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WNBA Playoff Preview: The Sun Are Ready to End the Storm’s Reign

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Had the Connecticut Sun not saved their fan appreciation evening for the final recreation of the W.N.B.A. common season, Coach Curt Miller might have most well-liked to forfeit.

Already comfortably holding the No. 1 seed, Connecticut (26-6) needed a win — however didn’t want one. The Sun simply wanted to keep wholesome. Connecticut bought the win — a 20-point blowout of Atlanta for its 14th victory in a row — however misplaced DeWanna Bonner for the recreation due to again tightness in the first quarter.

The sight of her hobbling towards the locker room was anxiety-inducing for a fan base with excessive expectations. With everybody on the courtroom, the Sun imagine that is their yr to convey the franchise’s first championship to Connecticut.

But A’ja Wilson, final season’s Most worthy participant, and the second-seeded Las Vegas Aces (24-8) imagine it’s their yr to win. After all, Wilson took the Aces to the finals in 2020, regardless of Las Vegas being with out a number of key gamers due to accidents and medical exemptions. The Aces have been swept by the Seattle Storm at the league’s Florida bubble. But now the All-Star heart Liz Cambage is again, and Las Vegas’ formidable and explosive beginning backcourt of Chelsea Gray and Riquna Williams has dominated and the group has gotten key contributions from the second-unit firecrackers Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young.

A finals pitting the league’s finest offense (Las Vegas) towards the league’s finest protection (Connecticut) would make for a enjoyable battle for the W.N.B.A.’s twenty fifth title crown. But when playoff motion begins Thursday, with two single-elimination video games, six different groups might be out to disrupt any potential storybook endings.

Here’s what to count on.

The Liberty ended the common season the approach it started: with a glimmer of hope that the franchise can reclaim its bygone glory. A sizzling begin earned Sabrina Ionescu honors for participant of the week and Walt Hopkins the season’s first award for coach of the month, however the success didn’t stick.

Before defeating the Washington Mystics of their ultimate regular-season recreation, the Liberty had misplaced eight consecutive video games. And whereas the win saved their playoff hopes alive, the Liberty’s ticket to the postseason got here down to losses by two different groups on the ultimate day of the season. Now, the Liberty should overcome a bleak 5-11 highway file to win towards a Phoenix group that thrives when cornered and occurs to be peaking at the proper time.

The Mercury compiled a 10-game profitable streak after the Olympic break however dropped their final three video games with Diana Taurasi sidelined by an ankle harm. Yet even in its season-ending loss, Phoenix turned in one among its finest performances of the season on the steam of function gamers like Sophie Cunningham and Shey Peddy.

But Phoenix could be remiss to overlook the Liberty.

The Liberty can drive the Mercury right into a scrappy battle if: Natasha Howard, the Liberty’s rebounding chief, can get the group second-chance scoring alternatives and contain Sami Whitcomb, the Liberty’s finest 3-point shooter; Betnijah Laney, the group’s main scorer; Michaela Onyenwere, the main candidate for the Rookie of the Year Award; and Jazmine Jones, who can personal the paint. A Liberty win is unlikely however not unimaginable.

Led by a flamable duo referred to as Marike — Marina Mabrey and Arike Ogunbowale — the Wings battle more durable and smarter than their upside-down file signifies. Coach Vickie Johnson, in her first season, has persuaded gamers to purchase into her rotation experiments. The result’s a younger and hard squad that fears no foe and has picked up wins over Chicago, Phoenix and Seattle.

Candace Parker has made an simple impression in her first yr in Chicago, serving to the group to a seven-game profitable streak in June. But the group has since limped to the end. For the postseason, the Sky might be evenly matched with the Wings, although they play two totally different kinds of basketball — with Dallas sturdy on the exterior, and Chicago at its finest inside. The Wings rank second in the W.N.B.A. in second-chance factors per recreation (12.3) and lead the league in offensive rebounds per recreation (10). To win, the Sky will want to play higher protection.

Minnesota achieved a degree of success that appeared unimaginable after a sequence of accidents and absences left Coach Cheryl Reeve counting on a number of gamers on seven-day contracts. Minnesota began the season on a four-game dropping streak that ended with the arrival of Layshia Clarendon from the Liberty in late May.

Aerial Powers averaged 18 factors per recreation in September, together with a 27-point outburst in the season-closer towards Washington. So, if Clarendon stays wholesome, Sylvia Fowles continues her double-double methods and Powers stays sizzling, the Lynx ought to give you the chance to deal with whichever group advances to play them.

A real title run, nonetheless, is dependent upon Napheesa Collier discovering the consistency that has to date eluded her.

Even amid personnel adjustments — Alysha Clark, Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb departing in free company earlier than the season and Noelle Quinn assuming head teaching duties with the season already underway — Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd let the remainder of the league know simply how critical they’re about profitable a 3rd title in 4 seasons.

But the Storm weren’t the identical after the Olympic break, dropping six of their 11 video games, together with a 32-point blowout to Chicago at house.

Seattle was with out Stewart (foot) for its final two matchups. And Loyd, in the season-ender, poured in 37 factors. The Storm’s title probabilities enhance with Stewart in the combine. But if she will be able to’t play, or performs hobbled, Quinn has a deep nicely of expertise to draw from — beginning with Loyd.

Wilson and Cambage could also be acknowledged as the group’s largest stars, however they don’t seem to be alone. Coach Bill Laimbeer has stacked his roster deep with superstars calling themselves a second unit. When Dearica Hamby, a two-time winner of the Sixth Woman of the Year Award, comes off the bench alongside a pair of gritty, former No. 1 draft picks at guard, Plum and Young, play intensifies, tempo quickens and momentum shifts. Understanding Wilson and Cambage’s tendency to draw loads of defenders, Laimbeer expects his second unit to feast on the scoring alternatives this presents.

And they’ve — Plum, particularly. Her frenetic power on protection has worn down offenses and her willingness to compile 30-point taking pictures performances when wanted has saved the Aces in video games. If Las Vegas makes a return to the finals, will probably be due to its second unit and the regular, typically unsung, contributions of Williams and Gray.

If Plum is the secret weapon for the Aces, the Sun’s is Brionna Jones: a 6-foot-3 ahead who showcased a variety of expertise in elevated minutes in 2020 that impressed Miller to maintain her in the beginning lineup. Remarkably gentle on her ft, Jones has sharp courtroom consciousness and fast fingers that permit her to be at the proper place at the proper time for gathering rebounds and scoring on putbacks.

And whereas Jones dazzles with the finest spin strikes in the recreation, Jonquel Jones retains her head down, coolly carving up defenses and thwarting offenses. Their performances have been fostered by a whole group strategy and using the sizzling hand. Any participant, whether or not Bonner, Briann January or Natisha Hiedeman, might go off for large buckets at any time. But Connecticut’s quest for a franchise-first title runs by the Joneses.