WNBA East Round 1 Playoff Recap

The Chicago Sky and Connecticut Sun emerge victorious.

By Elisha Gunaratnam

Four Eastern Conference teams competed in this year’s WNBA playoffs and two moved on to the next stage of the competition. The Chicago Sky and Connecticut Sun won their respective series in three games on their opponents’ home courts, while the Washington Mystics were swept in Seattle. Here’s a breakdown of how this year’s newly formatted first round played out.

The Sky Are Thankful for the New Playoff Format: Chicago Sky vs. New York Liberty

If the WNBA had not changed the format of the first round of the playoffs, the New York Liberty would be competing against the Connecticut Sun for a spot in the finals. Instead, they’re probably tuning into the semifinals from home and possibly smiling at the fact that the Chicago Sky just lost the first game of the series.

After the Liberty shocked the crowd in Wintrust Arena by upsetting the defending WNBA champions 98–91 during the first game of the 2022 playoffs, Sky fans were likely very relieved that there were two more games left in the series.

James Wade and his team were able to adjust their game plan for the second game in Chicago and blew out the Liberty 100–62, and closed out the series with a dominant 90–72 win in New York.

Sabrina Ionescu tries to drive past Courtney Vandersloot (WNBA Twitter)

Game One 

Prior to their Game 1 win last week, the New York Liberty had not won a postseason game since 2015. Several players came up big to make this happen.

Marine Johannès had 7 assists (including a no-look dish to Natasha Howard that is still mindblowing to watch) and kept the flow of the offense going when some of the starters sat. Stef Dolson was monumental for New York on both sides of the floor as she was able to set screens and open up other scoring options when the Sky trapped Liberty ball handlers. Natasha Howard outplayed Emma Meesseman and helped hold her to only 4 points and 4 rebounds. In the regular season, Meesseman caused a lot of trouble for New York, but in Game 1, thanks to stellar defense from Howard, she was largely a non-factor. Betnijah Laney was the X-Factor in the contest, as her 17 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists gave the Sky one more player to worry about. Finally, Ionescu turned up the intensity when it counted, scoring 10 of her 22 points in the fourth quarter. She became the fourth player under 25 with a 20+ point, 5+ rebound, and 5+ assist statline in a playoff game, finishing the contest with 22 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists. 

Turnovers had been an issue for the Liberty all year, but Game 1 was a nice role reversal. They won the turnover battle 10–8 and scored 14 points off of Chicago turnovers. New York’s ability to take care of the ball and stay sharp on defense led to their 13–0 run in the final quarter of the matchup which is what ultimately propelled them to victory.

What Changed After Game One?

If the Chicago Sky players and coaches were nervous about playing an elimination game in the second game of the playoffs, they certainly didn’t show it. Not only did the Sky manage to force a Game 3, but they did so in a historic fashion. The Sky’s 100–62 blowout win marked the largest margin of victory in WNBA playoff history, surpassing their own record of 36 points set in 2021 against the Phoenix Mercury in Game 3 of the Finals. 

Kahleah Copper led the way for Chicago with a game-high 20 points, while Candace Parker added a double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds. Copper and Parker were two of five different Sky players to score in double digits on Saturday.

New York could not get a shot to fall all afternoon. Michaela Onyenwere and Han Xu both were the only Liberty players in double figures with 10 points each, and Ionescu was held to just 7 points on 3-of-5 attempts from the field. 

In the third and final game of the series, each Sky starter (and their sixth player off the bench) finished between 12 and 15 points, and the team finished with 27 assists, three more than their WNBA-record average of 24.3. The team was unselfish and because they moved the ball so well, the Liberty defense was often caught flat footed. New York failed to disrupt the shooters or passing lanes, allowing the Sky to shoot 53.7% from the field in the first half. Chicago had as many assists in the half as the Liberty had field goals and nearly did the same by game’s end (27 to 30). Even though Sandy Brondello’s squad tightened up their defense in the third quarter, giving up 14 points compared to 25 and 29, the offense couldn’t take advantage. They missed 5 of 11 attempts in the paint. 

Sabrina Ionescu managed to bring the Liberty to within 5 to start the fourth, and New York even came within one possession, but that comeback attempt quickly evaporated as the Sky’s offense soared on a 16–0 run to seal the win. New York scored 7 points in the final 9:02. 

Candace Parker finished the contest with a near triple-double with 14 points, 13 rebounds, 8 assists and 2 blocks, and super sub Azurá Stevens neared a double-double off the bench with 12 points (5-of-9) and 8 rebounds.

Chicago just lost the first game of their semifinal series against Connecticut, so Sky fans have got to be hoping that this series turns around in the same way that their first round of the playoffs did.

The Sun Survive a Scare: Connecticut Sun vs. Dallas Wings

When the Sun blew out the Wings 93–68 on August 18, most people thought that the series would be decided in Connecticut.

Five players on the squad finished the contest in double figures, and Alyssa Thomas flirted with a triple-double, putting up 15 points, grabbing 10 rebounds, and dishing out 7 assists in the Sun’s lopsided win. It was Thomas’ sixth career playoff game with 15 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists. For context on how impressive that is, Candace Parker has 9 such games, and no other player has more than 2.

Connecticut outscored Dallas in all four quarters of the matchup, but it was the third quarter that really sealed the win for the Sun. Connecticut scored 13 straight points to build a 64–45 lead. The Wings went five-plus minutes without a field goal in the third quarter, and the Sun closed the frame on a 17–5 run for an 18-point lead. Connecticut appeared determined to not have to fly to Dallas for a Game 3.

However, Dallas came roaring back to take Game 2 and defeated the Sun 89–79. Kayla Thornton led the way with a career playoff high 20 points, and Teaira McCowan came off the bench to add 17 points and grab 11 rebounds. It looked like the Wings took a page out of Curt Miller’s playbook. They stifled the Connecticut offense in the first half of the game, holding the Sun to 7 points in the opening 10 minutes of the game. That’s the second-lowest total score for a quarter in WNBA playoff history. Connecticut did eventually find their offensive rhythm, but since Dallas led by as many as 31 points, they were able to stave off a late 22–2 run.

The last time the Dallas franchise won a WNBA postseason game was on September 23, 2009. Back then, they were the Detroit Shock.

Satou Sabally defends Jonquel Jones under the basket (WNBA Twitter)

With the changes made to the playoffs this year, the Wings had home-court advantage for the deciding game of the series. The cheers of the home crowd propelled them to open up the contest with a 19–15 advantage over the Sun, but Connecticut quickly took control of the game. Once again, it was the third quarter that sealed the win for the higher-seeded team. The Sun went on a 15–6 run and sent Dallas’ offense into a tailspin. The Wings only made 4 field goals in the third quarter, and Connecticut held the team to 24 second-half points and a season-low point total. 

Game 3 was Connecticut’s first winner-take-all victory since September 29, 2004. The Sun have now made it past the first round of the playoffs for their sixth consecutive season. With Sunday’s win against the Chicago Sky, this might just be the year that Connecticut books their ticket to the WNBA Finals.

Seattle’s Offense Overpowers Washington’s Defense: Seattle Storm vs. Washington Mystics

The first-round playoff series between the Storm and Mystics can be summed up in one sentence: Washington couldn’t keep up with Seattle’s dominant offense. 

Storm fans—or even just Sue Bird fans—have been trying to extend Bird’s career since she announced her retirement plans in June, and they didn’t want the first round of the playoffs to be her final appearance in Climate Pledge arena. After the Storm defeated the Mystics 86–83 and 97–84 to move on to the semifinals, Seattle will be treated to at least two more home games featuring Bird.

Washington kept things competitive in Game 1 of the series. They went into halftime with a 42–40 lead and with how well they had shut down Jewell Loyd (she did not have a single field goal in the first half), it looked like they could upset the home team. Unfortunately for the Mystics, the Gold Mamba rarely stays cold for long. Loyd scored 12 of her 16 points in the final five minutes of the contest, including two free throws that helped the Storm take the lead. 

Elena Delle Donne and Breanna Stewart look down the floor (WNBA Twitter)

Washington was pretty much even with Seattle in terms of their field goal percentage (48.5% compared to 50.8%), but the big difference maker was their three-point shooting percentage. The Mystics shot 36.8% from three-point range while the Storm shot 50% from the same distance. 

Game 2 was a different story. The defense that had been Washington’s calling card all season allowed the Storm to shoot 55.6% from the field and score nearly 100 points. The Storm had a response for every run that the Mystics went on. 

The bright spot of the Washington offense was Natasha Cloud. Cloud became just the fourth player in WNBA Playoffs history to have at least 21 points with 5+ three-pointers, 5+ rebounds, and 5+ assists. Elena Delle Donne had a quiet game, finishing the contest with 12 points. Washington needed every player to be at their best to take down Seattle, and unfortunately for the team, not everyone was.

“I feel like all year our offense has kind of been stagnant and our Achilles’ heel,” Natasha Cloud said after the loss. “We’re the No. 1 defensive team, but we can’t put the ball in the basket. It makes life really hard.”

Interestingly, the Storm and Mystics account for three of the past four WNBA championships. Coach Thibault felt this playoff series was reminiscent of 2018 when the Storm swept the Mystics in the Finals. The good news for Mystics fans? That Washington team evolved and won a title the following year.

What’s Next?

There are two Eastern Conference teams left in the WNBA Playoffs. The Chicago Sky and Connecticut Sun are battling it out for a spot in the Finals. The Sun won the first game of the five-game series 68–63 and Chicago will be looking to even it up at home. 

You can tune into the next game on Wednesday August 31 at 8:00 p.m. ET. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2 for American viewers and on NBA TV Canada for Canadian viewers.

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