Around the W: WNBA Semifinals

Read my recap on Rounds 1 and 2 of the WNBA Playoffs and the first games of the semifinals.

The first and second rounds of the WNBA playoffs are now over. The four single-elimination games have concluded and the Phoenix Mercury and Chicago Sky moved on to face the Las Vegas Aces and Connecticut Sun in the WNBA Semifinals. Let’s take a look at how they got there and how the semifinals have played out so far.

Round 1

There were no upsets in the first round of the WNBA Playoffs as both home teams won their games.

5th seed Phoenix Mercury defeat 8th seed New York Liberty 83-82

This game will always be remembered as the Sophie Cunningham game. Even though Skylar Diggins-Smith led the Mercury with 22 points in this game it was the surprise 21 points from Cunningham that rallied the Mercury to victory in Round 1. Cunningham scored 21 points in 22 minutes off the bench including knocking down 6-7 FG from three-point range. The 21 points for Cunningham was a career-high as she averaged just 5.6 PPG throughout the 2021 season.

Brittney Griner had a strong game albeit a little lower scoring than expected. Griner finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists. Brianna Turner was the 4th Mercury player to score in double figures with 12 points, nine rebounds, and five assists. Turner also knocked down the game-winning free throw with less than a second to play in the game.

Diana Taurasi did not play in this game as the veteran shooting guard continued to rest her ankle injury.

Despite the loss, the New York Liberty have nothing to hang their heads about. They played much better than many expected. They outscored the Mercury in two of the four quarters including an impressive 18-13 advantage in the second period. Four players for New York also scored in double figures. The Liberty were led by Betnijah Laney’s 25 points. Natasha Howard finished with a double-double of 16 points and 10 rebounds. Sabrina Ionescu also finished with a double-double of 14 points and 11 assists. Rebecca Allen rounded out the group with 11 points including 3-5 FG from the 3-point range.

The Liberty may not have won but the future looks bright as the team made the playoffs ahead of schedule, Michaela Onyenwere won Rookie of the Year, and they will still have the 5th overall pick in the 2022 WNBA Draft.

6th seed Chicago Sky defeat the 7th seed Dallas Wings 81-64

The Chicago Sky controlled most of this game, getting out to an excellent start leading Dallas 25-14 and then led by 15 points at halftime. To the Wings’ credit, they made an excellent run in the third quarter cutting the Sky’s 15-point lead to just five as the team’s entered the pivotal 4th quarter. Chicago shut the door pretty quickly in the final period outscoring the Wings 26-14.

The Sky had four players score in double-figures. Kahleah Copper led the team with 23 points. Courtney Vandersloot added 17 points, eight rebounds, and six assists. Her wife, Allie Quigley scored 15 points. And Candace Parker had a near triple-double with 11 points, 15 rebounds, and a team-high seven assists.

Dallas’s biggest issue was their lack of scoring from their starters. Only Arike Ogunbowale scored more than 12 points for the Wings with a team-high 22 points. Starters Kayla Thorton and Bella Alarie were both held completely scoreless in this game. Marina Mabrey who was absolutely fantastic early on during the 2021 season managed just three points on 1-8 FG shooting. Satou Sabally was the only other Wings player to reach double figures with 12 points.

Number one overall pick, Charli Collier, finished up a disappointing rookie season by being a DNP - Coach’s decision. Collier finished the season averaging just 3.4 PPG and 3.6 RPG. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with Collier during her sophomore season.

In general, the Wings who once again have multiple first-round picks have too many young players on their roster. Ideally, they need to figure out some roster moves through trades, free agency, or both to add some strong veterans to balance out the team.

Round 2

The winners from Round 1 were also the winners of Round 2. Surprisingly, both the third seed Minnesota Lynx and fourth seed Seattle Storm were eliminated at home. The Lynx and Storm combined this season for 43 wins and just 21 losses. 22 games above .500. And after one tough game for each team, their entire season was over. If there’s ever the argument to end the one-and-done playoff series in Round 2 - this will be used as an example of why the third and fourth seeds deserve to play in an actual series.

3rd seed Minnesota Lynx lost to the 6th seed Chicago Sky 89-76

Five Chicago Sky players scored in double figures including four starters as Chicago upset Minnesota in the second round of the WNBA playoffs. Courtney Vandersloot led the way with 19 points. Vandersloot also had five rebounds and five assists. Kahleah Copper had a double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds. Azura Stevens scored 15 points and had eight rebounds. And Allie Quigley rounded out the starters with 11 points. Diamond DeShields added 14 points in 19 minutes off the bench. The Sky’s bench outscored Minnesota’s 20-8.

Aerial Powers led the Lynx with 24 points. Kayla McBride was the next leading scorer for Minnesota with 19 points and seven rebounds. Sylvia Fowles finished with 17 points and eight rebounds which could be the former MVP’s final season.

Chicago’s defense was also impressive holding Minnesota to 43%. They held Napheesa Collier to just eight points on 3-11 FG shooting in 35 minutes. The Sky also outrebounded the Lynx 37-29.

Despite Chicago finishing as the sixth seed and just a .500 record at 16-16, they have played significantly better as the postseason began. The team that was projected to be a title contender at the beginning of the season after signing Candace Parker in the offseason is finally playing like one. Will Parker help lead the Sky to the Finals for the first time since 2014? We will find out!

For Minnesota, they will look to regroup next season. They finished 4th overall in 2020 and reached the semifinals before being swept away by Seattle 3-0. In 2021, they finished 3rd in the regular season but lost in the single-elimination second round. The Lynx will have two first-round picks in the 2022 WNBA Draft (8th and 10th overall) and they expect 2021 first-round pick, Rennia Davis, to return to the court. Davis missed the entire season with a left foot injury.

The future is still very bright for the Lynx team that has done a really good job rebuilding after Maya Moore (unofficially), Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus, and Rebekkah Brunson all retired. I think Fowles will be back but even if she does retire the team still has a strong core of Napheesa Collier, Damiris Dantas, Kayla McBride, Aerial Powers, Layshia Clarendon, etc. to build around.

4th seed Seattle Storm lost to the 5th seed Phoenix Mercury 85-80 in OT

When Breanna Stewart suffered a serious left foot injury on September 7th against the Washington Mystics that was the end of the Storm’s potential hopes to repeat as WNBA Champions in 2021. They finished the final two games without Stewart 1-1 which did earn them a first-round bye and the ability to host the Round 2 game against the Phoenix Mercury.

Seattle beat Phoenix 94-85 at the end of the regular season in order to clinch that bye behind a career night from Jewell Loyd who scored 37 points including 22 in the first quarter. Unfortunately for Seattle, Loyd was not able to repeat that magic in their second-round matchup against Phoenix. Loyd made just 5-24 shots and while she did score 15 points it wasn’t enough to overcome big performances from Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith.

As a team, the Storm did battle to the end. A career-high for Katie Lou Samuelson who led Seattle with 18 points on 60% shooting (6-10 FG) nearly put Seattle in the semifinals. Mercedes Russell finished with a double-double of 10 points and 12 rebounds. Sue Bird did her part scoring 16 points and dishing out five assists in what may have been the final game of her historic career. Bird’s three-ball with one minute left in regulation helped Seattle send the game to overtime.

In OT, Diana Taurasi took over scoring six of her 14 points in the extra period. Seattle only managed to score seven points total in overtime. The Mercury had all five starters score in double figures with both Brittney Griner (23 points, 16 rebounds) and Brianna Turner (12 points, 12 rebounds) each contributing with double-doubles. Diggins-Smith finished with 20 points, seven rebounds, and a game-high six assists.

If the short-handed Storm had any chance of moving on in the playoffs they were going to need to limit at least one of the Mercury’s Big 3 and they weren’t able to do that. Even though Taurasi didn’t have her best shooting performance going 4-13 from the floor, her presence alone played a larger factor in the game because it put extra defensive pressure on Seattle who couldn’t overcommit to stopping Diggins-Smith or Griner because Taurasi (regardless of potential injuries) is always dangerous when she’s out on the floor and must be accounted for.

In the end, Phoenix advanced to the semifinals by defeating the Seattle Storm 85-80 in OT. Subscribers can read the full detailed game recap plus a look back at the Storm/Mercury playoff rivalry over the years and discussions on the potential end of an era in Seattle by clicking on the link above.

The Mercury move on to the semifinals series against the Las Vegas Aces. It’s the first time Phoenix has been in the semifinals since 2018.

For the Storm, many questions will impact the future of the franchise over the offseason. Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart, and Jewell Loyd are all unrestricted free agents and can sign with any WNBA franchise. With Bird, it’s more a question of whether or not she has the desire to continue playing professional basketball at the age of 41 (which she turns later this month). Bird stated after the loss that this is the first time she is seriously considering retirement and will have to take some time to decide on if she’ll be back next season. And while the exit interview with Breanna Stewart made it sound like she’ll definitely be back (re-signing) with Seattle. Jewell Loyd was non-commital. It sounds like Loyd wants to take a break, go home, get her mind and body right and then (potentially) test the open market.

Not only does Seattle’s front office have to figure out everything with their Big 3, but the team currently only has five players under contract for next season. Something I’ll get into more detail about down the road in a future story but I don’t think Seattle can just bring everyone back, hope Stewart stays healthy, and expect to win a WNBA Championship. They will need to get better with their depth pieces and if they lose Bird to retirement or Loyd to free agency they’re going to have to do some major things in order to build a title contender around Breanna Stewart.

WNBA Semifinals

#1 overall seed Connecticut Sun face off against the 6th seed Chicago Sky

As of this writing, the series is tied 1-1 with Chicago stealing game one on the road 101-95 in Double OT. It was technically the first game Connecticut had lost since July 3rd to the Indiana Fever (73-67). I say technically because they did lose 79-57 to the Seattle Storm in the Commissioner’s Cup on August 12th but that game did not count in the regular season standings. The Sun won 14 games in a row heading into Game 1 of the WNBA Semifinals. So it was a bit of a shock that Chicago came to Connecticut and beat the Sun.

You could say it was due to rust as the Sun hadn’t played a game in nearly 10 days. But Chicago really played an excellent game. Four Sky players scored in double figures. Not only that but another four players on Chicago’s roster scored eight points or more (eight players total scored at least 8 points). Courtney Vandersloot recorded just the second triple-double in WNBA Playoff history. Vandersloot had 12 points, 10 rebounds, and 18 assists. The 18 assists broke a new playoff record for most assists in a single playoff game. This broke Sue Bird’s record of 16 assists that Bird set during Game 1 of the WNBA Finals in 2020. It should be noted that Vandersloot had 14 assists in regulation but because the game went into double overtime that she was able to break the assists record dishing out four more assists over the additional ten minutes.

Candace Parker led the team in scoring with 22 points, five rebounds, and six assists. You could see the passion on Parker’s face as she does her best to help lead the Sky back to the WNBA Finals.

Allie Quigley added 19 points and Kahleah Copper gave them 13 more.

The MVP Jonquel Jones played like an MVP with 26 points, 11 rebounds, and four assists in Game 1. Brionna Jones (22 points, 10 rebounds) and DeWanna Bonner (13 points, 10 rebounds) both added double-doubles as well. No other player scored in double figures for Connecticut. Alyssa Thomas who’s coming off a torn Achilles struggled in the first game with seven points on 3-11 FG shooting.

That was not the case in Game 2 as Thomas and the Sun responded beating the Chicago Sky 79-68. Thomas put forth an inspiring performance with 15 points, 11 rebounds, and six assists in 24 minutes off the bench in Game 2 of the semifinals series. DeWanna Bonner was the next best player with 15 points and eight rebounds. Jasmine Thomas and Briann January each scored 12 points and Brionna Jones added 11 points. Surprisingly, Jonquel Jones really struggled in this game scoring just four points on 2-9 FG attempts. She will need to play better moving forward if the Sun want to reach the WNBA Finals.

Chicago did have four players score in double figures in Game 2 of this series; no player scored more than 13 points (Kahleah Copper). Candace Parker had 12 points, Azura Stevens and Courtney Vandersloot each added ten more.

After the two teams split the first two games in Connecticut the series becomes a Best-of-Three with the next two games taking place in Chicago. Each team’s victory was very distinct in the way it played out. Game 1 was very high scoring which favors the Chicago Sky and all of their offensive threats. Connecticut doesn’t want to play games that get into the 90’s and 100’s. The Sun, the WNBA’s best defensive team, wants to slow everything down and limit the total offensive possessions in the game. That’s exactly what Connecticut did in Game 2. After giving up 101 points in the first game the Sun held the Sky to just 68 points in Game 2.

Defense tends to travel well and that should help Connecticut considerably. Despite no longer having home-court advantage they should still be favored to advance to the WNBA Finals especially with Alyssa Thomas emerging as she continues to get into playing shape (as we saw in Game 2). However, if Chicago’s offense can continue to knock down shots at a high rate they’re going to give Connecticut one hell of a fight!

#2 overall seed Las Vegas Aces battle the 5th seed Phoenix Mercury

This series is also tied 1-1 with the opposite outcomes happening through the first two games. In Game 1, the Las Vegas Aces held strong winning at home 96-90. Despite trailing Phoenix by nine points after one, the Aces used a 55-36 run over the next two quarters to take a double-digit lead into the final quarter. Las Vegas was never seriously threatened in that game. It was the Aces’ guard play that really stood out in the first game. Riquna Williams led the team in scoring with 26 points. Chelsey Gray added 17 points and 12 assists. And Kelsey Plum scored 25 points off the bench. The reserves are arguably the Aces’ biggest X-Factor in this series especially considering they have the strongest bench in the league and Phoenix has one of the worst. In Game 1, Las Vegas’s bench outscored Phoenix’s 34-11. A 23-point difference is a huge deal when the outcome was decided by just six points.

Phoenix’s starters played well in Game 1 as all five scored in double figures. The team was led by Brittney Griner who scored 24 points. Griner also had seven rebounds and six assists which tied for a team-best. Diana Taurasi added 20 points, five rebounds, and six assists. Kia Nurse (13 points), Brianna Turner (12 points), and Skylar Diggins-Smith (10 points) rounded out the group of five.

The Mercury talked before Game 2 and said they were treating it as an elimination game. It turns out that was the right mindset to have. If they had lost Game 2 the series would be all but over. But instead, they dominated their way to an impressive 117-91 victory tying the series at one game apiece. Brittney Griner dominated the first quarter scoring 16 points as Phoenix set a season-high by scoring 37 points in the opening period. They led 37-20 after one and never allowed Vegas to get back into the game. The sign of a veteran team to never give the Aces any hope in game number two.

While Griner was incredibly impressive scoring 25 points on 75% FG shooting (9-12) it was Diana Taurasi who became the story in Game 2. Taurasi (at age 39) set a new playoff career-high with 37 points on 77% FG shooting (10-13). One of the WNBA’s all-time greatest players, Taurasi knocked down 8-11 three-pointers. Despite still suffering from injuries this season including a bad ankle, Taurasi shined bright in the biggest moment for her team. She was out there playing like this could be her last chance at a title and nobody was going to take that from her. There’s nothing I enjoy more while watching basketball than when a player gets in that zone and boy was she in that zone in Game 2. Some of her three-point shots were utterly absurd and incredible to watch.

Taurasi and Griner weren’t the only ones. In order to beat a team as talented as the Aces, you will need a lot of help. Phoenix had five players score in double figures. Skylar Diggins-Smith bounced back from a disappointing game one to score 17 points and dish out five assists in game two. Kia Nurse and Shey Peddy each added 11 points for the Mercury.

Kelsey Plum and Riquna Williams were again the story for Las Vegas. Plum scored 25 points again as she was named the WNBA’s 6th Player of the Year. Williams added 17 points. Liz Cambage added 13 points off the bench. Chelsea Gray and Jackie Young each contributed 10 points apiece. And A’ja Wilson had a nice overall game with 12 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists.

Wilson has played well in the first two games but she may have to start getting a little more aggressive calling her own shots if the Aces want to return to the WNBA Finals this year. Because Las Vegas is so ridiculously stacked with talent this season - Kelsey Plum and Liz Cambage returned to the team and Chelsea Gray and Riquna Williams joined Vegas through free agency - A’ja has conceded some of her opportunities. But this is still A’ja Wilson’s team. The 2020 MVP has the talent to lead the team to the title. She may need to take on a larger scoring role over these next couple of games.

I still believe Las Vegas is in great shape. I’m not going to change my tune now. For months I’ve been saying I expect the Aces to win the 2021 WNBA Championship. I think with the amount of talent they have on that team anything less than a title will be a disappointment for them. But they will certainly have to earn it. A veteran team like Phoenix with players like Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner know how to win the whole thing. They know what these playoff moments are like and they know what it takes to get to the top. I don’t expect Taurasi to be able to continuously score 30+ points a game in this series as she did in Game 2. As long as the Aces can play better defense and slow down the Mercury’s Big 3 they should be able to beat Phoenix and move on. It’ll certainly be great fun to watch!

Up Next

Sunday, October 3rd, Game 3:
Connecticut Sun at Chicago Sky - 10:00 AM PDT on ESPN
Las Vegas Aces at Phoenix Mercury - 12:00 PM PDT on ABC

Wednesday, October 6th, Game 4:
Connecticut Sun at Chicago Sky - 5:00 PM PDT on ESPN
Las Vegas Aces at Phoenix Mercury - 7:00 PM PDT on ESPN

WNBA Season Awards

MVP - Jonquel Jones (Connecticut)
Coach of the Year - Curt Miller (Connecticut)
Rookie of the Year - Michaela Onyenwere (New York)
6th Player of the Year - Kelsey Plum (Las Vegas)
Defensive Player of the Year - Sylvia Fowles (Minnesota)
Most Improved Player - Brionna Jones (Connecticut)

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