WNBA Playoff Preview: The Sun Are Ready to End the Storm's Reign

WNBA Playoff Preview: The Sun Are Ready to End the Storm's Reign

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Had the Connecticut Sun not saved their fan appreciation night for the last game of the W.N.B.A. regular season, Coach Curt Miller may have preferred to forfeit.

Already comfortably holding the No. 1 seed, Connecticut (26-6) wanted a win — but didn’t need one. The Sun just needed to stay healthy. Connecticut got the win — a 20-point blowout of Atlanta for its 14th victory in a row — but lost DeWanna Bonner for the game because of back tightness in the first quarter.

The sight of her hobbling toward the locker room was anxiety-inducing for a fan base with high expectations. With everyone on the court, the Sun believe this is their year to bring the franchise’s first championship to Connecticut.

But A’ja Wilson, last season’s most valuable player, and the second-seeded Las Vegas Aces (24-8) believe it is their year to win. After all, Wilson took the Aces to the finals in 2020, despite Las Vegas being without several key players because of injuries and medical exemptions. The Aces were swept by the Seattle Storm at the league’s Florida bubble. But now the All-Star center Liz Cambage is back, and Las Vegas’ formidable and explosive starting backcourt of Chelsea Gray and Riquna Williams has dominated and the team has gotten key contributions from the second-unit firecrackers Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young.

A finals pitting the league’s best offense (Las Vegas) against the league’s best defense (Connecticut) would make for a fun battle for the W.N.B.A.’s 25th title crown. But when playoff action begins Thursday, with two single-elimination games, six other teams will be out to disrupt any potential storybook endings.

Here’s what to expect.

The Liberty ended the regular season the way it began: with a glimmer of hope that the franchise can reclaim its bygone glory. A hot start earned Sabrina Ionescu honors for player of the week and Walt Hopkins the season’s first award for coach of the month, but the success did not stick.

Before defeating the Washington Mystics in their final regular-season game, the Liberty had lost eight consecutive games. And while the win kept their playoff hopes alive, the Liberty’s ticket to the postseason came down to losses by two other teams on the final day of the season. Now, the Liberty must overcome a bleak 5-11 road record to win against a Phoenix team that thrives when cornered and happens to be peaking at the right time.

The Mercury compiled a 10-game winning streak after the Olympic break but dropped their last three games with Diana Taurasi sidelined by an ankle injury. Yet even in its season-ending loss, Phoenix turned in one of its best performances of the season on the steam of role players like Sophie Cunningham and Shey Peddy.

But Phoenix would be remiss to overlook the Liberty.

The Liberty can force the Mercury into a scrappy battle if: Natasha Howard, the Liberty’s rebounding leader, can get the team second-chance scoring opportunities and involve Sami Whitcomb, the Liberty’s best 3-point shooter; Betnijah Laney, the team’s leading scorer; Michaela Onyenwere, the leading candidate for the Rookie of the Year Award; and Jazmine Jones, who can own the paint. A Liberty win is unlikely but not impossible.

Led by a combustible duo known as Marike — Marina Mabrey and Arike Ogunbowale — the Wings battle harder and smarter than their upside-down record indicates. Coach Vickie Johnson, in her first season, has persuaded players to buy into her rotation experiments. The result is a young and tough squad that fears no foe and has picked up wins over Chicago, Phoenix and Seattle.

Candace Parker has made an undeniable impact in her first year in Chicago, helping the team to a seven-game winning streak in June. But the team has since limped to the finish. For the postseason, the Sky will be evenly matched with the Wings, though they play two different styles of basketball — with Dallas strong on the outside, and Chicago at its best inside. The Wings rank second in the W.N.B.A. in second-chance points per game (12.3) and lead the league in offensive rebounds per game (10). To win, the Sky will need to play better defense.

Minnesota achieved a level of success that seemed impossible after a series of injuries and absences left Coach Cheryl Reeve relying on multiple players on seven-day contracts. Minnesota started the season on a four-game losing streak that ended with the arrival of Layshia Clarendon from the Liberty in late May.

Aerial Powers averaged 18 points per game in September, including a 27-point outburst in the season-closer against Washington. So, if Clarendon remains healthy, Sylvia Fowles continues her double-double ways and Powers stays hot, the Lynx should be able to handle whichever team advances to play them.

A true title run, however, depends on Napheesa Collier finding the consistency that has thus far eluded her.

Even amid personnel changes — Alysha Clark, Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb departing in free agency before the season and Noelle Quinn assuming head coaching duties with the season already underway — Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd let the rest of the league know just how serious they are about winning a third title in four seasons.

But the Storm were not the same after the Olympic break, losing six of their 11 games, including a 32-point blowout to Chicago at home.

Seattle was without Stewart (foot) for its last two matchups. And Loyd, in the season-ender, poured in 37 points. The Storm’s title chances improve with Stewart in the mix. But if she can’t play, or plays hobbled, Quinn has a deep well of talent to draw from — starting with Loyd.

Wilson and Cambage may be recognized as the team’s biggest stars, but they are not alone. Coach Bill Laimbeer has stacked his roster deep with superstars calling themselves a second unit. When Dearica Hamby, a two-time winner of the Sixth Woman of the Year Award, comes off the bench alongside a pair of gritty, former No. 1 draft picks at guard, Plum and Young, play intensifies, pace quickens and momentum shifts. Understanding Wilson and Cambage’s tendency to draw a lot of defenders, Laimbeer expects his second unit to feast on the scoring opportunities this presents.

And they have — Plum, in particular. Her frenetic energy on defense has worn down offenses and her willingness to compile 30-point shooting performances when needed has kept the Aces in games. If Las Vegas makes a return to the finals, it will be because of its second unit and the steady, sometimes unsung, contributions of Williams and Gray.

If Plum is the secret weapon for the Aces, the Sun’s is Brionna Jones: a 6-foot-3 forward who showcased a range of talent in increased minutes in 2020 that inspired Miller to keep her in the starting lineup. Remarkably light on her feet, Jones has sharp court awareness and quick hands that allow her to be at the right place at the right time for collecting rebounds and scoring on putbacks.

And while Jones dazzles with the best spin moves in the game, Jonquel Jones keeps her head down, coolly carving up defenses and thwarting offenses. Their performances have been fostered by a complete team approach and riding the hot hand. Any player, whether Bonner, Briann January or Natisha Hiedeman, could go off for big buckets at any time. But Connecticut’s quest for a franchise-first title runs through the Joneses.


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