The first round of the WNBA playoffs featured a pair of surprising upsets. Will the WNBA semifinals provide more of the same?
After two rounds of single-elimination games, it’s time for the WNBA Semifinals, which differ from the first two rounds because these are actual series. Four teams will face off in best-of-five series, with the No. 1 seed Connecticut Sun facing the No. 6 seed Chicago Sky, while the No. 2 seed Las Vegas Aces play the No. 5 seed Phoenix Mercury.
And yep, that means that the last round featured two upsets, as the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds are gone. Seattle sans Breanna Stewart just couldn’t muster up enough to pull off an overtime win over the Mercury in what could have been — but hopefully wasn’t — Sue Bird’s last game, and the Sky upset the Lynx in a game that wasn’t as close as the scoreboard indicated.
So, we now come to the semis. Four teams are left with a shot to win it all. What should we expect in these games?
WNBA Playoffs: Connecticut vs. Chicago
Regular-season series: 2-1 Chicago
It’s a name you’re going to hear a lot over the next few weeks. The presumptive 2021 WNBA MVP, Jones is arguably the biggest mismatch in the WNBA right now.
I mean, Jones is a big. She led the league in rebounds per game. She was 10th in blocks per game, just ahead of A’ja Wilson. She was fifth in two-point field goal percentage. Per Positive Residual, she was first in overall Defensive Estimated Contribution.
But Jones also happened to shoot 36.2 percent from 3 and added 2.8 assists per game. It’s so hard to beat her — I mean, look at her shot chart, per the WNBA.
Jones shot above league average in each of the major zones. She took 113 non-corner 3s, while taking just 55 mid-range shots — a really great shot profile that helped fuel the Sun to the league’s second-best offensive rating.
But even more impressive than Jones and the offense is what the Sun do on the other end.
The team allowed 93.7 points per 100 possessions, the best mark in the league by a good margin. Vegas was second, allowing 98.0 points. That allowed the sun to have a net rating of plus-13.2, the best in the league and comparable to Seattle’s plus-14.5 net rating last year. That Storm team went 6-0 in the postseason.
Connecticut is so good defensively because they have so many good defenders. Jonquel Jones and Briann January were named to the All-Defensive First Team. Jasmine Thomas and Brionna Jones were All-Defensive Second Team. And Alyssa Thomas is back from an Achilles injury — she’s made three All-Defensive teams.
While defense is the calling card of the Sun, offense is what Chicago does…or, at least, it’s supposed to be. The team was seventh in offensive rating this season, a surprise since the team added Candace Parker to a team that was fifth in offensive rating in 2020.
But according to Positive Residual’s on/off data, the Sky had a 102.7 offensive rating this year. But that moved up to 104.3 when Parker was on the floor.
In fact, the Sky looked really, really good in the minutes they got from Parker. With her on the floor, the Sky had an adjusted net rating of 7.9. With her off, the adjusted net rating was 1.7.
And hey, the Sky won two of the three meetings with Connecticut this year!
(Oh, wait, Connecticut didn’t have Jonquel Jones for any of those games. I hate how all three contests were stacked so close together on the schedule, because they’re essentially meaningless in terms of predicting. Chicago played so well when these teams met, but the Sun were without the league’s best player.)
Chicago can make this a competitive series. They have the personnel to shoot their way into any game, even if the shooting has been off so far in the playoffs:
Still, the Sun have been so much better than everyone else this year when playing at full strength. They can bully any team on both ends.
WNBA Playoffs: Las Vegas vs. Phoenix
Regular-season series: 2-1 Vegas
Do y’all like bigs? Because this series features some of the best: Phoenix’s Brittney Griner and the Aces’ two-headed monster upfront with A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage.
Vegas shot 66.3 percent in the restricted area in the regular season, while the Mercury shot 60.5 percent. No team made more non-RA paint shots per game than Vegas, who averaged 8.8 of them on 45.2 percent shooting, the second-best percentage in the league. But Phoenix was right behind them, shooting 44.3 percent on those attempts.
These teams both have some similar strengths. The Cambage/Wilson frontcourt has a lot more offensive upside than the Griner/Brianna Turner frontcourt, largely because Turner’s offensive game isn’t where it needs to be yet, but both teams have the ability to overwhelm opponents upfront.
Phoenix does attempt more 3s, though. The Mercury are fifth in 3-point attempts at 21.8 per game. The Aces are last — again! — at 13.5 per game.
That’s what makes this the more intriguing of the two series. Aces head coach Bill Laimbeer has never really adjusted to 3-pointification of the WNBA. Phoenix has Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi who can drill some shots from deep, but Phoenix didn’t even have Taurasi when they beat Vegas. They got a 4-for-5 shooting night from Sophie Cunningham in that one, making 10 threes to Vegas’ three.
But what Vegas does have going for them this year that wasn’t present last year is that there are players who can get hot from deep. Chelsea Gray shot 38.0 percent from deep this year. Kelsey Plum shot 38.6 percent.
Vegas can win a shootout now if they have to. They can get back into a game. But because they have the league’s second-best defensive rating, they don’t necessarily have to showcase that part of their game.
Still, Phoenix has been hot lately. Provided they stay out of foul trouble — that bench is worrisome — and can get a good shooting night from someone like Cunningham or Kia Nurse to go along with what SDS and Taurasi do, they can beat anyone.
But winning a series against this particular Aces team? That’ll be tough.