The road to crowning the 25th WNBA champion begins Thursday night when we tip off the first round of the WNBA playoffs. Things get started with a pair of win or go home first-round matchups followed by a single elimination second round on Sunday.
There are two teams in this year’s playoffs that did not make it last season, including the team that had the worst record in the WNBA last season.
Five teams will be looking to win their first championship in their team’s history including the last two WNBA Finals runner-ups.
Here are my predictions for the 2021 WNBA Playoffs.
WNBA Playoffs: Win or go home
(8) New York Liberty vs (5) Phoenix Mercury
The New York Liberty return to the WNBA Playoffs for the first time since 2017 as the eighth seed facing off against the fifth seeded Phoenix Mercury.
Phoenix is heading into its eighth straight playoff appearance looking for their fourth WNBA championship in franchise history and their first since 2014.
The season got off to a hot start for the Liberty thanks in part to the play of 2020 No. 1 overall draft pick Sabrina Ionescu. Ionescu was coming off a rookie year that saw her play just three games sitting out the majority of the season due to injury. That eventually led to New York having the worst record in the WNBA at 2-20.
Through the first six games of the season, Ionescu averaged 17.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 7.8 assists leading the team to wins in five of those games. However, over the next seven games, Ionescu fell into a slump averaging less than five points on 18% shooting losing six games. This set a tone for the remainder of the season for the Liberty as they lost 19 of their last 26 games.
The Liberty are very fortunate to be in the playoffs as they were hampered by an eight-game losing streak down the stretch, including two losses against the Mercury.
Luckily, the Liberty won their final game of the season against a Washington Mystics team that held the eighth seed at the time followed by losing their final game of the season to give New York the final playoff spot.
Meanwhile, the Mercury were able to secure a home playoff game thanks to an eight-game win streak coming back from the All-Star/Olympic break.
Their run was spurned by an MVP-caliber season from their star center Brittney Griner finishing second in the WNBA in points, tied for fifth in rebounds, and leading in blocks. Skylar Diggins-Smith was also a catalyst in the Mercury’s playoff push finishing in the top 10 in points and assists.
However, the Mercury did not exactly end the season on the most positive note losing each of their last three regular season games. For the Liberty to win, they key will be to take care of the ball. They led the WNBA in turnovers with their top three players (Natasha Howard, Betnijah Laney and Sabrina Ionescu) each holding the highest turnover per game average in the league.
In the case of the Mercury, Brittney Griner will need to impose her will on the game on both ends of the floor with help from her duo of guards Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi. In the end, the Liberty just do not have enough front court depth to be able to stop Brittney Griner down low. The Mercury win decisively advancing to the second round.
Winner: Phoenix Mercury
(7) Dallas Wings vs (6) Chicago Sky
The Dallas Wings return to the WNBA playoffs for the first time since 2018 looking for their first playoff win since moving from Tulsa to Dallas facing the Chicago Sky in the first round.
This game will feature the playoff debut of Dallas Wings’ star guard Arike Ogunbowale who was drafted by the team as the fifth overall pick in the 2019 draft.
Since entering the WNBA, Ogunbowale has made a name for herself as one of the game’s best scorers finishing with 10+ points in 81 of her 87 career games including a streak of 65 consecutive games that was recently snapped on September 7 against the Connecticut Sun.
Also featured on the Wings are fellow 2019 draftee Marina Mabrey who was the team’s second leading scorer behind Ogunbowale and 2020 second overall draft pick Satou Sabally who made her first All-Star appearance this season.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Sky’s road to the postseason was almost derailed in the beginning when after winning their season opener, new acquisition and longtime Los Angeles Sparks forward Candace Parker missed eight games with an ankle injury.
In that time, the Sky went 1-7 including seven consecutive losses. Once Parker came back, the Sky won eight of their next nine games to help put themselves back in playoff position. Along with Parker on the Sky is the WNBA’s leader in assists Courtney Vandersloot as well as three-time All-Star and three-time three-point champion Allie Quigley.
While the Dallas Wings did win the season series two games to one, the Sky have the more experienced roster and are better built for a deep playoff run.
Winner: Chicago Sky
WNBA Playoffs second round: Single elimination
(5) Phoenix Mercury vs (4) Seattle Storm
Should the Phoenix Mercury get past the New York Liberty in the first round, they would head into the second round looking to knock off the defending WNBA champion Seattle Storm.
The Storm come into this year’s playoffs looking to win their third WNBA title in the past four years in what could be the final postseason run in the Hall of Fame career of WNBA all-time assist leader Sue Bird.
Bird has been with the Storm since entering the league in 2002 helping lead the team to each of its four WNBA championships. This season, she played a solid season averaging 10.0 points shooting 41% from three-point range and 5.3 assists in 30 games.
Bird is one piece of a Seattle Storm big three that also includes reigning WNBA Finals MVP Breanna Stewart and All-Star guard Jewell Loyd.
Stewart finished third in the WNBA in scoring, tied for fifth in rebounds and tied for second in blocks while Loyd was the WNBA’s seventh leading scorer.
The key in this game will be who’s supporting cast will step up and give their star trios the help they need. Both teams are loaded with talent from top to bottom able to go at least eight to nine players deep on any given night.
While this game will be very entertaining and will essentially be a coin flip to determine who walks out victorious, the Storm just has a little bit more to offer than the Mercury and will move on to the Semifinals.
Winner: Seattle Storm
(6) Chicago Sky vs (3) Minnesota Lynx
Continuing with the second round, the Chicago Sky look to continue their cinderella playoff run when they face off against the Minnesota Lynx.
In their third season since their star guard Maya Moore decided to take time away from basketball, the Lynx have continued to remain afloat stretching their streak of consecutive playoff appearances to 11 seasons.
The Lynx were able to make a strong push for the third seed winning 17 of the 20 games including wins in all of their nine home contests beginning in June 23.
The primary reason for the Lynx’s success has been the play of their center Sylvia Fowles who seems to be a lock to win her fourth Defensive Player of the Year award in her career.
Fowles finished second in the league in steals and blocks while averaging a double-double with points and rebounds making her the only player in WNBA history to accomplish this feat.
Paired with Fowles is Napheesa Collier who ranked in the top 20 in scoring and was one of six players to average one steal and block this season.
These two teams played each other twice this season splitting both game, however, Candace Parker did not play in the game the Lynx won.
This game has the best chance to deliver an upset especially since this will take place in a single elimination round. Ultimately, it will be the Chicago Sky moving on to the semifinal round.
Winner: Chicago Sky
WNBA semifinals: Best of five
(4) Seattle Storm vs (2) Las Vegas Aces
In a rematch of the 2020 WNBA Finals, the Seattle Storm face off against the Las Vegas Aces this time for a shot at returning to the championship round.
While A’ja Wilson did not have as good a season as her MVP season last year for the Aces, she was still phenomenal finishing in the top 10 in points, rebounds and blocks.
The difference between this season and last season is she got much better efforts from her supporting cast with seven players averaging double digits in scoring compared to five last season.
Leading the charge was Kelsey Plum who is arguably the favorite to win the WNBA’s Sixth Woman of the Year leading all bench scorers averaging 14.8 points. Should this happen, this would make for the third straight year that the award has gone to a member of the Las Vegas Aces as Dearica Hamby has won each of the last two.
Plum and Hamby averaging double digits in scoring made for the only set of teammates to do so without starting a single game this season.
Also, coming off sitting out the 2020 season, Aces center Liz Cambage returned to the lineup for the team, averaging 14.2 points on 54% shooting, 8.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks.
This was a completely different Aces team that lost to the Storm in the WNBA Finals. They are much deeper especially with Cambage available for the team in this year’s playoffs.
This will certainly be a series that goes down to the wire but it will be the Aces getting revenge defeating the Storm on their way to the WNBA Finals.
Winner: Aces in 5
(6) Chicago Sky vs (1) Connecticut Sun
The Chicago Sky look to advance to their second WNBA Finals in team history when they face the league’s number one team the Connecticut Sun.
The Sun are coming off what was their best season in franchise history finishing with a 26-6 record due in part to the play of their WNBA MVP candidate Jonquel Jones.
They ended the season on a high note winning their last 14 games setting a franchise record for consecutive wins in a season.
Jonquel Jones, also coming off sitting out the 2020 season, returned to have the best season in her short career so far averaging as one of only two players to average a double-double during the season ranking fourth in scoring and leading in rebounds.
Along with Jonquel Jones was Brionna Jones who made a case for winning the Most Improved Player award who had her best season in her brief career averaging bests in points and rebounds. DeWanna Bonner had an solid season although her number did dip compared to the past four years.
The Chicago Sky were one of only two teams to defeat the Sun in their season series winning two of their three regular season matchups but Jonquel Jones did not play in any of those games.
While the sell of this series will be Candace Parker vs Jonquel Jones, this will ultimately come down to who’s supporting cast can put their respective team over the top.
Winner: Connecticut Sun in 4
WNBA Finals: Best of Five
(2) Las Vegas Aces vs (1) Connecticut Sun
Should this be the WNBA Finals matchup, both the Las Vegas Aces and Connecticut Sun will be looking to win their first championship in franchise history.
Each of these two teams have come out on the losing side of the last two WNBA Finals with the Aces losing to the Storm in 2020 and the Sun losing to the Washington Mystics in 2019.
The Sun actually swept all three of their regular season matchups against the Aces with a different player leading the team in scoring each time they played. The first time it was DeWanna Bonner with 22 points, the second time it was Jonquel Jones with 23 points and the third and final time it was Briann January 19 points.
The key for the Sun was they were able to neutralize reigning MVP A’ja Wilson who just barely averaged 10 points on 28% shooting including just scoring four points on a dreadful 1-of-15 shooting in the third and final game.
Another key factor in those games was Kelsey Plum did not play in the first two as she was participating in the Olympic 3×3 basketball qualifiers.
While the regular season series could have a factor in who wins this Finals matchup, ultimately the Aces are the deeper team and are destined to get over the championship hump and will be crowned as such winning the 2021 WNBA Finals.
Winner: Las Vegas Aces in 4