WNBA Playoffs: Who's playing, how it works, first-round breakdown

Phoenix Mercury guard Kia Nurse passes the ball. (Olivia Vanni/The Herald via AP)

The WNBA playoffs have finally arrived, and the picture is looking a bit different than previous years – the defending champion Seattle Storm will have to endure a single-game elimination round, and the New York Liberty are playing their first playoff game in four years. While anything is possible, here is a brief summary of what to expect in the WNBA playoffs.

How it works

Because WNBA playoffs only features eight teams the WNBA playoff picture works a lot differently than how the NBA’s postseason does.

The format works out that the Nos. 5 through 8 seed teams – the Phoenix Mercury, Chicago Sky, Dallas Wings and New York Liberty – play each other in a single-elimination game, with the eighth seed taking on the fifth while the sixth and seventh play. Afterwards, the two teams that emerge from that opening round will meet with the third and fourth place teams – Minnesota Lynx and Seattle Storm – who secured a bye to the second round.

The first- and second-place teams won’t have to play until the semifinals as those teams, the Connecticut Sun and Las Vegas Aces, secured a double-bye with their regular-season success and will meet the winners of the second round.

From the semifinals onwards, the playoff series format shifts to a best-of-five instead of the single elimination format of the first two rounds.

Broadcast schedule

The WNBA playoffs kicks off on Sept 23 with two single-elimination games you can catch on Sportsnet.

Here’s a look at the two games on the network Thursday:

• Dallas at Chicago at 8:00 p.m. ET on Sportsnet ONE
• New York at Phoenix at 10:00 p.m. ET on Sportsnet ONE

Breaking down the first-round matchups

Here’s a quick breakdown of the four first-round matchups:

(5) Phoenix Mercury vs. (8) New York Liberty
The Liberty are making their first playoff appearance since 2017, fresh off defeating the Washington Mystics – and Tina Charles, who previously played for the Liberty – to secure the final spot.

The team is young and has made some mistakes that has costs them games, and potentially a higher seed, but they’ve managed to squeeze into the playoffs with players like Betnijah Laney and Bec Allen to lead the charge and hopefully build off their playoff-clinching momentum to get a first-round knockout.

Defence will be a key for New York to try and beat Phoenix, with Natasha Howard taking on the responsibility as a former Defensive Player of the Year, especially since size is something the Liberty don’t have much of to contain a centre like Brittney Griner.

Their small ball style will be put to the test against a gritty Phoenix defence, but as long as the Liberty can continue to manage their mistakes made in previous matchups, they have a shot at making it out of the first round.

As for Phoenix, its starters are among best in the league with Griner at centre giving the Mercury one of the best rim protectors in the league who also happen to be a premier scorer as she averaged 20.5 points per game during the regular season.

Additionally, Skylar Diggins-Smith has been her usual consistent self this season going through only three games this season where the guard didn’t score in double digits. As well, Diggins-Smith is another gritty defender who will be able to close out on Liberty shooters.

Additionally, Diana Taurasi is still playing prime basketball and the off-season add of Kia Nurse adds another level of defence as well as a transition threat for the Mercury, and forcing turnovers is something that Liberty are prone to as they average four more turnovers per game than their opponent.

(6) Chicago Sky vs. (7) Dallas Wings
Dallas is a team with a bench rotation deep enough to take on anyone in the league, and they’ve done just that.

Izzy Harrison has made a Sixth Woman of the Year case for herself, while Marina Mabrey, Tyasha Harris and Allisha Gray all have made an impact while coming off the bench versus starting.

Arike Ogunbowale is the only player to start all 32 games for the Wings, but it’s no secret that the 2021 WNBA All-Star MVP is going to be a problem for the Sky.

Chicago is a team that was impacted by the injuries of Candace Parker, whom they acquired in the off-season and were eager to have her defensive capability and veteran presence on the team.

The Sky’s starting five is strong – with players like Courtney Vandersloot dishing dimes like no tomorrow, the sharpshooting Allie Quigley and the impact guard play of Kahleah Copper who can even score over some of the league’s best bigs.

And while most bench focus will fall with Dallas in this matchup, Chicago’s Diamond DeShields, who came off the bench in the Sky’s final regular-season game to drop a career high and became the first WNBA player to have 30-plus points, five-plus rebounds, and five-plus assists off the bench, and versatile big in Stefanie Dolson, who missed the final two games of the season due to knee injury, gives Chicago some extra punch coming off its bench as well.

Second-round teams

As for the second round, which will take place on Sept 26, two teams have already punched their tickets to hopefully take on either No. 1 seed Connecticut or No. 2 Las Vegas.

Here’s a quick look at the two clubs waiting in the second round.

(3) Minnesota Lynx
The Lynx are another team that are incredibly well-rounded and have multiple players who are two-way threats, making it hard for any of their opponents to contain one single player in hopes of dulling their shine.

Sylvia Fowles is an uber-talented big, averaging a double-double this season, Napheesa Collier, the 2019 Rookie of the Year, has quickly risen to being a leader on the team, becoming the team’s top scorer and an important playmaker.

But where the Lynx have really thrived this season has come from their off-season pickups, securing Kayla McBride, Layshia Clarendon and Aerial Powers who have all been buckets for the Lynx.

As well, Minnesota’s bench is also deep with 2020 Rookie of the Year Crystal Dangerfield, Rachel Banham and Canadian Bridget Carleton all able to score and crash the glass off the bench.

With so many versatile players Minnesota will be a challenge for any team who makes it past the first round to deal with.

(4) Seattle
The defending champs are feeling the impact of resting Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird post Olympics as they lost close games to Chicago and New York, which impacted their record, going 5-6 in their final 11 games and allowing Connecticut and Las Vegas to secure the double-bye.

With Bird and Stewart rested and ready to go, however, on top of already having star scorer Jewell Loyd and Mercedes Russell consistently improving at centre in addition to an already deep bench with players like Jordin Canada, Ezi Magbegor and Katie Lou Samuelson, the Storm are likely going to be fine against whoever they match up against.

Under new head coach Noelle Quinn, the Storm will have a lot of work to do in order to get back to the finals and compete for their third title in four years, though an injured Stewart doesn’t help the team’s chances, Loyd is more than capable of stepping up to the plate and pouring in 35 or more when needed, but the rest of the Storm will have to step up in Stewart’s absence as well if she isn’t rehabbed in time come Sunday.

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