2022 WNBA Playoffs presented by Google Primer

The WNBA Postseason is upon us!

After an eventful final day of the regular season featuring every team in the league playing (my head is still spinning), the seeding is set, and we can take a breather. 

Tears were shed as Sylvia Fowles played the final game of her basketball career. Farewell to a legend.

We witnessed one of the great games of the season as the Aces and Storm put on an absolute show, a potential second-round matchup.

Two teams on the rise, Atlanta and New York battled it out over a two-game series, with the Liberty earning their way to the postseason.

The Dallas Wings finished with their first .500 season since the team moved to Dallas in 2016. 

What a day of hoops. With the regular season scores settled and the matchups fully cemented, how do they shape up? 

Las Vegas Aces (1) vs. Phoenix Mercury (8): Watch Game One on Wednesday, August 17th at 10 pm EST on ESPN

After outlasting the Storm, the Aces took control of the number one seed in the playoffs and secured a date with the Phoenix Mercury. The Mercury upset the Aces after winning their first two elimination games last season en route to a Finals appearance. What a fitting first-round matchup in a new format.

The two teams haven’t played one another since late May, as all three matchups occurred in the first stretch of the year, with the Aces sweeping the series 3-0.

However, this Phoenix team has been on a different level, steadying the ship to a degree after a rocky start. They play small and get a high volume of threes up; this team is almost at the mercy of shot variance. 

I have no idea how to analyze this series reasonably. Context is key, and the context has been complicated with the Mercury all year. Brittney Griner’s wrongful detainment has weighed on the WNBA, but her team, in particular, something Skylar Diggins-Smith passionately spoke about recently. Diggins-Smith herself left the team for the remainder of the regular season for personal reasons, deactivated her social media, and I have no idea whether or not she’ll play in the postseason. Head coach Vanessa Nygaard did not rule out a return from anyone, including Diana Taurasi, who missed the end of the regular season with a quad strain.

I’m tired of hearing or seeing “what’s going on in Phoenix?”

Everything has gone on in Phoenix. Maybe I’m naïve, but sometimes I feel we get too wrapped up in competition instead of remembering that the interpersonal workings behind the scenes comprise 95% of the workings of a professional sports season.

I don’t care if the Mercury win or lose. I just hope everyone involved is alright because this season has been tough for *everyone* involved. 

Can Phoenix win a game? Sure, but this Aces team is just in another stratosphere right now. This has not been Phoenix’s year, and expecting that to change in the playoffs is an unfair expectation.

Chicago Sky (2) vs. New York Liberty (7): Watch Game One on Wednesday, August 17th at 8 pm EST on ESPN2

The Liberty squeaked their way into the postseason after an injury-riddled year, and they may just be finding their stride and a touch of luck when they need it most. They also have to play the defending champion Chicago Sky, which is a tall order.

The Sky took the season series 3-1, with New York’s one-season victory after the Sky dealt with an excess of travel issues in their third game in four days. That’s not to devalue the win, but it was apparent in that game that the Sky weren’t right, although that’s part of the season (not that it should be).

Outside the first game, an absolute thrashing of the Liberty, every game has been relatively down to the wire. 

I’m most excited to watch in this series how New York, particularly Sabrina Ionescu, works to counter Chicago’s stellar defense. Turnovers have been a problem for the Liberty all season, and turning the ball over against the Sky is a death sentence. Every misplaced crosscourt pass is a Kahleah Copper or Rebekah Gardner layup on the other end. Chicago typically will put two on the ball, trapping and hard hedging against ball screens. Still, they’ve also toyed with funkier one-on-one coverages with aggressive help when trying to stifle Ionescu.

She poses such an interesting quandary for defenses; do you let her score 25 efficiently, dicing up with deep pull-ups and crafty glides to the rim? Or do you let Ionescu cut you apart with timely crisp passes when you send two to the ball? Can you rely on a tight defensive scramble?

The answer is probably a mix of both. Gardner has given Ionescu one of her most challenging individual matchups all season, by my eye. In recent games, Gardner aggressively shaded Ionescu’s left hand, and full-court pressed her almost the entirety of the time she was on the court. That shading took away some of Ionescu’s ability to get to her pull-ups and in her bag of side-steps, which she typically prefers to go left with. 

Speaking of New York’s health, we’ve recently seen some of their best lineups all season in the past week of play. Per PBP Stats, the Liberty outscore the opposition by 29.2 points per 100 possessions when Ionescu, Marine Johannès, Betnijah Laney, Natasha Howard, and Stefanie Dolson share the court. That’s across 12 minutes, to be fair, but that’s also part of the point; we don’t fully know with them. We just have glimpses due to Laney’s recent return to the court and the starting lineup. 

Laney’s recent return to the court and the starting lineup. 

Insert Sami Whitcomb for Johannès, and the Liberty still have a positive margin (+4.3 per 100) over a greater sample size (35 minutes). That lineup was soul-crushing against the Dallas Wings in the fourth quarter on August 10th, what I’d posit was the most promising stretch of play we’ve seen from New York all season.

It’s a double-edged sword in which the Liberty have health again, but they are still seeking out their best lineups. That’s harder for the Sky to prepare for, as there’s less film and data to go off of and more room for randomness, but that same randomness could bite New York.

I still would comfortably take the Sky in this series, but what’s vital here is how they do or don’t make shots. It sounds overly simplistic, but it’s a real source of, I wouldn’t say worry, but I do think curiosity fits here. Courtney Vandersloot is excellent at pressuring the paint, but she does it in more of a probing East/West fashion than punishing the rim. The Sky put pressure on the rim due to what they do from the perimeter. They love to initiate sets from the high post, the slots, and the elbows, which makes sense considering Candace Parker and Emma Meesseman are two of if not the best at playmaking from those spots in the league.

Anytime the Sky offense has fizzled, it’s been because those actions weren’t respected with an “ok, shoot it” mentality. Even with Parker or Meesseman aggressively taking those shots, it takes them consistently punishing a defense over and over again to cause a shift.

The Aces got REALLY good at this and leaned into it during the Commissioner’s Cup Final and their last regular season meeting, and I’d consider it the blueprint to trying to contain Chicago.

But again, this is the Chicago Sky! Pretty inarguably the best roster and most talented team in the W. They’re bigger, more athletic, have a wealth of length, and a deeper roster. New York poses interesting strategic and philosophical questions, but I wouldn’t bet against Chicago.

Connecticut Sun (3) vs. Dallas Wings (6): Watch Game One on Thursday, August 18th at 8 pm EST on EPSNU and NBA TV

I am so so so excited for this series. The Wings actually won this series during the regular season, the only season series they won against a playoff team other than the Liberty. 

Dallas has played much better basketball as of late, 7-3 in their last ten games. Teaira McCowan has dominated in the paint, averaging 18 points and 11.3 rebounds on nearly 60% shooting from the field. The Wings have rebuilt their offense to feature McCowan and her overwhelming presence inside the arc heavily. She also has such wonderful touch around the rim; she’s not just forcing the ball in the hoop. Her run has been a joy to watch.

Allisha Gray continues to be steady and dependable on both ends. Kayla Thornton is playing the best basketball of her career, as is Marina Mabrey, as she’s taken on even more ball-handling duties. Tyasha Harris and Veronica Burton have stepped up as lead guards to balance out the offense, and the ball is moving in ways it didn’t seem capable of moving consistently during much of Dallas’ season.

However, according to the latest injury update, star guard Arike Ogunbowale is out for at least the first round of the playoffs. That’s a massive blow for the playoffs. Most importantly, get well soon, Arike.

It’s so tough, as part of the reason the ball has moved better is due to Arike’s absence. I think it’s less about her and more about having a true lead guard in the starting lineup. Mabrey and Ogunbowale are both outstanding shot creators, and while they are adequate playmakers, they aren’t the type of creators who can fully carry an offense at the moment. 

On the other hand, the Wings will continue to miss Ogunbowale’s late-game shotmaking ability in a series. The Wings have gotten post-up heavy, so their offense has gotten quite predictable. Cross-screen for McCowan into a high low post-entry. Teams have picked up on that, and the offense can stagnate late in games.

This Connecticut team certainly has some ceiling questions on what they can do in the playoffs, but they have so much size, a variety of post players who can vary up sets, and an outstanding defense. You know what you’re getting from the Sun every night. They thrive on forced turnovers, led by Alyssa Thomas on the break.

I trust Connecticut much more in a physical grind-out style of play. So much of what made Dallas successful in their matchups earlier in the season was their ability to heat up with shotmaking and be highly switchable. Satou Sabally is still out with an ankle injury she incurred in July, and she was essential in Dallas’ wins over the Sun.

What I look for most from the Sun is how they do or don’t look to get Jonquel Jones going. Jones has still had a good season; her defense has improved, and she’s such an excellent scorer. Yet, with their entire frontcourt finally healthy together, they’ve found something, but I’m not sure it’s the thing.

Jones’ usage is significantly lower, which on the one hand, isn’t awful, as the offense really needed more balance. They relied heavily on Jones being an MVP-level player last year, which worked because she was! But now, she feels too deemphasized in the offense. While the pace has ratcheted up, and the transition and early offense have been a revelation compared to last season, there are stretches where I just go, “ok, get the ball to Jonquel.”

That’s something I hope changes in the playoffs, as it was also an issue in the postseason last year against the Sky. This series is an excellent opportunity for the Sun to tune up, find their stride, and take the first step in rectifying their postseason woes. It’s also a perfect opportunity for the Wings to build on their late stretch momentum and take another step forward as the youngest team in the league. I’d pick the Sun comfortably, but I’m very excited to watch this play out.

Seattle Storm (4) vs. Washington Mystics (5): Watch Game One on Thursday, August 18th at 10 pm EST on ESPN2

What’s so wild about the WNBA is that we have a first-round matchup with two certified title contenders. It almost feels wrong that one of these teams won’t make the second round, but such is the postseason!

We got an incredible showcase of what this series could look like when we saw the two teams play back-to-back at the end of July, with the Storm taking the first game and Mystics taking the second, although Seattle won the season series 2-1.

The biggest differentiator in this series for me is unequivocally Jewell Loyd. 

On two teams built upon strong defense, Washington first ranked and Seattle at third, shotmaking off the dribble reigns supreme. 

Loyd has struggled with her efficiency as a finisher inside the arc, which is highly unusual for her. That’s changed in August, where Loyd is averaging 19 points per game on 63.2% true-shooting (the League average is 54.1). If this is the Jewell Loyd Seattle is getting in the playoffs, I’m comfortable taking the Storm in the first round and would be hard pressed trying to decide who I’d take in the next round against presumably the Aces.

The offense has kicked up for the Storm after squandering at times earlier in the year (3rd in offensive rating over the last ten games), and Tina Charles’ play has really started to make sense in the team’s flow. Initially, I was hesitant when she replaced Ezi Magbegor in the starting lineup, shifting the team ethos from hard-hedging aggressive defense to a more dynamic offense. But, Noelle Quinn’s decision has essentially paid off. Seattle needed another level or two to make it work in the playoffs offensively, and while the defense has fallen off a bit, that base is still there while finding that extra gear.

Washington is in a spot that runs slightly counter to the Storm, although with similarities. The Mystics can make anything happen with a healthy and full-go Elena Delle Donne. I can’t project health and fatigue, but Delle Donne has played incredible basketball since the All-Star Break while ramping back up and playing in that back-to-back with the Storm.

The Mystics struggle to consistently generate rim pressure, but Delle Donne’s gravity from anywhere on the court makes the offense sense. 

Natasha Cloud is an essential forerunner in this matchup. Her defense and playmaking will be pivotal, as it always is. She IS the player who can get downhill at will and spray the ball out. However, the Mystics need to get creative with their screening to get the most out of Cloud’s driving.

Cloud has reinforced that she is a shooter, shooting 38.5% on catch and shoot three-pointers this season on high volume. She’s shooting just 23% on pull-up threes, though, which makes it easy for defenses to go under on ball screens when she’s involved.

Again though, this is part of what makes the three-game format so interesting. It takes a good rhythm over a few days to change the calculus.

I still think I lean towards the Storm, although I feel this will definitely be the most contested first-round series. I wish this were seven games!

Breanna Stewart was a rightful MVP candidate this season. Her defense on and off the ball has been otherworldly; she received my vote for Defensive Player of the Year. There might not be a better tough shot-maker in the league than Stewart when factoring in her size, release point, and touch. 

Since the All-Star Break, Stewart leads the W in scoring (23.2 ppg) on 50.7/40/79.2 splits. She punishes double teams with her passing, is an elite outlet and can attack off the dribble or on the roll. Her versatility and viability in each role make her a headache to guard. The Mystics have many lengthy and stout frontcourt players who can match up with Stewart, and Mike Thibault’s scheming will be even more critical. 

I cannot say enough how excited I am for this series. It’s a shame that one of these teams won’t be moving on, but that’s part of what makes it so enticing!

Buckle in, strap up, and clear your nightly schedule, because the playoffs are here!

WNBA reporter Mark Schindler writes a column on WNBA.com throughout the season and can be reached on Twitter at @MG_Schindler. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.