Inside The W with Michelle Smith: Six Storylines That Will Dominate Playoffs

Seven weeks, 264 games and playoff matchups that came down to the very last day. The WNBA regular-season has given way to the added excitement and the drama of the postseason.

First-round single-elimination games begin Tuesday on ESPN2, leaving no room for error.

Let’s take a look at the six storylines that will dominate this postseason.

To the rested go the spoils?

In every season but one since 2016, when the WNBA went to the current format of two single-elimination rounds and a double-bye to the semifinals for the top two seeds, those top two seeds have met in the WNBA Finals. The only exception was 2018 when the Washington Mystics reached the Finals as a No. 3 seed. That puts Las Vegas, a No. 1 seed for the first time, and Seattle in an historically strong position. It also doesn’t hurt that for the first time in this sprint of a 22-game season, both the Aces and the Storm will get a week off before playing their first semifinal game on Sunday. Seven days of rest is like gold. Seattle might need it a bit more at this point, considering that Breanna Stewart, an MVP candidate, and Sue Bird sat out the season finale with nagging injuries that should have time to heal this week. The Storm got 30 points from Jewell Loyd in the season finale and Alysha Clark’s defense has been stellar, but Seattle will need to be closer to full strength for a title challenge against an Aces team that is rolling.

Las Vegas finished with the best record in the WNBA by winning six straight to close out the regular season, including wins over playoff-bound teams Connecticut, Minnesota, Los Angeles and Seattle. Led by A’ja Wilson, the Aces are the top scoring team in the WNBA with the top-scoring bench led by Dearica Hamby.

Can Washington’s mojo continue?

The defending champs, reaching the playoffs for the fourth straight season, managed to get into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season, having won four straight games to close out the schedule. Myisha Hines-Allen was named WNBA Player of the Week after averaging 24.3 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists during the four-game run. Ariel Atkins is averaging 17.5 points a game over the past six games, in which the Mystics have gone 5-1. Hines-Allen, Atkins and Meesseeman will anchor this team’s postseason run, which will require two single-game elimination wins. This is a team that lost 12 of 13 at one point, but rallied for a strong finish. Can they rally again for a third straight trip to the Finals?

Can Phoenix rise without Griner?

Without Brittney Griner on the floor for the first time in eight straight playoff appearances, can the Phoenix Mercury make a title run as the No. 5 seed? Winning seven of nine to close out the season certainly suggests it’s possible. Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith have upped the scoring ante (averaging a league-best combined 36.4 points a game) to push Phoenix to a 7-3 record without Griner. On the season, however, they own a 2-0 mark against their first-round opponent in Washington. Taurasi and Diggins-Smith will need help inside from Kia Vaughn and Brianna Turner.

Is Big Syl coming back to help the Lynx?

With former MVP Sylvia Fowles having played just seven regular-season games thanks to a stubborn calf injury, the Minnesota Lynx had to find a different way to win and they did that, locking up the No. 4 seed and a first-round bye in the franchise’s 10th straight playoff appearance. It looks now like Fowles will be back on the floor for the postseason, but how does that impact Minnesota? Will it take time to re-integrate her back into the rhythm of play? Because in a single-elimination game, there’s not much time for that. Napheesa Collier and rookie Crystal Dangerfield have paced the offense, but six players have scored at least 25 points in a single game for Cheryl Reeve’s team, the latest being Rachel Banham, who collected 29 points and 10 assists against Indiana in the season finale. The Lynx ended a three-game losing streak with the Indiana win to nail down a first-round bye and will be closer to full strength by the time they take the floor on Thursday night with Big Syl’ back.

Can Chicago get back on track?

The Sky are looking at a tough first-round game against a Connecticut team that has lost two in a row, but Chicago is experiencing its own rough ride, losing six of their last eight games after losing Azura’ Stevens and Diamond DeShields. The Sky need more of what they got in the season finale against Dallas, with Cheyenne Parker scoring 23 points, and rookie Ruthy Hebard having the best game of her young career with 22 points and eight rebounds. This is Chicago’s sixth trip to the playoffs in the last eight seasons. Courtney Vandersloot – the only player in league history ever to average 10.0 assists per game in a single season – Allie Quigley and Stefanie Dolson have been together for a lot of those years. They want to play for a title.

L.A. Story

The Sparks come into the playoffs having lost two straight and having failed to secure a top two seed, which means they will be playing a single-elimination game in the second round. Candace Parker has had a spectacular season, and the Sparks’ core group of Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Chelsea Gray are playoff-experienced and last year’s tumultuous playoff exit is in the rear view mirror. But the reality is that four of their losses this season have come two each to the Storm and Aces and they will need to step things up offensively to keep up with the league’s top two teams to win a championship.

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.