How underdogs have dominated the WNBA playoffs

Upsets are exceedingly rare in the WNBA Playoffs but we’re watching two Cinderella runs playing out across the WNBA semifinals.

In 2016, the WNBA adopted its current playoff system, ranking teams without regard to which conference the teams were in. Since the No. 1-8 seeding format began, the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds have met in the Finals in four of the five seasons. The exception was 2018 when the No. 1 and No. 3 seeds met.

In fact, let’s stretch this deeper. Back when the playoffs were seeded by conference, the No. 1 seed in either the East or the West made it to Finals every year except 2006 (both No. 2 seeds made it). We’ve seen some Cinderella runs, but two of them in the same season is unheard of.

Well, we’re on the verge of history. Both WNBA semifinals series feature the lower seed up 2-1, with Phoenix and Chicago both needing to win just one of the next two games to make the WNBA Finals.

So, how did we get here?

It depends on which series we’re talking about.

How Chicago has taken Connecticut to the brink in the WNBA Playoffs

Chicago/Connecticut has been an exciting series, largely because Chicago — 16-16 in the regular season — is a better team than the six seed suggests.

In the 23 games where Candace Parker played, Chicago went 15-8. The team won nine of those games by double-digits. The Parker-less Sky struggled in the regular season, but the full-strength Chicago Sky were a dangerous team.

Keeping in mind that Parker is healthy and how the team played with Parker, this series shouldn’t be viewed as a big surprise: two good teams are playing each other close. Chicago has a double OT win and a three-point win.

Chicago has done a good job limiting Jonquel Jones in this series and forcing the other Sun players to beat them. Right now, those other players aren’t getting that done. Jones is still taking about the same number of shots per game as in the regular season, but her shooting percentages have dropped big time, down to 41.5 percent after shooting 51.5 percent in the regular season.

Having Candace Parker to put on Jones is a great thing for this Sky team. On this play, Jones tries to back Parker down, but that doesn’t really anywhere, so she winds up attempting the turnaround, one-leg fadeaway jumper. It’s off-balance. It doesn’t go in.

Also of note is that this was one of just two shots Jones took outside of the paint. On one hand, take the easy shots! On the other, when your versatile, MVP player hasn’t attempted a 3 in the past two games after going 2-for-5 in Game 1, that’s an issue. Chicago isn’t really known for being a defensive team, but it’s making it work in these playoffs.

Offensively, the Sky have upped the pace in the postseason. The team had a 79.6 pace in the regular season. In this series, that’s up to 90.2. They also shot 36.4 percent and 45.0 percent in the two victories. Chicago has been really good this year when shooting that well from deep: in the regular season, the Sky shot 36 percent or better from three 14 times — the team went 12-2 in those games.

Chicago leading this series is pretty simple: they’re playing fast. In Game 3, they had a 10-2 advantage in fastbreak points. They were also aggressive, drawing fouls and taking 19 free throws to Connecticut’s 10 free throws.

This series isn’t over. Three-point percentage is a pretty volatile thing and the Sky struggle to win games when the shots are off. But the defensive game plan is working to limit Jones, which is putting a lot of pressure on DeWanna Bonner — never the most efficient scorer — and Alyssa Thomas, who is coming off a torn Achilles and is playing with two torn shoulder labrums. If Chicago wants to continue getting upset wins over the No. 1 seed, they’ll need to keep pressuring Jones, forcing her into contested looks and getting the ball out of her hands.

The Aces look lost against the Mercury

While the Chicago/Connecticut series has come down to how the ball is bouncing, the Mercury/Aces one feels different. In two of the three games, the Aces have just looked completely out of it, to the point where it feels like this series is over.

That doesn’t mean it is over, of course. Vegas is a talented team and has one of the three best women’s basketball players in the world in A’ja Wilson. But through three games, something is missing.

In Sunday’s win, Phoenix held the Aces to under 20 points in three of the four quarters, including holding them to eight points in the fourth. The Aces shot 3-for-16 in that quarter and despite being down so much, took just two 3-pointers.

I tweeted this the other day:

But I’ll go ahead and scream about it with regards to this game. Phoenix was dominating inside, with a 42-24 advantage on points in the paint and 20 second-chance points. Vegas, though, just didn’t really adapt.

Compare the two team’s shot charts, per the WNBA’s stats site:

Vegas was taking a lot of midrange shots in this game. That’s fine if you’re making them — you can see on the shot chart that the Mercury were making a good number of those top-of-the-key attempts — but Vegas wasn’t.

But hey, whatever — shot selection is always going to be an issue on a Bill Laimbeer-coached team and I’ve spent a lot of years talking about that. Vegas can survive poor shot selection. What the Aces can’t survive is letting Phoenix shoot 50.5 percent so far in this series. The Mercury are also shooting 37.2 percent from 3, up from 34.6 percent in the regular season.

Last game, the Aces let Brianna Turner score 23 points. For context, Turner averaged 7.8 points per game in the regular season. She’s not really an offensive threat, but the Aces just kept letting her score:

When a team has Brittney Griner, Skylar Diggins-Smith, and Diana Taurasi, it can be easy to focus too much on them and forget someone else. On the above play, for instance, the Aces just collapse on Diggins-Smith as she’s driving. That leaves room for SDS to flip the ball over to an open Turner, who finishes the little alley-oop layup here.

The Aces defense just kept allowing Turner to finish at the hoop. Over and over, the defense would be focused on stopping the other options, Turner would run free into the paint, and the Aces wouldn’t be able to offer more than nominal resistance.

With blowout wins in each of the past two games, it’s clear that what Vegas is doing isn’t working. The Mercury were really good in the second half of the season, and Griner, in particular, has just been a problem for Vegas. With Liz Cambage still working her way into shape, Vegas isn’t deep at the 5. Throwing Kiah Stokes at Griner just isn’t going to work.

The combination of the Aces not adapting on offense and the Aces not adapting on defense has this team on the verge of being knocked out of the postseason.

Source: FanSided

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