WNBA playoffs: Best-case scenario for every team chasing a title

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The WNBA regular season is ancient history. It's time to reset and dig in.

The 2021 WNBA playoffs begin Thursday as the pièce de résistance of the 25th anniversary year. It's the Connecticut Sun that soared into the No. 1 spot, while the No. 8 New York Liberty snuck in during the final hours.

As eight teams enter their second seasons, here's how each team performed next to expectations, their best scenario in the coming weeks and what could trip them up chasing a title. All odds by BetMGM.

How to watch WNBA playoffs

First round, single elimination: Thursday, Sept. 23

No. 7 Dallas Wings at No. 6 Chicago Sky, 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2

No. 8 New York Liberty at No. 5 Phoenix Mercury, 10 p.m. ET on ESPN2

Second round, single elimination: Sunday, Sept. 26

Best remaining seed at No. 4 Seattle Storm, 3 p.m. ET on ABC

Worst remaining seed at No. 3 Minnesota Lynx, 5 p.m. ET on ESPN2

The Connecticut Sun rolled to the No. 1 seed with a dominant performance after the Olympic break. (M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The Connecticut Sun rolled to the No. 1 seed with a dominant performance after the Olympic break. (M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

No. 1 Connecticut Sun | 26-6 | +200

Outperformed ... It's tough to say the Sun fared better than expected given what we've known about them for years and what we've seen out of them since May. But it's true. They were expected to be without Alyssa Thomas, known as "The Engine" and that says enough about her importance to the team. But in the first season with their splashy 2020 free agent signing, DeWanna Bonner, playing next to the entire established core, the Sun are second in offensive rating (109.1), first in defensive rating by more than four points (93.7) and first in net rating (13.2).

Best scenario: Winning it all. They have the hottest hand. The Sun have not lost a regular-season game since July 3, a franchise-record streak of 14 straight. And they're 15-1 at home, which is where they'll be playing the pivotal games after locking in the No. 1 seed. They boast the likely MVP (Jonquel Jones), Most Improved Player (Brionna Jones), plenty of all-WNBA potential selections (all the Joneses, including Jazmine Jones) and all-defensive players (Briann January). An already scary team also welcomed back Thomas in the final games of the season after she suffered an Achilles injury less than nine months ago.

What could trip them up: Rust. That might be it. The Sun have nine days off before the semifinals begin, a lengthy layoff during an incredible run of victories. It seems unlikely this Connecticut team would be impacted by that, though, and a best-of-five series takes care of that problem, if it is one. After what we've seen in the second half — including Alyssa Thomas' return! — it's the Sun's trophy to lose.

No. 2 Las Vegas Aces | 24-8 | +220

As expected ... The Aces were expected to be in the WNBA Finals and anything less than that will be a disappointment. Las Vegas was swept by the Storm in that series in the bubble while reigning MVP A'ja Wilson carried the load and two-time Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby watched on crutches. Their big offseason move was point guard Chelsea Gray (5.9 apg, ranking fourth in WNBA) and Kelsey Plum rejoined the team after an Achilles injury.

Best scenario: Winning it all. The Aces boast the No. 1-ranked offense and are the first team in WNBA history with seven players averaging double-digit scoring. The previous high was five. This team can go anywhere when one player is shut down.

Their defense is ranked No. 2, holding opposing teams to a league-low 30.6% from 3-point range, and five players are top-20 in the league in defensive win shares. They'll wait for what is most statistically likely to be Minnesota, who they lost to twice before the Olympic break but blew out on Sept. 8. It took one of their best shooting nights of the year.

What could trip them up: The Lynx in the semifinals. The Sun can also wipe out an Ace. Connecticut took all three of their matchups this season despite the Aces quieting Jones in scoring, rebounding and 3-point shooting the final game in August. The Aces did shut down the Sun defensively, keeping them below their scoring average in every contest, but the necessary side of that is outscoring the Sun. Las Vegas isn't known for its 3-point game, averaging a league-worst 13.5 per game. But the team can hit them; they're 37.5% from range, second behind the Storm.

No. 3 Minnesota Lynx | 22-10 | +750

Lynx center Sylvia Fowles (34) and forward Napheesa Collier (24) are the biggest reasons why Minnesota could reasonably make the WNBA Finals. (M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Lynx center Sylvia Fowles (34) and forward Napheesa Collier (24) are the biggest reasons why Minnesota could reasonably make the WNBA Finals. (M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As expected, maybe better ... The Lynx were favored by many ahead of the season to finish around the 3-6 seed range in the standings as they didn't lose any key pieces. Those expectations slipped when they started 0-4, but with Napheesa Collier's return from her overseas commitment in France and the signing of point guard Layshia Clarendon, they righted the ship. Much of that has to do with three-time Coach of the Year Cheryl Reeve.

Best scenario: WNBA Finals berth. It will be hard, but not out of the question. Their best-case scenario is if the Liberty can pull an upset for an easier second-round matchup and they can overcome the Aces, which they've done twice this year. Minnesota succeeded at forcing A'ja Wilson into tough shots, though she got hers, while Sylvia Fowles dropped one of her 30-point double-doubles against them.

What could trip them up: History and reality. Under the current format, which was put in place in 2016, only one team outside of the No. 1 and 2 seeds has reached the Finals. That was the third-ranked Washington Mystics in 2018, but they didn't win. It can be done, but it's tough to go into a No. 2 seed's house and win at least one of the two opening games.

No. 4 Seattle Storm | 21-11 | +400

Underperformed ... The preseason expectations were unrealistic for a group that lost Natasha Howard and Alysha Clark in free agency. But Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd were still in town, so it seemed a return to the Finals was doable. Even expected. Instead, the Storm went 6-6 after the Olympic break that included losses to the Liberty and Sparks. Ouch.

Best scenario: WNBA Finals berth. At their best, this Seattle team is the one that dominated the Sun in the Commissioner's Cup championship. The top three players were straight off a gold medal and long plane ride, yet a trophy and cash was on the line, so they showed up and out. The Storm will have to survive a single-elimination game that could be a Mercury rematch before pulling the Sun in the semifinals. That could be a favorable semifinal matchup: They've defeated Connecticut three times this summer.

What could trip them up: Health. The best-case scenario hinges on Stewart returning from a foot injury that forced her to miss the final two games. Head coach Noelle Quinn, who took over for Dan Hughes weeks into the season, said on Monday that Stewart has not yet practiced with the team. If the Storm make a run, they'll need a fully healthy and MVP-level Stewie.

No. 5 Phoenix Mercury | 19-13 | +900

Skylar Diggins-Smith has been a consistent force for the Mercury this season. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Skylar Diggins-Smith has been a consistent force for the Mercury this season. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Underperformed ... The "underperform" status comes with such a huge caveat here. Phoenix brought together the biggest household-name Big 3 in Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith ahead of the 2020 season. That meant sky-high expectations, and a five-seed that needs to win two single-elimination games doesn't feel like it.

Best scenario: A semifinal berth. Getting past the Liberty, a youthful squad, and Storm, who they know well, are realistic. Winning a series against the Sun seems less so. Connecticut thrives on defense, and the Mercury rely on their Big 3 almost exclusively. Taurasi, Griner and Diggins-Smith combine to average 53.4 of the team's 82.1 points per game (65%). No one else averages double digits.

What could trip them up: League-leading defenses in the Sun, Aces, Lynx and even Storm. And health. Taurasi has missed time this season with a cracked sternum in May and and ankle injury in early September. Griner also hurt her ankle this month and missed a game, ultimately returning to her MVP-level contributions.

No. 6 Chicago Sky | 16-16 | +1800

Underperformed ... This was a team that not eight months ago was expected to win it all thanks to the addition of Candace Parker. The Sky have been so close in recent years and have key pieces. Courtney Vandersloot is one of the best passers the WNBA has ever seen, while Kahleah Copper and Diamond DeShields are stars on the rise. But it's been hot, cold and mild at confounding times for Chicago. The Sky should have been competing for a top-four seed in the final weekend.

Best scenario: Reaching the semifinals feels a stretch, and the finals feels too Ted Lasso-like optimistic. The first task is getting past the Wings, and the way the Sky can come out flat doesn't bode well for that being a gimme. Then there's probably the Lynx. The energy and urgency needs to show up in Chicago, and the key could be Allie Quigley's sharp shot pouring in more 3-pointers to get out of a close contest.

What could trip them up: Themselves. The Sky dealt with injuries and absences, which explains the losing streak at the front end of the season. But it doesn't explain the confounding losses in the back end of the season. Despite all their offensive talent, they're seventh of eight playoff teams in offensive rating and their defense, which is their calling card, has dropped off at times.

No. 7 Dallas Wings | 14-18 | +10000

Outperformed ... The Wings snuck onto only two of the six Yahoo Sports staff's preseason playoff predictions. Most writers and fans had the Sparks or Mystics above them, but it was a long rollercoaster year for both of those franchises. The Wings are ahead of schedule and can build valuable postseason experience with a group that doesn't have a free agent this offseason.

Best case scenario: An Arike Ogunbowale buzzer-beater. The Wings could make noise and pull an upset of the Sky in the first round, but it seems unlikely they go much further. Here's hoping we see that Ogunbowale magic and the Wings in the playoffs for years to come. They will add a draft lottery prospect with the Sparks' pick this spring, adding to a core headlined by Ogunbowale and Satou Sabally.

What could trip them up: Experience, in the playoffs and with each other. Dallas' coaching staff has struggled with consistent lineups (13 total starting lineups, some due to injury) and this Wings group is competing for the first time since the 2018 playoffs. That was when Liz Cambage and Skylar Diggins-Smith were still in town. A title team is a work in progress still in Dallas with too many young, growing players to pull upset after upset.

No. 8 New York Liberty | 12-20 | +10000

Betnijah Laney and the New York Liberty could upset the Phoenix Mercury in the first round after securing a playoff berth in the final hours of the regular season. (Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)
Betnijah Laney and the New York Liberty could upset the Phoenix Mercury in the first round after securing a playoff berth in the final hours of the regular season. (Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

As expected ... The Liberty backed into the playoffs on the final day thanks to losses by the Mystics and Sparks. They now have the worst winning percentage of any playoff team in WNBA history. This Liberty team has good pieces, but it's not all there yet and that shows in full force on off-shooting nights. The chemistry will grow, and while the Liberty should have pulled out a few more wins this season given their situation, being on the playoff bubble was where most thought they would sit.

Best scenario: The Liberty are playing with house money, and the wide-eyed youth of being in the playoffs at all could play to their advantage. It doesn't feel like they're just happy to be here. It feels like they're ready to see what they can do and make noise. A win against the Mercury is doable.

What could trip them up: Skylar Diggins-Smith. She scored 25, 27 and 27 on them in their three meetings and no one had the defensive answer. Their own 3-point shooting could also cause problems. Because if it's not there, there's not much else for the Liberty to fall back on when it comes to scoring.

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