Aces Stack the Deck as the Playoff Race Begins
As Las Vegas reclaims the #1 seed, Phoenix’s playoff prayer is answered while others fall short.
By Laura Fay
It’s that time of year again! After a hectic last day of the regular season that saw two teams book their postseason tickets, it’s finals season in the WNBA. With the first games tipping off Wednesday night, here’s everything you need to know before Round 1.
First off, the playoffs formatting has changed this year. Gone are single-elimination games and in their place are three-game series for first-round matchups, while the semifinals and finals get a full five games. This structural change also eliminated the bye week for the top four teams.
The WNBA has provided a bracket template to clear up any confusion, but if you want a more thorough explanation you can read all about it here!
Though more basketball is undoubtedly a good thing, we can’t help but miss the drama of one-off elimination games. Hopefully, a lot of decisive game threes and fives are in store.
Las Vegas Aces
After a slight midseason slump that saw Chicago take over the #1 seed, the Aces have reclaimed their rightful spot and are the top seed heading into the playoffs. Led by MVP-favorite A’ja Wilson, the Aces have steamrolled through their last four games and look to be peaking at the right time of the season.
Their run home wasn’t a cakewalk either. After dropping a game to the hot Dallas Wings, Vegas responded by spoiling Sue Bird’s retirement party—twice. While the Aces looked in control all game last Sunday, they were shaky in their own home finale this weekend. At one point the Storm got up 12 midway through the second quarter with their reserves in. Anyone who’s seen Seattle’s second unit operate this season would be impressed.
Not to be bested by the bench, the Aces closed out the half on a 10–0 run and carried that momentum all the way through. Aside from A’ja Wilson’s continued greatness, Chelsea Gray has stepped up and been deadly against Seattle this season. The only Aces starter not to be named an All-Star, Gray has used that snub to fuel her. With double-digit hauls in three of her last four games, opponents are going to be on high alert this finals season.
Speaking of finals, the Aces’ path to their first title is looking pretty good. Their first round match-up is #8 Phoenix, a team missing essentially all their starters who the Aces swept early in the season. Granted, the two last played in May, but the Mercury have only lost players since then.
Then it’s either Seattle or Washington in Round 2. The Storm will be favored in that match-up and Vegas will be pulling for them. The Mystics were the only team to sweep the Aces in the regular season.
If seeding wins out, the Aces will then face Chicago, who they beat this week and in the Commissioner’s Cup, for their first ring. Nothing is guaranteed—last year’s final was, of course, #5 versus #6. Still, everybody would like to be in Las Vegas’s position right now.
Las Vegas will meet the Phoenix Mercury in Game 1 of the WNBA Playoffs on Wednesday, August 17th at 10 p.m. ET (ESPN).
Here’s a stat for you—the Seattle Storm haven’t lost a finals series with a healthy Breanna Stewart since 2017. With Stewart having another MVP-caliber season, the Storm will look to improve on that record this offseason.
The #4 overall seed, Seattle hit a run of form in the last week of the season. Over their last three games, the Storm have averaged 102 points—an incredible step up for a team that averaged 82.5 in the regular season. One slight asterisk in those numbers? They still lost a game.
The Aces have been an Achilles heel for the 2020 champions this season, and only emphasized that over the last week. Seattle stole a game of their series, but Las Vegas has won the last two match-ups, including Sue Bird’s final regular season home game. With Stewart and Las Vegas’s A’ja Wilson as the two top candidates for MVP, one can’t help but wonder if the series win will give Wilson an edge.
The Aces and Storm are currently on a collision course for a semifinal matchup, but first Seattle will need to get past the Mystics. It’s here where Seattle’s home court advantage could be huge. The Storm are 13–5 at Climate Pledge, good for equal second-best at home in the league. On the road, that record dips to a middling 9–9. The Storm’s easiest win over Washington came in Seattle, though they won the regular season series in D.C. Still, with record crowds expected to celebrate Sue Bird’s retirement, Seattle will want to give her the home sendoff they couldn’t in the regular season.
Seattle will meet the Washington Mystics in Game 1 of the WNBA Playoffs on Thursday, August 18th at 10 p.m. ET (ESPN).
The Wings are an interesting study of momentum. Though for most of the season they were nearly inseparable from the Sparks and Mercury as mid-tier playoff contenders, that all changed this month.
Dallas went on a remarkable five-win streak in August, knocking off the then #1 Sky and #2 Aces back-to-back to snag a playoff berth. The victories were made all the more impressive with the Wings’ reduced personnel. Arike Ogunbowale has missed the last two weeks with a hip injury while Satou Sabally is out with an ankle issue.
In their stead, center Teaira McCowan has brought her game to new levels. McCowan was deadly in the paint over smaller players and was dominant off the glass. She averaged 17.4 points and 11.6 rebounds in August, good for western player of the month honors. It is the first time a Dallas Wings player has ever been player of the month.
McCowan isn’t alone in her productivity. Guard Marina Mabrey has upped her offense and been complimented by Allisha Gray and defensive-minded rookie Veronica Burton. Though Dallas dropped games to the Mercury and Liberty to end the season, they’re hard to stop when clicking. The question for the Wings now becomes if they can unlock that form consistently. As the #6 seed, Dallas will be facing top-tier opponents all the way through the finals, and their path starts with the #3 Connecticut Sun.
The Sun haven’t quite reached the heights of 2021 where they were the #1 seed and had that year’s MVP on their roster, but they’ve by no means been shabby. With Jonquel Jones terrorizing the glass, McCowan has a tough task ahead of her. Though the last month suggests she’s up for it, fortunes can change quickly in the WNBA. Dallas won the regular season series against the Sun and will be rearing for an upset this time around as well.
Dallas will meet the Connecticut Sun in Game 1 of the WNBA Playoffs on Thursday, August 18th at 8 p.m. ET (ESPN).
It’s impossible to quantify the odds that the Phoenix Mercury have defied this year. The Mercury’s season kicked off with the detainment of Brittney Griner, weathered the departure of Tina Charles, and they’re now without Diana Taurasi (quad) and Skylar Diggins-Smith (personal leave) going into finals. Still, here they are in a playoff berth.
While the Mercury have indeed made the postseason, their current roster is unlikely to take them far. Having lost essentially all their starters since their finals run last year, Phoenix is playing a B-team with very little in the way of a bench. While Shey Peddy, Sophie Cunningham, and Diamond DeShields have been extremely impressive with extended minutes, they can be a very hot and cold team.
The Mercury clinched a playoff berth with a win over the Wings on Friday, but the very next game showed the cracks in their system. Going against Chicago to end the season, Phoenix managed a meager 67 points against an electric Sky offense. Granted, starters played reduced minutes, but a scoreless Sophie Cunningham is not going to cut it against the Aces.
Nobody wants a first-round exit, especially a team that made it all the way to the finals a year prior. And who knows—maybe the Mercury can find a little more magic to keep their season alive. Still, we almost consider it a win that a ghost of last year’s finals team has made it this far at all.
Phoenix will meet the Las Vegas Aces in Game 1 of the WNBA Playoffs on Wednesday, August 17th at 10 p.m. ET (ESPN).
It’s been a disappointing season for the Lynx. After a disastrous start to the year, they righted the ship only for it to be too little too late. With a loss to the Sun on Sunday, the Lynx were eliminated from playoff contention, ending the incredible career of Sylvia Fowles.
Fowles continued to be great until the final buzzer, putting up a 10pt/12reb double-double in her last ever game. She ends her career having averaged 9.8 rebounds a game—the most of any player in WNBA history.
Unfortunately, the Lynx supporting cast has struggled to reliably click all season long. The team has been characterized by inconsistency, with starters sometimes going scoreless while bench players enjoyed incredible one-off performances. That was the case on Sunday as well, with recent hardship signing Lindsay Allen putting up a spectacular 26 points in 26 minutes. However, that performance came at the expense of a scoreless night from Moriah Jefferson while Jessica Shepard and Rachel Banham combined for just 4 points.
There is incredible potential for the Lynx. Led by former rookie of the year Napheesa Collier, the team has a strong young core that will only be buoyed by a top draft pick this year. Still, with Fowles retiring and Minnesota missing the playoffs for the first time in 12 years, it can’t help but feel like the end of an era.
Los Angeles Sparks
If there’s one team that will be more disappointed in their season than the Lynx, it has to be the Los Angeles Sparks. While Minnesota had a hopeful comeback story that ultimately fell short, the Sparks were well and truly in the playoff race all the way through.
Los Angeles had a slow-motion collapse of a season. While there were flashes of potential, they never coalesced into a threatening team. After a middling start to the year, head coach Derek Fisher was fired. A month later, star center Liz Cambage left the team for personal reasons. Earlier in the year, Cambage was accused of making racist remarks toward members of the Nigerian national team. The Sparks largely tried to move past the comments, but it couldn’t have been easy given that the teams’ most prominent stars, Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, are Nigerian.
Under interim coach Fred Williams, the team went 1–9 in the last ten games to drop fully out of playoff contention and finish the year in 11th place. Los Angeles won’t even have the bittersweet comfort of a high draft pick to turn their fortunes around—they sent the pick to Atlanta in exchange for Chennedy Carter. The pick now resides with the 5th seed Washington Mystics, who will get another top draft pick just a year after drafting impressive rookie Shakira Austin.
While Carter was productive in the minutes she played, she didn’t get many of them. Down the stretch fighting for a playoff spot, coach Williams inexplicably benched the young star. She only got playing time in the last game of the season, after LA was already eliminated from the playoffs.
With the Ogwumike sisters both free agents and no high draft pick to buoy the franchise, the Sparks are looking down the barrel of a tough offseason this year.