2021 WNBA playoffs – New York Liberty’s Sabrina Ionescu, Dallas Wings’ Arike Ogunbowale seek upsets in the first round

Among the teams in the 2021 WNBA playoffs, the top-seeded Connecticut Sun have lost only once since July 9, and the No. 8-seeded New York Liberty have won just twice during that same period. Such is the gulf between the top and bottom of the playoff teams, but as the saying goes, the slate is wiped clean now for the postseason.

The Sun’s aforementioned one loss didn’t even count in the standings, as it came in the Commissioner’s Cup final. Connecticut (26-6) and the No. 2-seeded Las Vegas Aces (24-8) advance to the best-of-five semifinals, which start Sept. 28.

The Liberty had to wait until Sunday night to claim the No. 8 seed, thanks to losses by the Washington Mystics and Los Angeles Sparks. Since the Olympic break, the Liberty are 2-9. But considering they were 2-20 all of last season, a playoff berth is a tangible sign of progress.

New York faces the No. 5-seeded Phoenix Mercury in a single-elimination first-round game Thursday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2). The other first-round game that night pits the sixth-seeded No. 6 Chicago Sky vs. the No. 7-seeded Dallas Wings (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2).

Will we see Mercury legend Diana Taurasi on Thursday? She has been limited to 16 games this season due to injuries and last played Sept. 6. We’ll also be keeping an eye on the injury status of players like Breanna Stewart (foot) of the fourth-seeded Seattle Storm and Connecticut’s DeWanna Bonner (back).

Our panel — ESPN’s Kelly Cohen, Kevin Pelton and Mechelle Voepel — takes a look at Thursday’s playoff openers, along with a peek at the second round. Check back later in the week for our full WNBA playoff predictions.

No. 8 New York at No. 5 Phoenix

The Mercury won the season series 2-1, and they’re a favorite to advance even if Taurasi doesn’t play. Skylar Diggins-Smith and Brittney Griner both are candidates to be first-team All-WNBA, and if Taurasi returns that “big three” is very tough to contain. Yes, the Mercury lost their last three games of the regular season. But considering those were against Connecticut, Seattle and Las Vegas, they can still go into this first round with confidence.

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The Liberty head into the game with a nothing-to-lose mindset. Michaela Onyenwere is expected to be Rookie of the Year, and DiDi Richards might join her on the all-rookie team. Sabrina Ionescu is technically in her second season, but she played only three games last year before a season-ending injury. So there’s still a lot of youth with the Liberty, and any postseason experience should be a positive.

What one-on-one matchup will most impact the game?

Mechelle Voepel: How does a team without a true center beat a team that has one of the best centers who has played in the WNBA? It won’t be easy, but New York forward Natasha Howard, the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year, will need to do the best she can against Phoenix’s Griner.

The Liberty’s victory against the Mercury came June 13 in Phoenix, 85-83. New York did that despite Griner having a huge game — 29 points and 14 rebounds — while Howard was still out with an MCL strain in her left knee.

In the teams’ matchups Aug. 25 and 27 in Brooklyn, Howard was back but the Mercury won by 27 and 16 points. Griner had 26 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists in the Aug. 25 victory, but suffered an ankle sprain late and didn’t play Aug. 27. She was back by Aug. 31, and has continued her stellar play. Griner finished the regular season averaging 20.5 points and a career-best 9.5 rebounds. Trying to slow her down is going to be a huge task, and she also has paired so well inside with Brianna Turner.

Brittney Griner, who is averaging 20.5 points and 9.5 rebounds, will pose plenty of matchup problems for Natasha Howard, right, and the Liberty inside. arah Stier/Getty Images

What is the X factor in this matchup?

Voepel: It’s obvious, but if Taurasi plays that will give the Mercury even more mojo in this matchup. They have had to learn how to play without her, but she will elevate all of her teammates if she can be on court.

If Taurasi doesn’t play, the X factor is Phoenix’s depth. The Mercury have had some good performances in September from players such as Shey Peddy, Sophie Cunningham and Kia Vaughn. Bria Hartley, who returned in September after suffering an ACL injury last year, had her best performance so far this season in Sunday’s finale, with 10 points and three assists.

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Kelly Cohen: Three-point shooting. The Liberty have made 321 3-pointers in the league — 33 more than the next-best team. The Mercury have made 241. Though Phoenix is the better team, the Mercury must be careful not to let the Liberty get too hot from beyond the arc.

Kevin Pelton: Sabrina Ionescu’s playmaking. Naturally, some of this is because it means teammates are making shots, but the Liberty have gone 6-2 when Ionescu makes at least eight assists and a perfect 4-0 when she hits double figures. Three of those four games came in the season’s first two weeks, before Ionescu dealt with ankle tendinitis that forced her to miss the team’s home win over Phoenix. But Ionescu’s playmaking picked up down the stretch as she averaged seven assists over the team’s last six games.

Who wins?

Cohen: Phoenix. I agree with Mechelle: Who is stopping Griner inside? And Skylar Diggins-Smith has had an incredible summer. She finished the regular season as the only player in the league to average at least 17 points, 5 assists and 3 rebounds per game.

Pelton: Phoenix. With Sunday’s loss to Las Vegas, the Mercury finished 0-3 against teams with an above-.500 record after the Olympic break. Phoenix was the league’s hottest team because of a perfect 10-0 record against teams .500 or worse, and the 12-20 Liberty, who have the worst winning percentage ever for a WNBA playoff team, definitely belong in that group.

Voepel: Phoenix just needs to play up to its capability, and this should be a pretty drama-free win for the Mercury.

No. 7 Dallas at No. 6 ChicagoTim Heitman/NBAE via Getty Images

Sunday’s game vs. Los Angeles didn’t mean anything to Dallas from a playoff perspective, as the Wings’ seed was already set. The fact that they played as hard as they did in winning and ending the Sparks’ playoff hopes says something about the grittiness of the Wings, who won their season series 2-1 against Chicago.

The Sky, including longtime former Sparks star Candace Parker, have more playoff experience. Chicago has had moments this season when it looked really good, such as its back-to-back wins at Seattle at the end of August. But some inconsistency has also plagued the Sky.

The Wings are in their first season under coach Vickie Johnson, and they are still a mostly young bunch. They went 3-3 this month, clinching their playoff spot on Sept. 11 with a big fourth-quarter comeback against New York.

What one-on-one matchup will most impact the game?

Pelton: Arike Ogunbowale vs. Kahleah Copper. As much as possible, the Sky will want to keep Copper matched up with Ogunbowale rather than starting guards Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot. Ogunbowale averaged 18.3 PPG in three meetings with Chicago, nearly matching her season average (18.7 PPG), but shot just 34% from the field in those games.

Diamond DeShields brings 11.3 points per game off the bench for Chicago. Kena Krutsinger/NBAE via Getty Images

Voepel: I agree with Kevin, because so much of Dallas’ success revolves around the amazing Ogunbowale. But it also will be interesting to see the post-play matchup for two teams known so much for their guards, especially with Satou Sabally’s return from a sore Achilles and Isabelle Harrison being back from COVID-19 for Dallas. Obviously, Chicago’s Parker is the certain future Hall of Famer in this bunch, but Dallas is in better shape now on the interior than it was a few weeks ago.

What or who is the X factor in this matchup?

Cohen: When Diamond DeShields is at her best, the Sky are at their best. The team’s second-leading scorer, she’s an efficient shooter but also a key piece on defense. She’s a playmaker with the ability to impact the game on all sides of the court.

DeShields was a starter in Chicago during her first two seasons in the league, in 2018 and 2019, before battling injuries and eventually leaving the bubble last season. In 2021, she has started 22 of 32 games, and has added an instant spark when she comes off the bench. That was no more evident than in the Sky’s regular-season finale on Sunday, when DeShields tied her career high with 30 points — shooting 61.5% (8-of-13) from the field — to become the first player to have at least 30 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists off the bench.

Voepel: Kelly makes some good points. DeShields was terrific on Sunday, and there is a correlation to her scoring and the Sky’s success. In the Sky’s five games in September, they won the two in which DeShields scored in double figures and lost the three in which she did not.

Another potential X factor could be Marina Mabrey, who is second on the Wings in scoring behind Ogunbowale. She’s also second to her former Notre Dame teammate in 3-pointers made for Dallas.

Who wins?

Pelton: Chicago. One big edge for the Sky: playoff experience. Dallas’ roster has combined to play 10 playoff games and 146 minutes — the fewest for any playoff team since the 2002 Seattle Storm. Four different Chicago players (Stefanie Dolson, Candace Parker, Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot) have more playoff minutes than all the Wings combined.

Cohen: Chicago is better than its record (16-16) suggests. In addition to the aforementioned playoff experience and veteran leadership, the Sky have Courtney Vandersloot, who gives them some of the best ball movement in the league. The Sky score 83.3 PPG, the third-highest average in the league. When Chicago’s offense is on, the Sky are hard to stop.

Voepel: You get the feeling this is a game that Parker will simply not let the Sky lose. But this could be a pretty even matchup, as most 6-7 games tend to be. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dallas pull the upset on the road, but I’ll give the edge to the Sky.

Which team is the tougher opponent in the next round, Seattle or Minnesota?

Cohen: I would fear facing Minnesota more than Seattle — and not just because we don’t know about Breanna Stewart’s availability. Even before her injury (foot), the Storm were not playing as well as they had during the first half of the season, struggling from 3-point range and failing to close out games in the fourth quarter. But that is more about Seattle than about the Lynx, who have lost just once in their past 10 games and are playing like the more complete team. Minnesota has also faced a range of challenges this season, from starting 0-4 as players wrapped up overseas commitments, to dealing with multiple injuries, and then adapting to new faces. The Lynx have experimented with different, equally successful starting lineups, and have a strong veteran presence in Sylvia Fowles as well as an intimidating lineup of bench players.

Pelton: A healthy Stewart would certainly make the defending champs more formidable, but I agree with Kelly. Minnesota is the tougher matchup at this point, both because of how much better the Lynx played over the course of the season and because of matchups. Chicago, in particular, probably wouldn’t mind the longer trip to Seattle after sweeping all three head-to-head meetings, the last two with the Storm at full strength.

Voepel: We’re all in agreement on this. Since play resumed after the Olympic break, Minnesota’s only losses have been to the top two seeds, Connecticut and Las Vegas. The Lynx seem like a really good bet to advance to the semifinals.

Give us a bold prediction or hot take for the second round

Cohen: Super-hot take: The defending champion Storm get bounced in the second round. Even if Stewart comes back for that game, I’m not sure they had enough time to properly address their post-Olympic issues that caused them to go 6-6. Seattle is vulnerable to a second-round upset.

Pelton: Phoenix and Seattle deliver a classic game worthy of their last playoff meeting, when the Storm pulled away late in the deciding Game 5 of the semifinals behind 14 points from Sue Bird in the fourth quarter.

Voepel: The Storm have been a thorn in Phoenix’s side more than once in the playoffs, as Kevin alludes to. But I think if they meet this year, the Mercury could change that narrative and make it to the semifinals. Then again, we just saw Jewell Loyd score 37 points in beating Phoenix on Friday. So it’s probably best not to bet against her, Sue Bird and the Storm.

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