WNBA First Round Playoff Preview

alyssa thomas dribbles

Before I get to my previews for the first round of the WNBA playoffs, I want to note that I dislike the current WNBA playoff set up. Basketball, like hockey and baseball, are better when played in series that actually reward the better team. Single game elimination games are ok for play-in games, maybe for the first round of the WNBA playoffs, given that too many teams make the playoffs in the first place, a full 66% of the league. 

But the second round should be a full 5 round series. I am ok with still offering a bye to the top 2 seeds, and just have the 2nd round be a series. Even a 3 game series would be significantly better than the current set up. The Los Angeles Sparks  and Minnesota Lynx played really hard to earn the 3rd seed and 4th seed respectively. They should get to play series against a lower seeded opponent to show that they are the better team, if they in fact are. 

Basketball is too much of a make or miss sport over the course of a single game for it to be a fair representation of quality. All it takes is one player who normally shoots below 30% from 3 to get hot to mess things up. We saw the Orlando Magic and Portland Trail Blazers win their first games in the NBA playoffs. But of course, the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks were not eliminated, because that would be ridiculous. 

But back to this year’s playoffs. Sub optimal playoff set up or not, these games will hopefully still be exciting and I am looking forward to watching them. An interesting subplot in both of these games is how many minutes the best players can play. All 4 teams are thin on the bench, between injuries and opt outs. Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner have a history of effectively playing heavy minutes. Can Myisha Hines-Allen, Skylar Diggins-Smith, or Courtney Vandersloot also play in the upper 30s in minutes? A big topic of conversation in the NBA in regards to Giannis Antetokounmpo, it will be interesting to watch in the WNBA playoffs as well. 

Phoenix Mercury (net rating: 2.7 ) vs. Washington Mystics (net rating: -2.4)

My pick: Phoenix Mercury

Just based on net rating, the Mercury are heavy favorites to win this game. And net rating actually undersells the difference, since the Mystics won some games big with Aerial Powers as their leading scorer. The Mystics major weakness is lacking a guard who can consistently drive to the paint. Leilani Mitchell does her best, but that is not her game.

Phoenix is missing Brittney Griner, but they have been better able to make up for her absence, in particular with moving Brianna Turner to center at times, her more natural position. This is a matchup Griner would have been especially useful in, but Phoenix has played fairly well without her, getting stomped by the Storm aside.

This game is a battle of the Phoenix back court vs. the Mystics front court. Can whichever of Emma Meesseman or Myisha Hines-Allen who is not being guarded by Turner score enough for the Mystics to win? While Kia Vaughn might struggle to guard Meesseman away from the basket, Meesseman has shot poorly this year, down to 29% from 3, compared to 42% in 2019. If Meesseman can hit some 3s, this may be a more competitive game.

The other avenue is for the Mystics to run pick and rolls with their bigs as ball handlers and their guards as the screener. Whoever is being guarded by Taurasi, probably Kiara Leslie, should be screening for the bigs. They should be doing everything they can to get Diana Taurasi switched onto either Hines-Allen or Meesseman. If the Mercury trap either big, both Hines-Allen and Meesseman having the passing ability to hit open Mystics shooters. 

On the other end, Leslie and Ariel Atkins are going to be big in this series. Leilani Mitchell will likely be covering Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, with Atkins and Leslie getting the more difficult assignments of covering Taurasi and Diggins-Smith. This is a lot to ask of a rookie guard in Leslie, but Leslie has the athleticism to at least make Diggins-Smith or Taurasi work.

The Mystics in their second matchup had some success sending two to the ball and trapping high on the court. This is worth the gamble especially if it’s Taurasi, as limiting the chances she heats up from distance is good. Neither of the Mercury starting bigs, Brianna Turner nor Kia Vaughn, are particularly adept at playmaking from near the three point line, and Mystics are a well coached, smart team that should be able to handle scrambling on rotations.

Ultimately, the offensive firepower of the Mercury guards is likely to be too much for the Mystics to overcome. Brianna Turner is a good enough  defender to ensure that Hines-Allen does not dominate, and it is hard to see where else the Mystics will get enough scoring. 

Connecticut Sun (net rating: .6) vs. Chicago Sky (net rating 3.0)

My pick: Connecticut Sun

By net rating it appears that the Sky should be favored, as net rating is a better indicator of future success than win-loss records. However, the Sky rating overstates their current team, because of the loss of Azurá Stevens and Diamond DeShields. The Sun have also benefited greatly Briann January joining the team part way into the season. Momentum does not extend from the end of the regular season into the playoffs, but the Sky are scuffling because of injuries, not just the vagaries of even a 22 game season. 

This game will likely come down to the Sun transition offense vs. the Sky transition defense. The Sky were inexplicably bad at transition defense this year. Per Synergy, the Sky were 4th in half court defense, but 10th in transition defense. But when watching the Sky, the reasons do not jump out. They do not end up with poor floor balance, for instance four players below the three point line when it is time to run back on defense. Hard to believe the Sky are unaware of this, so it may not be fixable for the playoff game. Maybe if they lock in just for the one game they can improve.

Transition matters for the Sun because if the Sun do not advance, it will likely be because their half court offense grinds to a halt. When their defense is being disruptive and the Sun can get out in transition, this team can score. Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner are two of the more effective players at grabbing a defensive rebound or causing a turnover and leading the break themselves. But their half court offense has been a struggle all year. The Sun do not have a single plus shooter from 3, and it shows in the half court.

The Sky on the other hand, do have plus shooters and a good offense, that ranked 4th in the WNBA. The Sun ranked 4th in defense, so that should be a fun battle. I slightly give the edge to the Sun, as Jasmine Thomas was my choice of first team all-defense guard for a reason, and she should be able to make Courtney Vandersloot’s life harder. Even still, Vandersloot should consider adjusting her approach. Her normal pass first mode makes sense with a full Sky roster, but this Sky team might need her to shoot every time she is even slightly open.

The Sky’s best option on offense is likely to force Brionna Jones to guard Kahleah Copper and Courtney Vandersloot in pick and rolls, with Stefanie Dolson and Cheyenne Parker as screener. They should avoid any and all screens with Alyssa Thomas defending, as Alyssa Thomas can switch those and stay even with Vandersloot. Jones has worked hard to improve her playing, but she is still the Sun’s weakest defender. Ruthie Hebard could also screen for the Sky guards, as she has shown her experience running pick and rolls with Sabrina Ionescu has carried over to the WNBA.

This is likely to be a close game, but I chose the Sun because if they can get a few threes to drop from their guards, be it Thomas, January, or Kaila Charles, they should be able to generate enough offense to win.