Basketball

WNBA Playoff Preview: The Solar Are Able to Finish the Storm’s Reign

Had the Connecticut Solar not saved their fan appreciation night time 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 Solar simply wanted to remain wholesome. Connecticut bought the win — a 20-point blowout of Atlanta for its 14th victory in a row — however misplaced DeWanna Bonner for the sport due to again tightness within 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 court docket, the Solar consider that is their 12 months to deliver the franchise’s first championship to Connecticut.

However A’ja Wilson, final season’s most beneficial participant, and the second-seeded Las Vegas Aces (24-8) consider it’s their 12 months to win. In spite of everything, 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 on the league’s Florida bubble. However now the All-Star middle Liz Cambage is again, and Las Vegas’ formidable and explosive beginning backcourt of Chelsea Grey and Riquna Williams has dominated and the group has gotten key contributions from the second-unit firecrackers Kelsey Plum and Jackie Younger.

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

Right here’s what to anticipate.

The Liberty ended the common season the way in which 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.

Earlier than defeating the Washington Mystics of their last 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 all the way down to losses by two different groups on the ultimate day of the season. Now, the Liberty should overcome a bleak 5-11 street document to win in opposition to a Phoenix group that thrives when cornered and occurs to be peaking on 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. But even in its season-ending loss, Phoenix turned in certainly one of its finest performances of the season on the steam of function gamers like Sophie Cunningham and Shey Peddy.

However Phoenix could be remiss to miss the Liberty.

The Liberty can power 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 12 months Award; and Jazmine Jones, who can personal the paint. A Liberty win is unlikely however not not possible.

Led by a flamable duo often known as Marike — Marina Mabrey and Arike Ogunbowale — the Wings battle tougher and smarter than their upside-down document 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 affect in her first 12 months in Chicago, serving to the group to a seven-game profitable streak in June. However the group has since limped to the end. For the postseason, the Sky can be evenly matched with the Wings, although they play two totally different types of basketball — with Dallas sturdy on the surface, and Chicago at its finest inside. The Wings rank second within 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 might want to play higher protection.

Minnesota achieved a degree of success that appeared not possible after a collection 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 shedding streak that ended with the arrival of Layshia Clarendon from the Liberty in late Could.

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

A real title run, nonetheless, is dependent upon Napheesa Collier discovering the consistency that has so far 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 Hen and Jewell Loyd let the remainder of the league know simply how critical they’re about profitable a 3rd title in 4 seasons.

However the Storm weren’t the identical after the Olympic break, shedding 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, within the season-ender, poured in 37 factors. The Storm’s title probabilities enhance with Stewart within the combine. But when she will’t play, or performs hobbled, Quinn has a deep properly of expertise to attract from — beginning with Loyd.

Wilson and Cambage could also be acknowledged because the group’s largest stars, however they don’t seem to be alone. Coach Invoice Laimbeer has stacked his roster deep with superstars calling themselves a second unit. When Dearica Hamby, a two-time winner of the Sixth Lady of the 12 months Award, comes off the bench alongside a pair of gritty, former No. 1 draft picks at guard, Plum and Younger, play intensifies, tempo quickens and momentum shifts. Understanding Wilson and Cambage’s tendency to attract loads of defenders, Laimbeer expects his second unit to feast on the scoring alternatives this presents.

And so they have — Plum, specifically. Her frenetic power on protection has worn down offenses and her willingness to compile 30-point capturing performances when wanted has saved the Aces in video games. If Las Vegas makes a return to the finals, it will likely be due to its second unit and the regular, typically unsung, contributions of Williams and Grey.

If Plum is the key weapon for the Aces, the Solar’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 within the beginning lineup. Remarkably gentle on her toes, Jones has sharp court docket consciousness and fast arms that enable her to be on the proper place on the proper time for gathering rebounds and scoring on putbacks.

And whereas Jones dazzles with the most effective spin strikes within the recreation, Jonquel Jones retains her head down, coolly carving up defenses and thwarting offenses. Their performances have been fostered by an entire group method and driving the recent hand. Any participant, whether or not Bonner, Briann January or Natisha Hiedeman, may go off for giant buckets at any time. However Connecticut’s quest for a franchise-first title runs via the Joneses.

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