (injury) and Diamond DeShields (personal reasons) both left the bubble at the end of August, things weren’t the same for Chicago.
Still, the Sky have the league’s best playmaker in Vandersloot (13.4 PPG, 9.95 APG), and Kahleah Copper (14.8 PPG) and Cheyenne Parker (13.4 PPG) have had the best seasons of their WNBA careers. Allie Quigley leads the Sky in scoring at 15.4. And Ruthy Hebard had the top game of her rookie year — 22 points, eight rebounds — in the regular-season finale.
The Sun had the worst start of any team in the bubble — 0-5 — but battled back to be a playoff team. Connecticut made it to Game 5 of the WNBA Finals last year before falling to Washington. The Sun had the same starting five for every game in 2019 but only two of those players — Alyssa Thomas and Jasmine Thomas — were back for 2020. It took a little while for the Sun to find their form, but adding in DeWanna Bonner, a 10-year vet from Phoenix, was a big boost.
The Sun played probably their most complete game of the season Sept. 7 in an 85-70 victory over Phoenix, so that’s level the Sun will be striving for Tuesday. Bonner (19.7 PPG, 7.8 RPG) and Alyssa Thomas (15.5 PPG, 9.0 RPG) have led the way.
How do the No. 5 Mercury and No. 8 Mystics match up?
These teams seemed to find new identities in the last few weeks of the season. For the Mercury, that was in large part to center Brittney Griner leaving the bubble for personal reasons. Her last game was Aug. 19, an 83-74 loss to Los Angeles. The Mercury then went 7-3 without her. With Phoenix going more small ball, the guard play became even more important.
It wasn’t that guards Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith weren’t key factors before Griner’s exit. But with Griner gone and another guard, Bria Hartley, out after suffering a season-ending knee injury Aug. 28, Taurasi (18.7 PPG) and Diggins-Smith (17.7 PPG) took charge.
“It’s kind of brought back the old Diana, who has taken over with ballhandling and her shooting,” Mystics coach Mike Thibault said. “She’s been much more aggressive offensively. They’ve been able to integrate Skylar more into how they want to play.”
Thibault said second-year post player Brianna Turner (7.2 PPG, 9.0 RPG) is another key factor for the Mercury.
“I think she’s had an unbelievable year defensively, and she was a huge factor in our games when we played them,” Thibault said. The Mercury won both meetings with the Mystics: 88-87 on Aug. 23 and 94-72 on Aug. 28.
Without four of their starters from last season’s championship team, including 2019 MVP Elena Delle Donne, and having lost Aerial Powers to injury after six games this season, the Mystics seemed likely to miss the playoffs. They won only once in the month of August, and had a stretch from Aug. 1 to Sept. 6 when they went 2-13.
Then, somehow, the light went on for the Mystics. Washington had to win its last four games to have a chance at the postseason, and the Mystics did it. Myisha Hines-Allen, who averaged just 2.3 PPG and 2.1 RPG last year, finished this season at 17.0 and 8.9. The Mystics will have to find a way to slow down Phoenix’s guards, but the Mercury will need to contend with players such as Hines-Allen, Ariel Atkins (14.3 PPG) and Emma Meesseman (12.9 PPG), last year’s WNBA Finals MVP.
“It’s a great, great testament to how they’ve hung in,” Thibault said of his team clawing its way into the postseason. “To do it how we’ve done it to get in, it’s a great feeling.”
How big an advantage is having the double bye?
Pretty big. Since the league went to the current playoff format in 2016, the WNBA Finals have matched the top two seeds each year except 2018, when No. 3 Washington beat No. 2 Atlanta in their semifinal. The titles in that stretch have gone to No. 2 Los Angeles (2016), No. 1 Minnesota (2017), No. 1 Seattle (2018) and No. 1 Washington (2019).
Of course, what’s different this year is lack of travel and home-court advantage, since all games are in the bubble.
How strong do the top two seeds look?
Both come in looking very good. The Aces have won six in a row, and the Storm had won seven in a row until falling to Las Vegas 86-84 on Sunday. The Aces (88.7 PPG) and Storm (87.5) are the top two scoring teams this season. In offensive rating, they switch spots, with Seattle first (108.3) and Las Vegas second (107.3). They are also 1-2 in defensive rating, with Seattle at 93.3 and Las Vegas 97.2. Las Vegas also leads in rebounding (37.4 RPG), with the Storm fifth at 34.4.
Health is the big question with the Storm, since Stewart (foot) and Sue Bird (knee) missed their past two games. But with a week before their next game, they have some time to heal. And Seattle’s other starters — Jewell Loyd (14.8 PPG), Alysha Clark (9.7 PPG) and Natasha Howard (9.6 PPG) — were all key parts of the Storm’s 2018 championship team, as were Stewart and Bird.
Both teams also have strong benches, but the Aces are particularly good there, led by Dearica Hamby (12.5 PPG, 7.1 RPG) and Jackie Young (11.3 PPG, 4.3 RPG). Two Aces previously have appeared in the WNBA Finals: Angel McCoughtry made three trips while with Atlanta in 2010, ’11 and ’13, and Sugar Rodgers went with Minnesota in 2013.
How about No. 3 Los Angeles and No. 4 Minnesota?
These teams faced off in 2016 and ’17 WNBA Finals. The Sparks still have three key players from that run: Candace Parker (14.7 PPG), Chelsea Gray (14.0) and Nneka Ogwumike (13.3). The Lynx have one, Sylvia Fowles, but she has been limited to seven games because of a calf injury. Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said she’s optimistic Fowles might return for the postseason. Former UConn teammates Crystal Dangerfield (16.2 PPG) and Napheesa Collier (16.1 PPG) have led the way for Minnesota.
Are any teams seeking their first title?
Three of the eight have never won a championship: Las Vegas, Chicago and Connecticut. The Aces started as the Utah Starzz with the league launched in 1997, then moved to San Antonio in 2003. The team went to the 2008 WNBA Finals, where it was swept by Laimbeer’s Detroit Shock.
The Stars franchise left San Antonio after the 2017 season and became the Aces, in Las Vegas, with Laimbeer taking over.
Chicago, a franchise that launched in 2006, made it as far as the WNBA Finals once, in 2014. Connecticut, which began as the Orlando Miracle from 1999 to 2002, became the Sun in 2003, and has lost in the WNBA Finals three times: 2004, ’05 and ’19.
On the other end of the spectrum, Minnesota has won four championships, and Los Angeles Phoenix and Seattle have three each.
Leaving the bubble
These teams are headed home now: Atlanta (7-15), Dallas (7-15), Indiana (6-16) and New York (2-19). The Liberty’s pair of victories makes for the fewest of any WNBA team in a season, a mark previously held by Washington in 1998 and Tulsa in 2015, with three wins each. The league has not yet announced a date for the 2021 draft lottery.
WNBA playoffs schedule
All games to be played at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. All tipoffs ET.
Tuesday, Sept. 15
No. 7 Connecticut at No. 6 Chicago, 7 p.m. (ESPN2/ESPN App)
No. 8 Washington at No. 5 Phoenix, 9 p.m. (ESPN2/ESPN App)
Thursday, Sept. 17
TBD at No. 4 Minnesota, 7 p.m. (ESPN2/ESPN App)
TBD at No. 3 Los Angeles, 9 p.m. (ESPN2/ESPN App)
Best-of-five; * If necessary
Las Vegas is the No. 1 seed; Seattle is the No. 2
Sunday, Sept. 20
Game 1: TBD, 1 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN App)
Game 1: TBD, 3 p.m. (ABC, ESPN App)
Tuesday, Sept. 22
Game 2: TBD, 6 p.m. (ESPN2/ESPN App)
Game 2: TBD, 8 p.m. (ESPN2/ESPN App)
Thursday, Sept. 24
Game 3: TBD, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2/ESPN App)
Game 3: TBD, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN2/ESPN App)
Sunday, Sept. 27
Game 4*: TBD, 1 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN App)
Game 4*: TBD, 3 p.m. (ABC, ESPN App)
Tuesday, Sept. 29
Game 5*: TBD, 7 p.m. (ESPN2/ESPN App)
Game 5*: TBD, 9 p.m. (ESPN2/ESPN App)
Best-of-five; * If necessary
Friday, Oct. 2
Game 1: TBD, 7 p.m. (ESPN2/ESPN App)
Sunday, Oct. 4
Game 2: TBD, 3 p.m. (ABC/ESPN App)
Tuesday, Oct. 6
Game 3: TBD, 7 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN App)
Thursday, Oct. 8
Game 4*: TBD, 7 p.m. (ESPN2/ESPN App)
Sunday, Oct. 11
Game 5*: TBD, 3 p.m. (ABC/ESPN App)
How to watch the WNBA playoffs
Every game of the WNBA postseason — a potential 19 games — is available across ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and the ESPN App.
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