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Inside the W with Michelle Smith: Five First Round Questions

The 2021 WNBA Playoffs presented by Google have arrived. Let the single-elimination games begin. But not before we come up with some answers for some burning questions.

1)  Can Phoenix win yet another single-elimination playoff game?

The Mercury have found themselves in a single-elimination WNBA Playoff game every season since the league went to this format back in 2016. Over the course of those five years, Phoenix has won seven single-elimination games in both the first and second rounds. The Mercury, who have reached the semifinals three times out of the single-elimination rounds (2016, 2017, and 2018) will play this game away from their downtown Phoenix home floor at Grand Canyon University because of a scheduling conflict. Will that matter? It will likely matter less than if Diana Taurasi can return to the floor after missing four games with an ankle injury. The Mercury were the hottest team in the league when Taurasi went down on Sept. 6 and they were 1-3 to close out the regular season without her. She brings experience, she brings confidence, she brings offense and Phoenix is hoping she might bring yet another victory in a win-or-go-home scenario that’s all too familiar.

2) Can Chicago rediscover its momentum?

At the end of August, just a few weeks ago, the Chicago Sky were basking in a pair of wins over defending champion Seattle, and their postseason prospects were looking pretty bright. But then the Sky closed the rest of the season with four losses in six games and will be looking to quickly recapture some momentum in their first-round game against Dallas at home. The Sky were 1-2 against the Wings this season, including a four-point loss at home on August 17. There is reason for optimism in Chicago. One of the two wins in that closing stretch was an impressive 92-84 victory over the Las Vegas Aces, widely viewed as a title favorite alongside Connecticut at this point. There is also reason for concern because a 5-9 record on your home floor doesn’t exactly qualify as an advantage on paper. Candace Parker, however, didn’t come to Chicago, making their fourth straight playoff appearance and still in search of the franchise’s first title, to be satisfied with just being there. And she will likely have a big say in whether the Sky can keep it going.

3) Is Arike Ogunbowale ready to repeat her former famous postseason performances?

The Dallas Wings haven’t played in a playoff game since 2018, and in the six seasons since they moved to Dallas they haven’t gotten out of the first round (0-2). Is the player with some of the most clutch moments in women’s basketball history ready to help them change that? Ogunbowale, in her first WNBA postseason game, will need to come up big offensively (she has scored at least 20 points in five out of her last eight games), but she can’t be the only one against a balanced and experienced Sky team. Marina Mabrey and Isabelle Harrison , who have both had big games against Chicago this season, need to provide more of that. Additionally, it would be ideal if Satou Sabally, who has missed a lot of time in the last six weeks with an Achilles injury, would be available to help deal inside with Chicago’s post-game. she is officially listed as questionable. The Wings finished the last six games of the regular season with a 3-3 record, including a big win that knocked Los Angeles out of the playoffs. It was a gritty win against a motivated team. They are going to need another one.

4) Can Natasha Howard turn New York into a playoff winner?

The Liberty signed Natasha Howard as a free agent in the offseason to bring her championship experience and a veteran presence to a young roster of up-and-coming stars. It’s taken a while for Howard, who missed all of June and July and a good part of August with an injury, to find her groove. But after averaging 24.5 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.5 steals a game in the final two games of the regular season, perhaps Howard’s emergence as a go-to presence inside arrives just in time for a Liberty team that could use a boost after closing the schedule with eight losses in their last nine games. New York will be an underdog against a Phoenix team that has played much better in the second half of the season, but Howard’s scoring, defense, and ability to fend off Phoenix’s post players inside now gives the Liberty a shot in a one-game scenario they might not have had.

5) Which among this group is the team in the next round no one really wants to play?

Given their recent postseason history and the recent play of Skylar Diggins-Smith and Brittney Griner, the easy answer is Phoenix, which has star power, experience and has proven that it can be one of the best teams in the league when playing at full strength. Alternatively, Chicago also has its share of WNBA marquee names, playoff pedigree, and a serious hunger to make a run at a championship. Will the higher seeds hold against young, rising teams? Conventional wisdom says yes. Anything can happen in a one-game…it will be fun to watch and see.

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs