WNBA Power Rankings – Dallas Wings clinch playoff berth; Connecticut Sun lock up No. 1 seed

7:20 AM ET

Kelly CohenESPN

With just one week left in the 2021 WNBA regular season, the Dallas Wings became the seventh team to secure a playoff berth amid a chaotic scramble for the final postseason spots. One final bid is up for grabs, and it will come down to the wire between the Washington Mystics, New York Liberty and Los Angeles Sparks.

One thing that’s locked in: the No. 1 seed, which the Connecticut Sun clinched Saturday with their 12th win in a row. The Sun now have a double bye and an automatic road to the semifinals (the third round). The Las Vegas Aces look to have the upper hand for the remaining double bye — for now. The Minnesota Lynx and Seattle Storm are in third and fourth place, respectively, through Sunday’s games. But the Phoenix Mercury are right behind them in the standings and still in contention for a first-round bye.

With the pressure on to execute immediately for some teams like the Chicago Sky, who face a single-elimination game in the first round, we turn our focus in the final Power Rankings of the regular season to players from each team whom we want to see more of.

Whether it’s someone who needs to keep doing what they have been doing, or one who has the ability to change the course of a game, we want to see more of these players on each team as the regular season ends and we’re thrust into the playoffs.

Previous rankings: Preseason | Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4 | Week 5 | Week 6 | Week 7 | Week 8 | Week 9 | Week 10 | Week 11 | Week 12

1. Connecticut Sun
2021 record: 24-6
Previous ranking: 1

The Sun are on a 12-game winning streak — with no sign of slowing down. Their Saturday night win over Phoenix snapped the Mercury’s 10-game winning streak and clinched Connecticut home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

Jasmine Thomas shone in that win, for her team-high 17 points and her ability to facilitate ball movement (she leads the team with 4.2 assists per game). Being able to read a stifling defense, like she did against Phoenix, means she knows how to get the ball to the right teammate to score.

Thomas is one of many reasons why Connecticut is the top team in the league. Now, it has just two games left at home, against teams with losing records, and a double bye that takes it straight into the semifinals.

This week: NY, ATL

2. Las Vegas Aces
2021 record: 21-8
Previous ranking: 2

The Aces’ win this week against the Lynx shows just how deep they are — and how that will help them go far into the postseason.

2 Related

In addition to players A’ja Wilson and Jackie Young having consistently strong games, Las Vegas also has Riquna Williams — who dropped an efficient 16 points, four rebounds, three assists, one steal and one block in 28 minutes against the Lynx — to contribute to staying high up in the rankings.

Williams has started every game this season, and she had some scoring breakouts, but it’s her defensive chops that have had the most impact. The 10-year veteran held All-Star Jewell Loyd to a combined 11-of-35 from the field in the Aces’ two wins against Seattle, and she has done the same against the Dallas Wings’ Arike Ogunbowale. If Williams can defend stars like Loyd and Ogunbowale in the playoffs like she did in the regular season, then the Aces’ offense can do the rest and keep scoring big.

To close out the regular season, the Aces have three tough games against playoff-bound teams that could prove whether their depth gets them a WNBA title this year.

This week: DAL, @CHI, @PHO

3. Seattle Storm
2021 record: 20-11
Previous ranking: 4

Without Breanna Stewart, the league’s third-best scorer (20.3 points per game), the Storm scored a season-low 53 points — more than 30 below their season average — in a Sunday night loss to the Sparks. Stewart suffered a left foot injury on Sept. 7 and is out for the rest of the regular season; she will be reevaluated at the start of the playoffs. The defending champions are just 4-6 in their past 10 games.

With Stewart’s availability for the playoffs in question, Mercedes Russell will need to step up. The 6-foot-6 center has already had breakout games this season, shooting a career-high 60.7% from the field (second in the league) and starting all but two of the games in which she has played. Russell gets down the court quickly and into the paint to finish at the rim. She outmuscles opponents for rebounds — her 6.1 boards per game ranks second only to Stewart in Seattle — and Russell will be a key to limiting opponent’s second-chance points.

Seattle has just one remaining game in the regular season: hosting Phoenix on Friday. That allows the Storm to get some rest, but a first-round bye could be on the line when they meet.

This week: PHO

4. Minnesota Lynx
2021 record: 20-10
Previous ranking: 3

In their past two wins, the Lynx offense looked ready for the playoffs, scoring 89 and 90 points, well above their season average of 82.1 PPG.

A lot of Minnesota’s offensive success come from when it hit an offseason jackpot and signed Aerial Powers. The dynamic scorer has played in just 12 games this season because of injury (hamstring) and surgery (thumb) but is now healthy and back in the starting lineup, ready to help lead the team deep into the postseason.

The guard is often seen celebrating her teammates’ successes and hyping them after a big play, a camaraderie that shows she’s a team leader. Powers has made 59 3-pointers this season — seventh best in the league — which is also a testament to how aggressive she is offensively. And if she isn’t going to shoot the ball herself, Powers is adept at facilitating smooth ball movement among her teammates.

This week: @IND, @WAS

5. Phoenix Mercury
2021 record: 17-10
Previous ranking: 6

The Mercury’s 10-game winning streak came to an end Saturday night against Connecticut. Despite the loss, Phoenix remains a strong contender for the championship.

Some of that is thanks to the team’s fourth-leading scorer, Kia Nurse, an offseason trade acquisition who has brought important accuracy from beyond the arc: She leads the team with 52 3-pointers made, which is also the 10th best in the league. While other teams’ defenses focus on teammates Brittney Griner down low in the post or Skylar Diggins-Smith driving inside, Nurse’s ability to hit those 3-point shots is invaluable.

As a guard, she’s also aggressive off the dribble and handy in passing the ball to Diggins-Smith or Diana Taurasi. Nurse’s versatility on defense will be important in helping to close the gaps against better defensive teams in the playoffs.

Phoenix still has a chance to secure a first-round bye, but a tough schedule awaits: on the road against the Storm and at home against the Aces.

This week: @SEA, @PHO

6. Chicago Sky
2021 record: 15-15
Previous ranking: 5

Heading into the playoffs, Chicago has the ability to go far — so long as we see Kahleah Copper at her best. The first-time All-Star this season is able to score more when she’s attacking the basket, and she leads the team with 14.4 PPG. But we also want to see more of her defensive rebounding as a guard. When she’s not taking the ball coast to coast, she’s getting her own offensive rebound and turning it into points.

Once a role player who came off the bench when she was traded to the Sky in 2017, Copper is now a consistent starter, crucial for what could be sixth-seeded Chicago’s single-elimination playoff game against the seventh seed in the first round. Right now, that would be against the Wings, who have already beaten the Sky twice this season. In those two losses, Chicago played poor defense, so Copper must continue her defensive rebounding and keep the ball away from the Wings’ stars if that matchup happens.

This week: LV, IND

7. Dallas Wings
2021 record: 13-17
Previous ranking: 7

After becoming the seventh team to secure a playoff berth with a Saturday night win against New York, the Wings have one goal heading into the playoffs: stay healthy. Their lack of consistent lineups — because of injuries or COVID-19 protocols — shows when the momentum during close games inexplicably switches to the other team, often due to poor rebounding or poor transition defense.

Out since July 11 due to Achilles soreness, Satou Sabally returned in Saturday’s game and immediately displayed what Dallas had been missing without her. Sabally is able to rebound the ball on both sides of the court, allowing for her teammates — specifically Arike Ogunbowale — to score second-chance points. At 81.3 PPG, Dallas will need every opportunity to keep scoring in the playoffs against other teams that consistently drop 90 points or more every night.

On Saturday, Dallas forward Satou Sabally played in her first game since July 11 and tallied 13 points to help the Wings clinch a playoff berth. Cooper Neill/NBAE via Getty Images

That’s where Sabally comes in. She doesn’t just pass the ball well; she can also finish at the basket with both hands — she’s the team’s third-leading scorer with 12.4 PPG, although she has played in just 16 games this season.

The Wings, who have secured their first playoff berth since 2018, have some tough games this week — at Las Vegas before hosting Los Angeles — to prepare them for the postseason.

This week: @LV, LAS

8. Washington Mystics
2021 record: 12-18
Previous ranking: 8

For a majority of the season, the Mystics didn’t look like they’d be able to make a run for the playoffs. Even now, they’re just 4-6 in their past 10 games — and they’re barely holding on to the eighth seed. Which means Washington could head into the playoffs short-handed, with star Elena Delle Donne’s status for the rest of the season in doubt.

Players all season have stepped up with injuries plaguing Washington, but Myisha Hines-Allen’s contributions — and potential — stand out the most.

Hines-Allen has missed 16 games this season, but when healthy, she shoots 43.3% from the floor (for 13.8 PPG) and averages 5.4 defensive rebounds per game. Her physicality is what makes her a key component of the Mystics, and someone we want to see more of not just in the playoffs, but next season.

She improved her game between 2020 and 2021, specifically by taking control and shooting the ball instead of passing it. She’s also tougher this season to beat in the post.

Hines-Allen’s health, like that of her teammates, is what will helps get Washington into the playoffs. The Mystics have two huge games to end the regular season, including on the road against a struggling Liberty, who are trying to take the No. 8 seed from Washington.

This week: @NY, MIN

9. New York Liberty
2021 record: 11-19
Previous ranking: 9

The Liberty started the season strong but are now fighting for an 11th-hour playoff berth. The team looks disjointed on offense, and it has won just once in its past 10 games.

At the center is Sabrina Ionescu, who was drafted by the Liberty as the first overall pick in 2020 with very high hopes — she was the NCAA’s all-time leader in career triple-doubles, after all. But in her third WNBA game, she hurt an ankle and didn’t play the rest of 2020. In 2021, she entered the season healthy and had an unreal buzzer-beater in the season opener. Games later, she became the youngest player in WNBA history to record a triple-double.

Clearly, Ionescu is talented on all ends, especially as a natural, confident scorer. Though she has scored in double digits in every game since the Olympic break, she’s struggling from beyond the arc. She’s just 21-of-64 (32.8%) from 3-point range, usually a strong suit.

Ionescu’s ability to make shots from anywhere is crucial, but she makes up for it in other ways. She’s averaging 5.7 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game. However, just because she’s facilitating good ball movement to her teammates doesn’t mean they’re capitalizing on it.

The Liberty won just two games last season, so for Ionescu to lead them to the playoffs after an ankle injury would be viewed as a success. Getting there will be tricky, though, as New York plays on the road this week against the top-seeded Sun before hosting the Mystics, who are also in the hunt for the final playoff berth.

This week: @CON, WAS

10. Los Angeles Sparks
2021 record: 10-19
Previous ranking: 10

The Sparks ended a six-game losing streak with a defensive showcase to beat the Storm on Sunday and keep their playoff hopes alive (a loss would have eliminated Los Angeles).

Injuries have plagued the Sparks all season. Kristi Toliver, who missed a handful of games in June and July because of an eye injury, is sidelined with a broken pinkie finger. Without her this season, the Sparks are 1-9.

Toliver’s absence has given Te’a Cooper a chance to step up and fill in at guard. In her second WNBA season but first in Los Angeles, Cooper shines on defense. Though her shooting has been inconsistent — she averaged 8.4 PPG was shooting 35.9% from the field heading into Sunday — Cooper is often attacking the basket and drawing fouls. That aggression helps make up for Toliver’s missing veteran leadership and gritty play. On Sunday, Cooper shot 7-for-13 and scored 19 points, her most productive offensive game in more than two months.

It’s must-win the rest of the way for Los Angeles, which will need help from other results to remain in contention for a postseason berth. On Thursday, the Sparks play at the Dream; Los Angeles is 2-0 against Atlanta this season. Then the Sparks play at the Wings on Sunday in their regular-season finale. Through Sunday’s games, Los Angeles is just one game behind Washington for the final playoff spot.

This week: @ATL, @DAL

11. Indiana Fever
2021 record: 6-23
Previous ranking: 12

The Fever are on a three-game losing streak but have won four of their past 10, after winning only two before the Olympic break. One of the bigger questions they will have to answer going into next season is if Kysre Gondrezick will be back with the team.

The No. 4 pick out of West Virginia in April’s WNBA draft, Gondrezick has not had a very successful rookie year. In 19 games played, she averaged just 9.1 minutes per game, and 1.9 PPG on 2.4 field goal attempts per game. Then last month, the team announced she was taking a personal leave for an undisclosed period of time.

Gondrezick was a superstar for the Mountaineers, electric on offense and averaging 19.5 points and 4.5 assists per game. Her ballhandling skills and ability to thrive in a pick-and-roll offense made her what many thought would be a good fit with the Fever.

Though the Fever have been eliminated from playoff contention, they have three games to close out their season. Facing Minnesota and Chicago gives them a chance to potentially play spoiler with their playoff seedings and see what speedy, in-sync offenses look like.

This week: @ATL, MIN, @CHI

12. Atlanta Dream
2021 record: 7-22
Previous ranking: 11

The Dream have won only one game in their past 10, are on a two-game losing streak and have officially been eliminated from playoff contention. Looking ahead to 2022, they have a few questions to answer, including what their starting lineup could look like.

Aari McDonald could be part of that after a strong finish to the season. McDonald, the No. 3 overall pick in April’s WNBA draft, has had a few games scoring in double digits this season, showing bursts of what made her successful at the University of Arizona. If she wants to be a successful guard for the Dream, her speed and her smooth shooting ability have to continue in her second year.

It has been a turbulent season for Atlanta, which has gone through three head coaches and a front-office shake-up. With Darius Taylor now set to be the head coach and having a veteran sport executive for a new president and chief operating officer, next year could be McDonald’s year to break through.

This week: IND, LA, @CON

Source link

Leave a comment