The 2021 WNBA playoffs are upon us, with two single-elimination games tipping off Thursday night: Wings-Sky and Liberty-Mercury. Here’s what our panel of league enthusiasts think you have to look forward to in the coming weeks.
1. Recap the 2021 season in one sentence.
Elizabeth Swinton: The 2021 season was one highlighted by emerging stars and historic chemistry, with an Olympic gold medal thrown into the mix.
Wilton Jackson: It was an iconic one that included down-to-the-wire matchups, young stars and established veterans continuing to elevate their game to new levels, and one where the sports world took notice of the league’s growth in viewership.
Julie Kliegman: The Sun made the 25th-anniversary season their own.
Ben Pickman: The Sun first emerged as a legitimate title threat, then became a true juggernaut.
Kate Yanchulis: Bugs Bunny must have given the Sun a bottle of “Michael’s Secret Stuff” at the Olympic break, because Connecticut has been unstoppable since then.
2. Which team is your dark-horse pick to make a run?
KY: The Wings carry a losing record into their first postseason appearance since 2018. But their youthful roster—the youngest in the league, with an average age of 24.3 years—has the energy to power several rounds of playoff upsets, starting with Thursday’s game against the Sky.
WJ: Phoenix has all the right pieces to make a playoff run. This position is familiar territory for the Mercury. Since the playoff format changed in 2016, Phoenix has played in the first round of the last five postseasons. In three of the last five, the Mercury—who were one game away from reaching the WNBA Finals in 2018—have fought their way to the semifinals despite losing each time. While much has been talked about with Phoenix dropping its final three games of the regular season to three of the top four teams in this year’s postseason—Connecticut, Seattle and Las Vegas—the Mercury have defeated the Storm and the Aces at least once this season. And, furthermore, nothing can be taken away from the dominance that Brittney Griner has provided this season, the play of Skylar Diggins-Smith and the impact of future Hall of Famer and veteran Diana Taurasi, who has been battling a left ankle injury. If Taurasi returns for the postseason and plays at a high level, along with Diggins-Smith and BG, watch out: The Mercury could be on the path to get over the hump and shake some things up this postseason.
JK: The Mercury have no business once again enduring a single-elimination game (revamp the playoffs, Cathy Englebert!). Of course, the health of Taurasi will factor into the team’s title odds, but Griner made a legitimate MVP case this season, and Diggins-Smith continues to do Diggins-Smith things.
BP: The Mercury. In early September, I wrote that the Mercury, led by Diggins-Smith and Griner, were peaking at the right time. While they have cooled off a bit heading into the playoffs, Phoenix still has the top-end talent to defeat anybody in either a single-elimination game or short series. While Sandy Brondello’s team doesn’t lean heavily on its bench, Phoenix’s starting lineup is potent, putting up a +47.6 net rating since play resumed in mid-August. A late-season ankle injury to Taurasi gives me some pause, but as a dark-horse choice, they could definitely make a run.
ES: The Sky have yet to fire on all cylinders with their full group, but the playoffs can be the stage where they perform up to expectations. Chicago has the offensive talent to make a run, but it has a lot to prove and will have to get past top talent to hang onto any championship aspirations.
3. Who will be this year’s breakout star?
BP: Brianna Turner. She is already regarded among the league’s best and most versatile defenders, and she’s in line to get even more recognition for all that she does on-court this postseason. Considering the fact that the Mercury are the best team to play Thursday in the first round, Turner, still 25, could be in for a number of difficult defensive assignments if Phoenix is able to get past both New York and Seattle.
WJ: With the level of talent across different teams, this was a tough one. The Storm’s Ezi Magbegor, the Lynx’ Aerial Powers, the Sun’s Brionna Jones all came to mind. But the player I think could really carry her momentum from the regular season to the postseason is Kelsey Plum. It’s been great to see her bounce back after not playing the 2020 season due to tearing her left Achilles tendon. She increased her production drastically this season (14.8 points, 3.6 assists per game) from the 2019 campaign (8.6 points, 3.0 assists) and made a huge leap in September, averaging nearly 22 points in 26 minutes while shooting 49.4% from the floor. In fact, post–All-Star break, Plum has averaged more points, minutes and assists and notched a higher field goal percentage, all while coming off the bench. She is my favorite to win the league’s Sixth Woman of the Year. Her production will most likely carry over into the postseason and could serve as one of the X-factors for the Aces’ second run at a championship.
ES: The Sun’s Brionna Jones established herself as a consistent and reliable interior threat alongside likely MVP Jonquel Jones during Connecticut’s impressive season. Jones’s improvement led to her being named to her first All-Star team, and she is suited to continue to make a big impact in the postseason.
KY: If No. 7 seed Dallas does make a run, it will be led by Marike—the portmanteau for the duo of Marina Mabrey and Arike Ogunbawale. Ogunbawale leads the team in scoring (18.7 points per game) and assists (3.3), and Mabrey is right behind her in both categories (13.3 and 2.9) as the Wings’ sixth woman extraordinaire. College teammates at Notre Dame, the guards even debuted their own T-shirt in time for the playoffs.
JK: If the Wings can last a round or two, the playoffs will become the Arike Ogunbowale show. Can I summon a buzzer beater into existence?
4. Who will be the most memeable player this postseason?
WJ: A’ja Wilson is just different, both on and off the court. When she is locked in on the court—knocking down the midrange jumper, being dominant in the paint and getting to the free throw line often—she’s unstoppable. But, she is also full of life and personality off the court on the sideline with her teammates, being goofy or having funny Instagram Live chat sessions with her former coach Dawn Staley. I’m pretty sure there will be memes of her play on the court as well as her being simply herself away from the hardwood.
KY: As soon as Aces star Liz Cambage kicked back with a bucket of popcorn while on the bench at the All-Star game, this spot was hers to lose. Add her legitimate beef with Sun coach Curt Miller, who was suspended earlier this season for comments regarding Cambage’s weight, and there’s no contest.
ES: I’ll be looking for the player who will go as viral as the Sparks’ Erica Wheeler did late in the season while putting Sue Bird and Odyssey Sims on skates. The next unfortunate victim of being crossed up will be the top meme this postseason.
BP: I’m not sure about one player, but expect plenty of good content to come from the Sun, like this gem from late August.
5. What is your Finals prediction?
JK: Liberty over anyone in three. Just kidding—unless! But for real, Sun over Aces in three. I hate the thought of another devastating loss for Wilson & Co., but I just don’t think anyone is getting past Jonquel Jones in her prime.
BP: Sun over Aces in four. It’s hard not to pick Connecticut to take home this year’s title. They have the league’s likely MVP (Jonquel Jones) and a potential All-Defense backcourt (Jasmine Thomas and Briann January), coupled with a possible Most Improved Player of the Year (Brionna Jones). Oh, and that doesn’t include DeWanna Bonner, who is a two-time champion and four-time All-Star, or Alyssa Thomas, a multitime All-Star who, in her recent return from injury, will provide a boost off the bench. Las Vegas has a ton of firepower as well, but Connecticut’s stout defense and deep roster should help them prevail.
ES: Sun over Aces in four. The Storm and Lynx may have something to say about it, but the Sun and Aces seem on course to meet in the Finals. The teams have been a level above the rest of the field this season and have proved tough to beat on offense and defense. The Sun went 3–0 against the Aces in the regular season and seem fit to ride their 14-game winning streak to their first-ever title.
KY: Aces over Sun in five. Las Vegas fell to the Storm in last year’s Finals, but the team played that series without Cambage or Plum. Connecticut went 3-for-3 against Las Vegas in the regular season, but look for the Aces to avenge those losses and capture the title that slipped through their grasp in 2020.
WJ: Aces over Sun in five. I hate betting against Breanna Stewart and the Storm, but I am taking my chance here. I know some will look at the regular-season matchups and say the Sun defeated the Aces in all three games and held Las Vegas (one of the best offensive teams in the league) to under 70 points on each occasion. That’s true, and give much credit to the Sun’s defense, which has been the foundation for the team’s success along with the spectacular play of Jonquel Jones, DeWonna Bonner, Brionna Jones & Co. Connecticut will look to avenge its three-point loss in the final game of the best-of-five series a year ago. However, if both Wilson and Liz Cambage are dominant all the games in the series—combined with the elevated play of Plum, Chelsea Gray, Dearica Hamby (who suffered a right knee injury that kept her from playing last Finals), Jackie Young and Riquna Williams—Las Vegas has a shot at winning its first WNBA title. The Aces were my favorite to win in the beginning of the season, and I am sticking with my decision.