WNBA playoff preview: Sun is set to end Storm's reign

If the Connecticut Sun hadn’t saved their Fan Appreciation Night for the final WNBA regular season game, coach Curt Miller may have pref...


If the Connecticut Sun hadn’t saved their Fan Appreciation Night for the final WNBA regular season game, coach Curt Miller may have preferred to forfeit.

Already comfortably holding the No.1 seed, Connecticut (26-6) wanted a win – but didn’t need it. The Sun just needed to stay healthy. Connecticut took the win – a 20-point blowout from Atlanta for its 14th straight win – but lost DeWanna Bonner for the game due to a tight back in the first quarter.

Seeing her hobble towards the locker room was anxiety-provoking for a fan base with high expectations. With everyone on the pitch, the Sun thinks it’s their year to bring the franchise’s first championship to Connecticut.

But last season’s MVP and second seed Las Vegas Aces (24-8) believe he is. their year to win. After all, Wilson took the Aces to the Finals in 2020, though Las Vegas is without several key players due to injuries and medical exemptions. The Aces were swept away by the Seattle Storm in the league’s Florida bubble. But now All-Star center Liz Cambage is back, and the formidable and explosive Las Vegas starting backcourt of Chelsea Gray and Riquna Williams has dominated and the team has secured key contributions from second unit Kelsey Plum firecrackers. and Jackie Young.

A final pitting the league’s best offense (Las Vegas) against the league’s best defense (Connecticut) would be a fun battle for the 25th WNBA title. But when the playoffs begin Thursday, with two knockout games, six more teams will be poised to disrupt any potential storybook ending.

Here’s what to expect.

The Liberty ended the regular season as it started: with a glimmer of hope that the franchise can regain its former glory. A hot start earned Sabrina Ionescu Player of the Week honors and Walt Hopkins first Coach of the Month award of the season, but the success did not last.

Before defeating the Washington Mystics in their last game of the regular season, the Liberty had lost eight straight games. And while the win kept their playoff hopes alive, Liberty’s ticket to the playoffs ended with losses to two other teams on the final day of the season. Now the Liberty must overcome a grim 5-11 road record to win against a Phoenix team that thrives when cornered and peaks at the right time.

The Mercury compiled a 10-game winning streak after the Olympic break but have lost their last three games with Diana Taurasi sidelined with an ankle injury. Yet even in her season-ending loss, Phoenix had one of its best performances of the season on Steam from role players like Sophie Cunningham and Shey Peddy.

But Phoenix would be remiss to overlook the Liberty.

Liberty can force the Mercury into a disjointed battle if: Natasha Howard, Liberty’s rebound leader, can get the opportunity to score a second chance for the team and involve Sami Whitcomb, Liberty’s top 3-point shooter; Betnijah Laney, the team’s top scorer; Michaela Onyenwere, the main candidate for the Rookie of the Year award; and Jazmine Jones, who may own the painting. A Liberty victory is unlikely but not impossible.

Led by a combustible duo known as Marike – Marina Mabrey and Arike Ogunbowale – the Wings fight harder and smarter than their record in reverse. Coach Vickie Johnson, in her debut season, persuaded players to buy into her rotation experiences. The result is a young, strong team who fear no enemies and have won victories against Chicago, Phoenix and Seattle.

Candace Parker made an undeniable impact in her first year at Chicago, helping the team to a seven-game winning streak in June. But the team has since limped to the finish. For the playoffs, the Sky will be tied with the Wings, although they play two different styles of basketball – with Dallas strong on the outside and Chicago at its best on the inside. The Wings are second in the WNBA for Second Chance points per game (12.3) and leads the league in offensive rebounds per game (10). To win, the Sky will have to play better defense.

Minnesota have reached a level of success that seemed impossible after a string of injuries and absences that left coach Cheryl Reeve to rely on several players with seven-day contracts. Minnesota started the season with a four-game losing streak that ended with the arrival of Layshia Clarendon from Liberty in late May.

Aerial Powers averaged 18 points per game in September, including an explosion of 27 points at the end of the season against Washington. So if Clarendon stays healthy, Sylvia Fowles continues her double-double and Powers stays warm, the Lynx should be able to handle any team that advances to play them.

A true title race, however, depends on Napheesa Collier finding the consistency that has so far eluded him.

Even amid staff changes – Alysha Clark, Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb starting in free agency ahead of the season and Noelle Quinn taking on the head coach duties with the season already underway – Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd have let the rest of the league know how serious they are about to win a third title in four seasons.

But the Storm wasn’t the same after the Olympic break, losing six of their 11 games, including a 32-point blowout against Chicago at home.

Seattle was without Stewart (foot) for its last two clashes. And Loyd, at the end of the season, scored 37 points. The Storm’s title odds improve with Stewart in the mix. But whether she can’t play, or plays hindered, Quinn has a deep well of talent to tap into – starting with Loyd.

Wilson and Cambage may be recognized as the team’s biggest stars, but they’re not alone. Coach Bill Laimbeer has stacked his roster with superstars qualifying for second unit. When two-time Sixth Woman of the Year winner Dearica Hamby comes off the bench alongside a pair of serious former draft picks Plum and Young, the game intensifies, the pace picks up. and the momentum changes. Understanding Wilson and Cambage’s tendency to attract a lot of defensemen, Laimbeer expects his second unit to enjoy the scoring opportunities this presents.

And they have – Plum, in particular. His frenzied energy on defense has worn down the offensives and his willingness to compile 30-point shooting performances when needed kept the Aces in the games. If Las Vegas makes a comeback in the final, it will be thanks to its second unit and the regular, sometimes unrecognized contributions of Williams and Gray.

If Plum is the Aces’ secret weapon, the Sun’s is Brionna Jones: a 6-foot-3 forward who showcased a range of talent in more minutes in 2020 that inspired Miller to keep her in the starting lineup. Remarkably light on her feet, Jones has a keen awareness of the pitch and quick hands that allow her to be in the right place at the right time to collect rebounds and score from setbacks.

And while Jones dazzles with the best spinning moves in the game, Jonquel Jones keeps his head down, coolly slicing through defenses and foiling attacks. Their performance was helped by a complete team approach and rock-solid driving. Any player, be it Bonner, Briann January or Natisha Hiedeman, can go for big buckets at any time. But Connecticut’s quest for a first franchise title runs through the Joneses.

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Newsrust - US Top News: WNBA playoff preview: Sun is set to end Storm's reign
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