How summer flew by! The WNBA playoffs begin tonight, following probably the best regular season in recent memory. The basketball rocked, the season was not made fake-feeling by countless injuries and pandemic opt-outs, and, on the eve of the postseason, it looks like we do have three or four legit contenders in the mix. In years past, the top two teams got automatic trips to the best-of-five semifinals while everyone else fought it out in single-elimination rounds. This year, all eight teams play a best-of-three first-round series. (The better team hosts the first two games, while the worse one hosts the decisive third game if necessary. Surely everyone will find this fair and logical.) I’ll miss the single-elimination games a little; if I didn’t like the way they punished three- and four-seeds, I did like the heroics they fostered. Remember Dearica Hamby’s halfcourt heave? Remember Shey Peddy’s pump fake at the buzzer? Good stuff.
We don’t yet know who this year’s postseason heroes will be. But we can guess! Here is a true hooper’s guide to the WNBA playoffs. These eight players may not all be analytics darlings. They may not be the best or most important players on their teams. But they have that dawg in ’em. And in the playoffs, that’s what counts.
(1) Las Vegas Aces: Chelsea Gray
The lone Vegas starter left off the All-Star Game rosters this year, Chelsea Gray plays floor general to an all-killer starting lineup, one responsible for the team’s league-high 109.6 offensive rating. If the Aces have a flaw, it’s a lack of depth behind those starters, but that hasn’t stopped them yet. Any of her teammates would fit in this preview. You can imagine Kelsey Plum’s springy step-back taking over a series. Or A’ja Wilson moseying to the rim over and over, which is a thing she can do now in this better-spaced offense. But only Gray has won a championship before, back in 2016 when she was on the Sparks, and there’s a veteran shrewdness to her play that always seems to reveal itself in big, desperate moments.
Clutch-time Gray melds old-school tough shotmaking with surprising efficiency. The more contested the fadeaway, the surer it is to go in—that’s the Chelsea Gray guarantee. In the smaller moments, she’s one of basketball’s most inventive passers. That behind-the-back inbounds pass felt almost wasted against the poor Fever, but it’s proof that Gray can make any moment of any game feel special and under her control. In the freakish event that my life depended on the outcome of a close Aces game, the sight of the ball in her hands would calm me completely. It would be just like the end of Uncut Gems, except sort of boring and pointless and actually the opposite.
(8) Phoenix Mercury: Sophie Cunningham
Hmm. Well. Oh dear. No team needs a hero more than Phoenix does. After devil-magicking their way through the playoffs and into the Finals last year, the Mercury packed a decade’s worth of bad luck and catastrophe into a single season. The three leading scorers from the 2021 playoff team are: 1) jailed in Russia; 2) out with an ankle injury until September; 3) as of last week, away from the team for personal reasons. The free-agent signing the Mercury hoped would alleviate absence No. 1 endeared herself to few teammates and then few fans, when she took a buyout to join a better team midseason. That the Mercury made the postseason at all is kind of miraculous. Granted, eight of 12 teams in this league make the postseason and making the postseason is more a statistical likelihood than a miracle. But still, this is something like the one percentile outcome for Phoenix, and it’s not even that bad. The next part is bad: Skylar Diggins-Smith hauled this cursed and dejected team to the playoffs, and she is the player who recently left the team for personal reasons. So who’s left to do the playoff killing? Before last year, no WNBA fan ever imagined speaking the words “The Sophie Cunningham Game.” Now, her September three-point barrage stands out as the catalyst for that unlikely Mercury run. And while Cunningham seemed like she’d be consigned again to scrubhood after her tour as 2021 postseason villain ended, she averaged 12.6 points per game this season, more than double what she did last year, in a new role starting at the four. Winning just one game in this series is probably a tall order for the Mercury, but expect Cunningham to double her trash-talking and orneriness, at the very least.
(2) Chicago Sky: Courtney Vandersloot
I thought I might be imagining it, but no, the numbers confirm the eye test: 33-year-old Courtney Vandersloot has scored more points in the clutch this season—defined by WNBA Stats as the final five minutes of a game within five points—than she ever has before. That’s mostly because she’s found herself in a lot of nailbiters. The reigning champion Chicago Sky played 23 games with clutch minutes, more than any other team in the league, and survived to win 15 of them. This is possible cause for concern, according to my meticulous survey of the fanbase (text message I received from Defector staff writer and Chicago Sky fan Kalyn Kahler), which revealed growing sentiment that “the Sky will not be running it back.” I would say you can read their record two ways. Maybe it is luck and the bill will come due in the postseason. Or maybe—and I think this is more likely—winning close games is a skill, and it figures that a team with smart, Passing Genius veterans like Vandersloot and Candace Parker would hold the advantage. On the subject of making the most of one’s final opportunities before the buzzer sounds, Parker’s, Vandersloot’s and Allie Quigley’s contracts are up at the end of the season; one or more of those players could retire. So are Azurá Stevens’s and Emma Meesseman’s. There might not be another with this core, so they should make their 2022 run count.
(7) New York Liberty: Sabrina Ionescu
OK, but what if winning close games is mostly luck and everything’s bound to even out eventually? This opens up intriguing possibilities. For example, maybe the team that played the second-most clutch-qualifying games but fared 8-13 in them is due to start winning some of them soon. Well, well, well. Wouldn’t that be something? In her second full WNBA season, Sabrina Ionescu took the leap every well-wisher hoped she might, from merely good to truly great. Those who caught any of her electric college performances should be unsurprised to know she has scored more fourth-quarter points than anyone in the WNBA this season. This provides the real basis for the leap: While she flashed assist-making ability from her very first game, she had yet to look comfortable as a scorer at the level she does now. The young Liberty lost three of four regular-season games against the Sky, but these teams are chaotic mirrors of each other. I would not be stunned to see the Liberty pull one out on the road. Maybe you have heard the old baseball manager maxim, that great pitchers know how to get outs on nights they don’t have their best stuff. This separates the Liberty from the Sky; the Sky’s veterans can figure it out and win ugly, while the Liberty oscillate between aesthetic pinnacle of basketball and just the sorriest 0-for-1,000 bunch you’ve ever seen. But in the playoffs, a team like that only needs to be the best version of itself for eight nights.
(3) Connecticut Sun: Brionna Jones
Jones probably is an analytics darling; she plays an extremely reliable and workmanlike game in the post, where she just never misses. What graduates her from mere basketball player status to the vaunted realm of pure hooper is the work she has done in the last two seasons to become a much more mobile big, capable of emerging from nowhere to erase a play as a defender and spinning her way to the rim on offense. Brionna Jones actually made the All-Star Game this year coming off the bench for most of the season, only because Jonquel Jones and Alyssa Thomas slot ahead of her in the frontcourt; what better way to show she is COMMITTED to the GRIND? She should win Sixth Player of the Year, easy. The Sun are in put-up-or-shut-up mode now. While they have enjoyed regular season success for the last several seasons, they have yet to see it translate to a championship. Last year’s semifinals loss to the Chicago Sky prompted some questions about whether this Sun team was just that, a good team well-positioned to outhustle and outrebound worse teams in the regular season (they went a perfect 13-0 against non-playoff teams this year) but ill-suited to the postseason given the weakness of their half-court offense. This summer has been a quieter one than Jonquel Jones, last year’s MVP, would have liked, but she’s an unfortunate example of the problem here; she is both so talented and such a poor fit in this system that it becomes far too easy to forget the former.
(6) Dallas Wings: Marina Mabrey
Mabrey and her fellow Notre Dame alum Arike Ogunbowale formed the league’s most unapologetic backcourt this season—compliment and insult both meant. Ogunbowale hasn’t played much in August due to injury, and the team announced she would miss at least the first round of the playoffs following a core muscle surgery. Dallas has been just fine in her absence, and, a meaner person might even say, better for it. A correct person, too, looking at the on/off splits. The Wings’ offensive rating is actually higher without her on the floor. The sample size is small, but Mabrey has made the most of her higher offensive workload, and she offers both the sizzle an Ogunbowale fan might crave and the somewhat wiser shot selection an Ogunbowale hater might crave. Crafty and aggressive, she’ll present a tough defensive assignment for someone. She’s been just OK in three games against the Sun this season, but two of them were in May, and two of them were Dallas wins anyway. Not that she needs it, since she seems to be an extremely competitive weirdo, but some extra motivation for Mabrey: The Wings, since moving to Dallas in 2016, have not won a playoff game.
(4) Seattle Storm: Jewell Loyd
In her final game of the regular season, Jewell Loyd scored an efficient career-high 38 points against the Aces, going 8-for-14 from three. A week earlier, the same opponent had held her to just one. Not one three, one point. That the Storm’s foremost perimeter threat—a threat as a scorer and a defender—will shoot Seattle into some playoff wins is just about the safest bet you could make. So what about the other games? Breanna Stewart gives her team one of the better floors of all the postseason contenders, but beyond that, the Storm go as Loyd goes. Stewart alone can’t win a series; she’ll need the No. 2 option to string together some Jewell Loyd Games, which can rival Breanna Stewart Games in their allure. After a cooler June and July, Loyd looked to be rounding back into form last week. That she saved her best performance for last augurs well for the Storm as they prepare to play a tough first-round opponent. This matchup might make some WNBA fans wistful; in 2018, when they met in the Finals, it seemed like Storm-Mystics might be the must-see rivalry of the next five or six years. Instead, the teams have avoided each other in the playoffs, each making a championship run in the other’s down year. Now, finally, they have no choice but to fight.
(5) Washington Mystics: Ariel Atkins
Her teammates once voted Ariel Atkins the most introverted player on the Mystics. To this I say, yes, excellent. Some hoopers may slap the floor or jaw at opponents, but the scariest killer of all is the completely silent one. Atkins has grown more and more aggressive each year since her 2018 rookie season. If the long absences/departures of some of the 2019 championship team’s cornerstones—Elena Delle Donne and Natasha Cloud and Emma Meesseman and Aerial Powers—have crushed Washington’s contention hopes over the last two seasons, I wonder if they’ve been somewhat helpful to Atkins, forged by the tumult into something like an “elite role player.” Delle Donne is back now and ready to make her first playoff appearance since 2019, but the team has been cautious with her minutes, so there have been unexpected, delightful stretches this season that quiet Ariel Atkins is taking over and carrying the damn team. Making the most of rough circumstances describes her style on the court, too: She finishes plays through hard contact or over good defenders. She is tough, she is scrappy, she is a bucket, and she can let her game do the talking.