We have finally arrived at the WNBA semifinals, and I for one could not be more excited. Even though the playoffs have gone to chalk thus far (which really only hurts my love for chaos), it’s been an exhilarating opening, and I’m looking forward to seeing what this next round holds.
To refresh, the Seattle Storm are taking on the Las Vegas Aces and the Chicago Sky are battling against the Connecticut Sun. Both of these matchups feature recent playoff confrontations (more on that below), so prepare for some extra fury in these games. Both of these series feature some high-quality teams and players, so let’s dive into the numbers and see who wins!
(1) Las Vegas Aces vs. (4) Seattle Storm
Las Vegas won the season series 3-1
Seattle leads the series 1-0
How They Got Here
The Aces took down a depleted but spunky Phoenix Mercury team in two games, while the Storm ground out two impressive wins over the Washington Mystics.
The Aces and Storm find themselves once again duking it out in the playoffs. This matchup has become a rising rivalry since they squared off in the Wubble in the 2020 Finals, with Seattle coming out with the title. However, the Aces may have the advantage this year as they’ve been steamrolling teams all season long to secure the number one seed. Nothing has changed come playoffs for Las Vegas—the Aces are tied for the league’s best offensive rating (ORTG; 112.6) and have the second-best defensive rating (DRTG; 92.4) during the playoffs for an incredible 20.1 net rating, well ahead of the rest of the playoff crop. Their Player Impact Estimate (PIE; 63.4) and their effective field goal percentage (EFG%; 58.2) are league best, meaning this team not only scores and defends efficiently, but also can get a bucket from just about anyone on the team. The Aces’ starting five is arguably the most complete in the W, and they seem poised, prepared, and confident enroute to hopefully their first championship in team history. With 2022 WNBA Coach of the Year Becky Hammon at the helm, this team looks determined to avenge their crushing loss from a couple seasons ago.
The Storm, on the other hand, are not to be overlooked. They’re tied with the Aces with a 112.6 ORTG, and their 55.5 percent EFG% is just behind the Aces in the playoffs. While their defense leaves some to be desired (a decent 104.8 DRTG, fourth out of eight teams), they have the experience and changeable parts to get into passing lanes and make it difficult for the Aces’ offense to flow. Seattle forced 13.5 turnovers per game in their four matchups against the Aces this season, so look for them to utilize their length, aggressive defensive nature, and smarts to slow down the Aces’ attack. This is exactly how Seattle came out with a win in Game One—the Storm forced four early turnovers and pushed Wilson off the block, preventing her from getting early seals in the possession, which kept her from finding her rhythm. The Storm also got out in transition off the turnovers they forced, resulting in 19 points. If the Storm want to win this series, their playbook from yesterday is a good place to start.
The biggest question facing the Aces is whether they can continue to play well without much of a bench. Riquna Williams has given the Aces huge minutes, and Kiah Stokes has also been clutch for this team without Dearica Hamby, but there isn’t much else there. Even with coaches typically shortening their benches come playoffs, this team is noticeably weak after their starting five. Even if Hamby is able to return during this series (still unclear), the Aces’ bench will be the key to whether they can move past the Storm and get back to the Finals. Their bench is only scoring 15.7 PPG (seventh in the playoffs) on 39.5 percent shooting (sixth), so they will either need a herculean effort from their bench or to continue to pray to whatever deities they have been for continued good health among their starting five. In Game One, the Aces’ bench totaled nine points, which will not get the job done.
As for the Storm, their biggest question is whether Gabby Williams will play and in what shape she will be in if she does. She suffered a concussion during the first half of Game Two against the Mystics and hasn’t returned to practice. She was out Game One with no indication of whether she’ll be available to return for the series. If she’s able to come back later in the series, she will be a huge plus to this team’s defense and secondary scoring. Her length allows her to switch on to good shooting bigs (hello, A’ja Wilson) and not be overmatched. Without her, the Storm defensive front is a bit less interchangeable, so her return to full health will be important. Fortunately for the Storm, their bench has been good. The likes of Briann January, Stephanie Talbot, Epiphanny Prince, and Ezi Magbegor have been monumental to this team’s success this season and in the playoffs thus far. They haven’t scored a ton (11.0 PPG during the playoffs, last in the league among bench units), but they are shooting a league-best 60.0 percent among benches. Without Williams, more of the scoring load will fall to the bench players. They only scored four points in Game One, so their ability to keep momentum when their starters have to rest will need to improve in order to keep the pressure on Las Vegas and tire out the Aces’ starters.
Key Player for Each Team
For Seattle, the key player is the aforementioned Williams. She is a Swiss Army knife on the court, so if she’s effective, she takes the pressure off players like Tina Charles and Sue Bird to add scoring behind Breanna Stewart. If she’s a no-go for the series, I’ll take Jewell Loyd. She started slowly in Game One against Washington, but when she got cooking in the 4th quarter, this team looked completely different. The end of Game One speaks volumes to just how high this team can climb with Loyd locked in. If she’s hot, look out. But if she’s not, or the Aces find a way to slow her down, this series may be over quickly. As good as Stewie is, she cannot carry this team on her own to the promised land.
For the Aces, it’s the Point God—Chelsea Gray. This team will go as far as she’s able to take them. Like Stewie, Wilson is a phenomenal player, but she alone cannot make this team work. If Gray is facilitating and balancing the scoring load, on top of what Kelsey Plum can offer from the perimeter, this team is talented enough to banish you swiftly and painfully. Gray is second in the league with 21.7 PPG during the playoffs and tied for second with 6.0 APG. Gray is crafty and a flat-out baller, so Bird and the rest of the Storm defenders will need to keep their eyes locked on her all series.
This is such a fun series that can go in any number of directions. Many people assumed the Mystics would snag a game in Seattle and force a Game Three, but Seattle had other plans. When everyone in green and yellow is pulling in the same direction, this team is so tough to beat. But if any team is able to take the Storm down, this Aces team is the one. If the Aces’ defense continues to play with the suffocating style they have been (much to Hammon’s delight), Seattle might struggle to find open looks and easy buckets.
My prediction is Aces in five. I just don’t see how this doesn’t go the distance, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if one team closed it out in four. These teams are a lot closer in skill to one another than paper would have one think, but the one thing that may decide this is the home-road split. Vegas was an even 13-5 at home and on the road during the regular season, and while the Storm were solid at home with an equally good 13-5 record, their 9-9 road record leaves a lot on the table. Yes, Seattle came out and stole Game One on the road, but I think there are fewer changes to be made for Vegas ahead of Game Two than for the Storm. For that reason, I’m taking the Aces to enact revenge on the Storm and make their way back to the Finals.
(2) Chicago Sky vs. (3) Connecticut Sun
Chicago swept the season series 4-0
Connecticut leads the series 1-0
How They Got Here
After inexplicably losing in Game One at home against the New York Liberty, the Chicago Sky took it and took it hard to New York in Games Two and Three, showing their playoff grit and mettle. As for the Connecticut Sun, they too had their series taken to a Game Three, but they managed to hold down a spry Dallas Wings team to secure a series win and set up the battle they’ve wanted all season.
While the Sky may have won every game of the season series between these two teams, there were no blowouts. The Sun made each game a grind and a battle, losing in single digits in all four of their competitions. Both these teams sit relatively close to one another not only in the seeding but also in the numbers. The Sky’s fourth-ranked ORTG (106.8) sits a little bit ahead of the Sun’s 103.0, fifth best among playoff teams. No one is going to mistake the Sun for an offensive juggernaut as their bread is buttered on the defensive end. Their top-ranked DRTG (91.7) sits ahead of the Sky’s third-ranked DRTG (92.9), setting the stage for a matchup that will surely provide lots of emotion, stare-downs, and tension. Both of these teams know how to utilize their players well, which is illustrated by Chicago’s 57.2 PIE rating (third best in the league) and the Sun’s 58.5 rating in the same metric (good for second). These teams have experienced, well-coached players who know their roles and how to get things done.
The Sky seem to soar (pun intended) in clutch time, defined as the last five minutes of the game when the score is within five or fewer points. During the regular season, the Sky played 23 clutch-time games, which was the most in the league, and came out with 15 wins (also most in the league). Their points per game during clutch games, offensive rebounds per game, assists per game, steals per game, ORTG, and net rating were all league best. What this means is if you come at the queens, you best not miss. This team, evidenced by their beatdowns of the Liberty in Games Two and Three, shines when the pressure is at its highest. Most of the players from the team that won the championship last year are still here, and this squad is led by future Hall of Famer Candace Parker, who stuffed the stat sheet (and set a record) with 19 points, 18 rebounds, six blocks, five assists, and four steals in Game One.
Looking at the Sun (can we just call this the Celestial Series?), their numbers don’t stand out in any one way. However, their collective defense is elite, led by anchor Jonquel Jones and the iron woman that is Alyssa Thomas. This team doesn’t quit, but they have struggled for much of this season getting out of first gear. The Sun’s offense is pedestrian at best, and yes, their defense does keep them in games, but this Sky team is not a team you can just “hang around” with; you need to come out and stomp them fiercely and early. During Game One, the Sun came out and did to the Sky what the Sky do to everyone else—they dominated the paint (36-26 points advantage), controlled the glass (47-36 rebounding edge), and forced one more turnover (12) than they themselves had (11). This is the blueprint for how to beat the Sky, and the Sun came out and played their defensive gameplan to a T.
Let’s start with the Sun because their question is bigger and more pressing for an answer than the Sky’s. Can the Sun’s defense slow down the Sky’s offense? The Sky score and can facilitate for any member of their team at any time, so can the Sun slow down Parker and their diverse attack enough to get decent looks for themselves? One area the Sun do well in is limiting opponents’ transition buckets; they are second in the playoffs in opponent fast-break points (5.8) and opponent points off turnovers (12.5). This is a good start, but the Sun will need to be cohesive, communicative, calm, and decisive defensively to get under the Sky’s skin. No matter how you shake it, it’s a tall task.
For the Sky, the biggest question is how they can avoid let downs. This team has shown it has everything it needs to be the first repeat champion since the Los Angeles Sparks did it 20 years ago. However, this team can also mysteriously look lost at times, evidenced by their lackadaisical ending to Game One in the opening round. If they can avoid these moments, they should not have much trouble against the Sun.
Key Player for Each Team
For the Sun, it’s likely Sixth Woman of the Year Brionna Jones. Jones finished the season with 13.8 PPG, just over 5.0 rebounds per game, and a 1.8 defensive win share, placing her in the upper echelon of defensive wizards in the league. She’s vital to whatever the Sun hope to do on the defensive end in this series. She’s had an unbelievable season, and if she’s able to make life difficult for Parker, Emma Meesseman, or anyone else head coach Curt Miller decides to throw her at, it could hinder a clicking Sky offense enough to allow the Sun to hang around and initiate a counterstrike. Everybody knows Jonquel and Thomas, but keep your eyes on Brionna Jones and how she’s going to make life miserable for the Sky players.
For the Sky, I’ll stay big—Emma Meesseman is my pick. We know about KFC, and we know about Parker. For me, the X factor on this team is Meesseman. If she’s able to facilitate and be a scoring threat, even stretching the floor and hitting some threes, she’ll pose an issue that the Sun will not have an answer for. When the Sky struggle, sometimes they get too one-dimensional with either Parker’s or Kahleah Copper’s driving attack, with Meesseman often looking non-existent. If she can bring the “Playoff Emma” juju with her from 2019, the Sky’s the limit (sorry not sorry) for what Chicago can do in this series.
I really want to believe Connecticut can win this. Putting aside my Chicago homerism for a minute, it would be nice to see Miller and company finally reach the pinnacle for another shot at winning it. However, I just don’t know if Connecticut has enough to keep this interesting past Game Two, especially without Jasmine Thomas facilitating and orchestrating the Sun’s offensive gameplan.
I will say Chicago in four, and that’s with Connecticut winning Game One. The Sun are out for blood and revenge after being upset last season by Chicago, and that showed in Game One as they thwarted much of what the Sky aimed to do. That changes on Wednesday night for Game Two as head coach James Wade and his team have shown they have the capacity to make adjustments within series. Chicago will come out and take Game Two and not look back.
All stats as of 8/29. Unless otherwise noted, all stats from WNBA.com.