2021 WNBA playoffs – New York Liberty’s Sabrina Ionescu, Dallas Wings’ Arike Ogunbowale search upsets within the first spherical

Within the 2021 WNBA playoffs, the top-seeded Connecticut Sun have solely misplaced as soon as since July 9, and the No. 8-seeded New York Liberty have received simply twice throughout that very same interval. Such is the gulf between the highest and backside of the playoff groups, however because the saying goes, the slate is cleaned now for the postseason.

The Solar’s aforementioned one loss did not even depend within the standings, because it got here within the Commissioner’s Cup last. Connecticut (26-6) and the No. 2-seeded Las Vegas Aces (24-8) advance to the best-of-five semifinals, which begin Sept. 28.

The Liberty needed to wait till Sunday night time to assert the No. Eight seed, due to losses by the Washington Mystics and Los Angeles Sparks. For the reason that Olympic break, the Liberty are 2-9. However contemplating they have been 2-20 all of final season, a playoff berth is a tangible signal of progress.

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

Will we see Mercury legend Diana Taurasi on Thursday? She has been restricted to 16 video games this season as a consequence of accidents and final performed Sept. 6. We’ll even be keeping track of the harm standing of gamers like Breanna Stewart (foot) of the fourth-seeded Seattle Storm and Connecticut’s DeWanna Bonner (again).

Our panel — ESPN’s Kelly Cohen, Kevin Pelton and Mechelle Voepel — takes a take a look at Thursday’s playoff openers, together with a peek on the second spherical. Test again later within the week for our full WNBA playoff predictions.

No. Eight New York at No. 5 Phoenix

The Mercury received the season collection 2-1, and so they’re a favourite to advance even when Taurasi does not play. Skylar Diggins-Smith and Brittney Griner each are candidates to be first-team All-WNBA, and if Taurasi returns that “huge three” may be very robust to comprise. Sure, the Mercury misplaced their final three video games of the common season. However contemplating these have been in opposition to Connecticut, Seattle and Las Vegas, they’ll nonetheless go into this primary spherical with confidence.

The Liberty head into the sport with a nothing-to-lose mindset. Michaela Onyenwere is anticipated to be Rookie of the Yr, and DiDi Richards would possibly be a part of her on the all-rookie crew. Sabrina Ionesu is technically in her second season, however she solely performed three video games final yr earlier than a season-ending harm. So there’s nonetheless loads of youth with the Liberty, and any postseason expertise must be a optimistic.

What one-on-one matchup will most affect the sport?

Mechelle Voepel: How does a crew and not using a true middle beat a crew that has the most effective facilities who has performed within the WNBA? It will not be straightforward, however New York ahead Natasha Howard, the 2019 Defensive Participant of the Yr, might want to do one of the best she will be able to in opposition to Phoenix’s Griner.

The Liberty’s victory in opposition to the Mercury got here June 13 in Phoenix, 85-83. New York did that regardless of Griner having an enormous sport: 29 factors and 14 rebounds, whereas Howard was nonetheless out with an MCL pressure in her left knee.

Within the groups’ matchups Aug. 25 and 27 in Brooklyn, Howard was again however the Mercury received by 27 and 16 factors. Griner had 26 factors, 9 rebounds and 6 assists within the Aug. 25 victory, however suffered an ankle sprain late and did not play Aug. 27. She was again by Aug. 31, and has continued her stellar play. Griner completed the common season averaging 20.5 factors and a career-best 9.5 rebounds. Making an attempt to gradual her down goes to be an enormous job, and he or she additionally has paired so nicely inside with Brianna Turner.

What’s the X issue on this matchup?

Voepel: It is apparent, but when Taurasi performs that may give the Mercury much more mojo on this matchup. They’ve needed to discover ways to play with out her, however she is going to elevate all of her teammates if she will be on courtroom.

If Taurasi does not play, the X issue is Phoenix’s depth. The Mercury have had some good performances in September from gamers resembling Shey Peddy, Sophie Cunningham and Kia Vaughn. Bria Hartley, who returned in September after struggling an ACL final yr, had her greatest efficiency thus far this season in Sunday’s finale, with 10 factors and three assists.

Kelly Cohen: Three-point capturing. The Liberty have made 321 3-pointers within the league — 33 greater than the next-best crew. The Mercury have made 241. Although Phoenix is the higher crew, the Mercury have to be cautious to not let the Liberty get too sizzling from past the arc.

Kevin Pelton: Sabrina Ionescu’s playmaking. Naturally, a few of it’s because it means teammates are making pictures, however the Liberty have gone 6-2 when Ionescu arms out not less than eight assists and an ideal 4-Zero when she hits double figures. Three of these 4 video games got here within the season’s first two weeks, earlier than Ionescu handled ankle tendinitis that compelled her to overlook the crew’s house win over Phoenix. However Ionescu’s playmaking picked up down the stretch as she averaged seven assists over the crew’s final six video games.

Who wins?

Cohen: Phoenix. I agree with Mechelle: Who’s stopping Griner inside? And Skylar Diggins-Smith has had an unbelievable summer time. She completed the common season as the one participant within the league to common not less than 17 factors, 5 assists and three rebounds per sport.

Pelton: Phoenix. With Sunday’s loss to Las Vegas, the Mercury completed 0-Three in opposition to groups with an above-.500 report after the Olympic break. Phoenix was the league’s hottest crew due to an ideal 10-Zero report in opposition to groups .500 or worse and the 12-20 Liberty, who’ve the worst winning percentage ever for a WNBA playoff team, positively belong in that group.

Voepel: Phoenix simply must play as much as its functionality, and this must be a reasonably drama-free win for the Mercury.

No. 7 Dallas at No. 6 Chicago

Sunday’s sport vs. Los Angeles did not imply something to Dallas from a playoff perspective, because the Wings’ seed was already set. The truth that they performed as arduous as they did in successful and ending the Sparks’ playoff hopes says one thing in regards to the grittiness of the Wings, who received their season collection 2-1 in opposition to Chicago.

The Sky, together with longtime former Sparks star Candace Parker, have extra playoff expertise. Chicago has had moments this season when it appeared actually good, resembling their back-to-back wins at Seattle on the finish of August. However some inconsistency has additionally plagued the Sky.

The Wings are of their first season beneath coach Vickie Johnson, and they’re nonetheless a largely younger bunch. They went 3-Three this month, clinching their playoff spot on Sept. 11 with an enormous fourth-quarter comeback in opposition to New York.

What one-on-one matchup will most affect the sport?

Pelton: Arike Ogunbowale vs. Kaleah Copper. As a lot as doable, the Sky will wish to preserve Copper matched up with Ogunbowale relatively than beginning guards Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot. Ogunbowale averaged 18.Three PPG in three conferences with Chicago, practically matching her season common (18.7 PPG), however shot simply 34% from the sector in these video games.

Voepel: I agree with Kevin, as a result of a lot of Dallas’ success revolves across the wonderful Ogunbowale. However it additionally will probably be attention-grabbing to see the post-play matchup for 2 groups identified a lot for his or her guards. Particularly with Satou Sabally’s return from a sore Achilles and Isabelle Harrison being again from COVID-19 for Dallas. Clearly, Chicago’s Parker is the sure future Corridor of Famer on this bunch, however Dallas is in higher form now on the inside than it was a number of weeks in the past.

What or who’s the X issue on this matchup?

Cohen: When Diamond DeShields is at her greatest, the Sky are at their greatest. The crew’s second main scorer, she’s an environment friendly shooter but in addition a key piece on protection. She’s a playmaker with the power to affect the sport on all sides of the courtroom.

DeShields was a starter in Chicago throughout her first two seasons within the league, in 2018 and 2019, earlier than battling accidents and ultimately leaving the bubble final season. In 2021, she has began 22 of 32 video games, and has added an instantaneous spark when she comes off the bench. That was no extra evident than within the Sky’s regular-season finale on Sunday, when DeShields tied her profession excessive with 30 factors — capturing 61.5% (8-of-13) from the sector — to grow to be the primary participant to have not less than 30 factors, 5 rebounds and 5 assists off the bench.

Voepel: Kelly makes some good factors. DeShields was terrific on Sunday, and there’s a correlation to her scoring and the Sky’s success. Within the Sky’s 5 video games in September, they received the 2 through which DeShields scored in double figures and misplaced the three through which she didn’t.

One other potential X issue might be Marina Mabrey, who’s second on the Wings in scoring behind Ogunbowale. She’s additionally second to her former Notre Dame teammate in 3-pointers made for Dallas.

Who wins?

Pelton: Chicago. One huge edge for the Sky: playoff expertise. Dallas’ roster has mixed to play 10 playoff video games and 146 minutes — the fewest for any playoff crew because the 2002 Seattle Storm. 4 totally different Chicago gamers (Stefanie Dolson, Candace Parker, Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot) have extra playoff minutes than all of the Wings mixed.

Cohen: Chicago is best than its report (16-16) suggests. Along with the aforementioned playoff expertise and veteran management, the Sky have Courtney Vandersloot, who offers them a number of the greatest ball motion within the league. The Sky rating 83.Three PPG, the third-highest common within the league. When Chicago’s offense is on, the Sky are arduous to cease.

Voepel: You get the sensation this can be a sport that Parker will merely not let the Sky lose. However this might be a reasonably even matchup, as most 6-7 video games are typically. I would not be shocked to see Dallas pull the upset on the street, however I will give the sting to the Sky.

Which crew is the more durable opponent within the subsequent spherical, Seattle or Minnesota?

Cohen: I’d worry going through Minnesota greater than Seattle — and never simply because we do not find out about Breanna Stewart’s availability. Even earlier than her harm (foot), the Storm weren’t enjoying in addition to that they had in the course of the first half of the season, struggling from 3-point vary and failing to shut out video games within the fourth quarter. However that’s extra about Seattle than in regards to the Lynx, who’ve misplaced simply as soon as of their final 10 video games and are enjoying just like the extra full crew. Minnesota has additionally confronted a spread of challenges this season, from beginning 0-Four as gamers wrapped up abroad commitments, to coping with a number of accidents, after which adapting to new faces. The Lynx have experimented with totally different, equally profitable, beginning lineups, and have a powerful veteran presence in Sylvia Fowles in addition to an intimidating lineup of bench gamers.

Pelton: A wholesome Stewart will surely make the defending champs extra formidable, however I agree with Kelly. Minnesota is the more durable matchup at this level, each due to how a lot better the Lynx performed over the course of the season and due to matchups. Chicago, particularly, most likely would not thoughts the longer journey to Seattle after sweeping all three head-to-head conferences, the final two with the Storm at full power.

Voepel: We’re all in settlement on this. Since play resumed after the Olympic break, Minnesota’s solely losses have been to the highest two seeds, Connecticut and Las Vegas. The Lynx seem to be a very good guess to advance to the semifinals.

Give us a daring prediction or sizzling take for the second spherical

Cohen: Tremendous sizzling take: The defending champion Storm get bounced within the second spherical. Even when Stewart comes again for that sport, I am undecided that they had sufficient time to correctly deal with their post-Olympic points that precipitated them to go 6-6. Seattle is weak to a second-round upset.

Pelton: Phoenix and Seattle ship a basic sport worthy of their final playoff assembly, when the Storm pulled away late within the deciding Recreation 5 of the semifinals behind 14 factors from Sue Chicken within the fourth quarter.

Voepel: The Storm have been a thorn in Phoenix’s aspect greater than as soon as within the playoffs, as Kevin alludes to. However I feel in the event that they meet this yr, the Mercury might change that narrative and make it to the semifinals. Then once more, we simply noticed Jewell Loyd rating 37 factors in beating Phoenix on Friday. So it is most likely greatest to not guess in opposition to her, Sue Chicken and the Storm.

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