WNBA playoffs primer: Key players, what to know for every first-round matchup

The Las Vegas Aces are chasing history. Las Vegas, which clinched the No. 1 seed over the New York Liberty, is seeking to become the third franchise to win back-to-back championships.

The defunct Houston Comets won the first four championships in WNBA history (1997-2000) and the Los Angeles Sparks won the next two (2001-02). There has not been a repeat champion since then.

The Aces have the most favorable path as the top seed and with their league-leading offensive and defensive rating. Their 15.6 net rating is one of the best in league history behind four All-WNBA talents in A’ja Wilson, Chelsea Gray, Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum.

The Liberty, who acquired the “super-team” talent of Breanna Stewart, Courtney Vandersloot and Jonquel Jones in the offseason, are the No. 2 seed with the second-best offense and third-rated defense. The Connecticut Sun and Dallas Wings are distant 3 and 4 seeds, respectively.

All four host the first two games of the best-of-three first round. A Game 3, if needed, will go to the lower seed’s home court.

The 2023 WNBA playoff bracket. (Illustration by Mallory Bielecki/Yahoo Sports)
The 2023 WNBA playoff bracket. (Illustration by Mallory Bielecki/Yahoo Sports)

Here’s what to watch for each series, as the WNBA playoffs begin Wednesday night.

No. 1 Las Vegas Aces (34-6) vs. No. 8 Chicago Sky (17-22)

Game 1: Wednesday in Las Vegas, 10 p.m. ET on ESPN
Game 2: Sunday in Las Vegas, 3 p.m. ET on ABC
Game 3*: Sept. 20 in Chicago, TBD on ESPN

Season series: Las Vegas 3-0 (by an average 10.7 points)

Championship history: Chicago won its first championship in franchise history in 2021 as a No. 6 seed. Las Vegas won the city its first title in 2022.

Chicago players to watch: The Sky guard trio of Courtney Williams, Marina Mabrey and Kahleah Copper. If those three can all get hot, an efficient 3-point shooting game might lead Chicago to an upset victory in at least one game. The Sky are tied with the Aces for second in 3-point percentage (37.2%) behind the Liberty (37.4%).

Mabrey had two of her most productive games of the season against Las Vegas. In June, she scored 20 points in 29 minutes, and in August, she scored 22 on 60% shooting. In both games, she was better than 50% from 3-point range with three and four makes, respectively. In the third matchup when Mabrey had only 11 points, Copper scored a season-high 37, shooting 66.7% with four 3s.

Chicago Sky's Kahleah Copper scored a season-high 37 points with four 3s in a matchup against the Las Vegas Aces this season. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Chicago Sky's Kahleah Copper scored a season-high 37 points with four 3s in a matchup against the Las Vegas Aces this season. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Las Vegas players to watch: The Aces have the league’s best offensive and defensive rating with the starting five they used in the Finals (Gray, Young, Plum, Wilson and Kiah Stokes). If anything has changed this season, it’s that they’re better defensively.

Las Vegas head coach Becky Hammon won’t overlook the Sky, but it’s a good opportunity to lean a little more heavily on the bench than leaving starters in for their typical minutes. Her three most-used reserves are Alysha Clark (22.5 minutes per game), Kierstan Bell (11.8 mpg) and Cayla George (8.5 mpg). Their bench averages 13.5 points per game (last in the league) on 39.1% shooting (third-worst).

Candace Parker, who was finding her stride and a key defensively, remains out “indefinitely” after foot surgery. Hammon said last week that Riquna Williams was not being welcomed back to the team after her domestic violence arrest. A Las Vegas judge dropped the charges after the woman involved, her wife, stopped responding to the district attorney’s office. Williams was key off the bench in leading the Aces to their semifinal overtime victory against the Storm and the Game 4 Finals clincher against the Sun last season.

Prediction: Aces, 2-0 (Winner plays winner of Atlanta/Dallas)

No. 2 New York Liberty (32-8) vs. No. 7 Washington Mystics (19-21)

Game 1: Friday in New York, 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2
Game 2: Tuesday in New York, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN
Game 3*: Sept. 22 in Washington, D.C., TBD on ESPN2

Season series: Tied 2-2. The Mystics won on a buzzer-beater in the season finale on Sunday.

Championship history: The Mystics won their franchise’s first title in 2019 and have many of those players still rostered. New York is the only original franchise without a championship

New York players to watch: All of them and how the ball moves. The Mystics are able to disrupt New York offensively. In three of their games, including the two Liberty losses, New York had season lows in assists. Their three worst assist-to-turnover games were against Washington. And they were held under their 3-point scoring average.

The Liberty are averaging 10 points more per game in their five September contests (90.6 ppg), which concluded with the loss to the Mystics, than their four games in May (80.3 ppg), which started with a loss to the Mystics.

Sabrina Ionescu led New York in scoring in three of the four games, averaging 21 points on 44% shooting. She has been dealing with a calf injury.

Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne will be key to the first-round series against the New York Liberty. (Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Washington players to watch: Washington, when healthy, is one of the best defenses in the league led by DPOY candidate Brittney Sykes on the perimeter and Elena Delle Donne in the paint.

The top player to watch is Shakira Austin and if she’ll be available. Austin has not played since August after aggravating a hip injury. The Mystics were close to defeating New York in their second meeting in June until Austin was initially injured and the Liberty pulled it out in overtime. The duo of Austin and Delle Donne in the paint would help quiet Jones and Stewart.

Prediction: New York, 2-1 (Winner plays Connecticut/Minnesota)

No. 3 Connecticut Sun (27-13) vs. No. 6 Minnesota Lynx (19-21)

Game 1: Wednesday in Connecticut, 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2
Game 2: Sunday in Connecticut, 1 p.m. ET on ESPN
Game 3*: Sept. 20 in Minnesota, TBD on ESPN

Season series: Connecticut 3-1

Championship history: The Sun lost to the Aces in four games last fall, and have been to the Finals four times in their history. They have never won, but are the league’s winningest franchise since 2017. The Lynx are transitioning into a new era after winning four titles in seven years (2011, ’13, ’15, ’17).

Connecticut players to watch: Alyssa Thomas. Thomas delivered a monster 21-point, 20-rebound, 12-assist triple-double in their last meeting in August. It came two days after a 17-14-11 triple-double in their lone loss to Minnesota this season. DeWanna Bonner had 31 points in that loss.

Thomas’ averages of 17.3 points, 14.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists against the Lynx are higher than her season averages of 15.5/9.9/7.9. Thomas had the first triple-double in Finals history with 16p/15r/11a in the Game 3 Finals win over the Aces and added another in the Game 4 loss that ended the series. She has been on a tear ever since.

Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas has had a historic season filled with triple-doubles. (Photo by Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas has had a historic season filled with triple-doubles. (Photo by Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Minnesota players to watch: The Lynx started the season 0-6, but turned it around under longtime head coach Cheryl Reeve to climb up the congested standings. But they rank 10th overall in defensive rating (107.5), the worst of the playoff field. Offensively, they rank eighth overall. Their -6.1 net rating is better than only the Storm and Mercury, both lottery teams.

They’ll need to be better defensively to hold off the Sun, and limit their own turnovers. The two teams have not played each other since Aug. 1.

Prediction: Sun, 2-0

No. 4 Dallas Wings (22-18) vs. No. 5 Atlanta Dream (19-21)

Game 1: Friday in Dallas, 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2
Game 2: Tuesday in Dallas, 9 p.m. ET on ESPN
Game 3*: Sept. 22 in Atlanta, TBD on ESPN2

Season series: Dallas, 3-0. The Wings won by 17 in the season finale on Sunday.

Championship history: The Wings won three championships as the Detroit Shock under head coach Bill Laimbeer (2003, ’06, ’08). The franchise, which began in 1998, moved to Tulsa in 2010 and to Dallas in 2016. They’ve yet to make it past the first round as the Wings.

The Dream were founded in 2008 and made the Finals in 2010, ’11 and ’13. It’s their first playoff berth since 2018.

Dallas Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale averaged 26.7 points per game in three meetings against the Atlanta Dream in the regular season. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Dallas players to watch: Arike Ogunbowale averaged 26.7 points in Dallas' three meetings with the Dream as the leading scorer on the league’s third-best offense. She scored 32 on Sunday in the 94-77 win.

The Wings improved their success on the boards to become the league leader in rebounds with 6-foot-7 Teaira McCowan (9.1 rpg), 6-4 Satou Sabally (8.1 rpg) and 6-2 Natasha Howard (8.0 rpg). They can also bring 6-7 Kalani Brown off the bench. Brown is averaging 4.5 rebounds and a team-high 62.9 field-goal percentage in 16.4 minutes.

Atlanta players to watch: Rhyne Howard, Cheyenne Parker and Allisha Gray were all consistent in the three losses to Dallas. They’ll need to give more offensively, and do it efficiently, to keep up with the weapons the Wings can throw out. The Dream were 42.8% shooters collectively this season and the Wings kept them below that in each game, including two of their worst outings. Atlanta shot 35.5% in the three losses.

Prediction: Dallas, 2-0

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