2021 WNBA playoffs – How Connecticut Sun, Phoenix Mercury can even their semifinals series

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Mechelle VoepelESPN.com

CloseMechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

No shade at all to how good the post players were in Tuesday’s semifinal openers of the 2021 WNBA playoffs. But the guards stole the show for the winning teams in both games.

The Chicago Sky’s Courtney Vandersloot had the second triple-double in WNBA playoff history, and backcourt mate and wife Allie Quigley added 19 points, as the No. 6 seed Sky beat the top-seeded Connecticut Sun 101-95 in double overtime.

In Las Vegas, Aces guards Riquna Williams, Kelsey Plum and Chelsea Gray combined for 68 points as the No. 2 seed won 96-90 over the No. 5-seeded Phoenix Mercury.

Las Vegas coach Bill Laimbeer said that even going back to his days as an NBA player he has always believed guards are the key to winning playoff games.

“Because they can create,” Laimbeer said. “Bigs are subject to the defense. Defenses can attack you and take you out of the game to a degree. Guards control the action with the ball.”

The Sun host the Sky at 8 p.m. ET Thursday, followed by the Mercury at the Aces at 10 p.m. ET. Both games are on ESPN2 and the ESPN App.

Can the Sun protect their home court? Can the Mercury even their best-of-five series before returning to Phoenix? We look at three of the storylines heading into Game 2:

Will the Griner-Cambage center battle really materialize?Brittney Griner and the Phoenix Mercury are down 1-0 in the semifinals to Liz Cambage’s Las Vegas Aces. AP Photo/Steve Marcus

Phoenix’s Brittney Griner is 6-foot-9, and Las Vegas’ Liz Cambage is 6-foot-8. They both can impose their will on a game. But on Tuesday, Griner had the best of it with 24 points, seven rebounds and six assists.

Cambage, playing just her second game after being out with COVID-19, is still trying to get back close to game shape. Foul trouble also helped limit her to 9½ minutes, and she scored seven points. That didn’t hurt Las Vegas, which still got the victory. But the Aces remain hopeful they’ll see closer to the “real” Cambage as the playoffs continue.

“I’m still going to figure out how to use Liz Cambage … each game is going to be different,” said Laimbeer, who empathized with how much the illness impacted her. “Her conditioning is not where it needs to be, and we can’t slow down.

“I don’t want her to just fall down because she has nothing left and they’re running up and down and scoring. So, I have to really intensely manage three- and four-minute blocks, which is hard.”

Will Connecticut’s defense rise to the occasion?

The Sun had four players on the WNBA’s All-Defensive Teams and had the top defense during the regular season. But they gave up 101 points, 84 of those in regulation, in Game 1 on Tuesday. Connecticut coach Curt Miller and his player gave a lot of credit to Vandersloot successfully attacking the defense. But they know it’s something they have to fix quickly to avoid an upset.

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While the Sun’s post game was very strong — Jonquel Jones, Brionna Jones and DeWanna Bonner combined for 61 points — Connecticut shot just 37.8%. That played into the Sky’s hands: Chicago’s offense is at its best when the Sky are getting stops and quickly pushing the pace in transition.

“We know we can play better,” Bonner said. “We missed a lot of shots. We were out of rhythm. We’re going to regroup, watch video and see how we can slow them down. They played a great game.”

Jonquel Jones agreed.

“There were some missed opportunities for us defensively, missed assignments that we are usually on top of,” she said.

That said, Chicago’s passing game was clicking so well, it really taxed the Sun defense. The Sky finished with 31 assists to 17 for the Sun.

How big a factor will Taurasi be?

Mercury star Diana Taurasi had 20 points, six assists and five rebounds in 31 minutes on Tuesday. She has been dealing with an ankle injury since early September, and Phoenix barely got through its first playoff game without her, beating the New York Liberty 83-82 in the first round on Sept. 23.

Taurasi’s mobility might be a bit affected, but it appears she will be on the court for as long as the Mercury are playing this postseason. Offensively, she showed on Tuesday and in the second-round victory over the Seattle Storm on Sunday (14 points, five assists) that she can get the job done.

But what about defensively? Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello said you could ask that of the whole team.

“We need to be a little bit more aggressive, don’t give them those open looks,” Brondello said. “Making sure we know their tendencies a little bit better than what we did. I thought that was a little bit of mental fatigue. We’ve got some adjustments in place.”

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