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Features

WNBA playoff preview: Sky vs. Wings, Mercury vs. Liberty

September 23, 2021, 10:00 AM ● Yoyo Sarmenta, Charmie Lising

The Chicago Sky host the Dallas Wings, while the Phoenix Mercury host the New York Liberty in the first round of the WNBA playoffs.

The 2021 WNBA playoffs are almost here! The No. 6 Chicago Sky and No. 7 Dallas Wings will kick off the postseason on Friday at 8:00 AM (PHT), followed by the No. 5 Phoenix Mercury and No. 8 New York Liberty on the same day at 10:00 AM. Here's a preview of the first-round matchups.

Chicago Sky vs. Dallas Wings

On paper, this matchup will revolve around the idea of youth versus experience. The Wings are young and up-and-coming headlined by the star power of Arike Ogunbowale. The 2021 All-Star MVP is just in her third year in the league and continues to cement her name as an elite scorer in the WNBA. The Wings have an average age of 24.3 with a bulk of their rotation having just two to four years of playing experience. Forward Kayla Thornton, 28, is already the oldest and longest-tenured in the league. 

In contrast, the Sky are budding with experience, and we're not just talking about how long they've been in the W. There's veteran playmaker Courtney Vandersloot with 10 seasons under her belt and sharpshooter Allie Quigley in year 13. The two are well-versed in playoff basketball, including a Finals appearance in 2014. Then there's Candace Parker. Even though she's in the playoffs with the Sky for the very first time, she's already a decorated champion. 

As a team, the Sky are very familiar with the single-elimination setting. In 2019, they won their playoff opener against the Mercury before losing to the Aces. The following year, they lost to the Sun in the first round. Is this going to be the year they break through and enter the semifinals? 

Keep an eye on

The Sky's defense will focus on Ogunbowale who put up 18.7 points in the season. The assignment of guarding last year's scoring champion will most likely fall on Kahleah Copper who has the size, strength, and speed to match up. Inversely, the Wings will look to create mismatches to force Vandersloot and Quigley to guard Ogunbowale. If there's one player who can score her way to victory, that's Arike. 

It’s going to be interesting to find out who's going to try to slow down Parker. The two-time MVP may be up there in the age department, but she still has a lot in the tank. This means that Dallas forwards Satou Sabally, who is coming from a sore Achilles, and Isabelle Harrison, who just came back from getting COVID-19, will have their hands full. 

X-factors

Diamond DeShields can tip the odds in favor of Chicago. The Sky can get into dry patches scoring the basketball and DeShields can provide that extra kick. Whether she starts or comes off the bench, she's just as deadly. She's oozing with confidence, especially coming off a historic performance in the Sky's last regular-season game. She erupted for 30 points to tie her career-high and became the first player in the league to put up at least 30 points, five rebounds, and five assists.

For Dallas, they need Marina Mabrey to be the difference-maker as she does a lot in terms of scoring and playmaking. Her average of 13.3 points per game doesn't even tell the entirety of how potent she is offensively. She can go on quick scoring spurts that can lead to a game-changing run for the Wings. 

Winning blueprint

The Sky will look to their playoff experience to get them past a young team. A squad filled with veteran players who have had their fair share of wins and losses means that they won't be easily rattled. Plus, the Sky will be on their home floor so that can become a huge factor. 

The Wings, on the other hand, will have to get the jump on their opponent. A young team can use their unpredictability to their advantage. Especially being the away team, they have to start strong, take the crowd away, and surprise their opponents right from the opening tip. 

Phoenix Mercury vs. New York Liberty

The New York Liberty are back in the postseason for the first time since 2017. They needed a little help from other teams on the final day of the regular season, and as luck would have it, the Liberty somehow made it. They only won 12 games for a .375 winning percentage, the worst for a playoff team in league history. But to say that it’s a huge improvement from last season is an understatement because they only managed to get two wins in the Florida bubble.

To be able to advance further, the Liberty need to take down the Phoenix Mercury, who are entering their ninth consecutive postseason stint. The Mercury claimed the fifth seed with their stellar performance in the second half of the season. They enjoyed a 10-0 winning run after the Olympic break before crashing down in the last three games against the top teams.

The Mercury are the clear favorites in this matchup given their star power and playoff experience. But everybody starts from scratch in the playoffs and anything can happen from this point on, which is a good thing for the Liberty. With a single-elimination format for the first two rounds, who knows how far the lower-seeded teams can go?

Keep an eye on

Brittney Griner has been absolutely killing it for the Mercury. Against a team that has no true center like the Liberty, Griner will have a field day in the shaded lane both on offense and defense. She averaged 20.5 points per game in the regular season, 12.7 of which were scored in the paint. She’s the best blocker in the league with 1.9 per game and the fifth-best rebounder with 9.5.

Pair Griner up with Skylar Diggins-Smith and you’ll have the two best players on the court in this matchup. Diana Taurasi’s return from an ankle injury is still uncertain, but Phoenix will still have overwhelming firepower regardless.

Sabrina Ionescu’s playmaking will be crucial for the Liberty. It would be interesting to watch how she facilitates the offense to make it easier for Betnijah Laney and Natasha Howard to attack inside and Sami Whitcomb and Rebecca Allen to get their spots outside. Ionescu will have to bring her A-game in her first time in the W playoffs to put her team in a better position to shock their opponents. 

X-factors 

As mentioned, the Mercury will still have the upper hand even without Taurasi, but there’s no denying the impact that Taurasi has whenever she’s out there with her teammates. Her vast playoff experience will definitely be a plus factor if she does play, and her dynamic scoring and playmaking will take the Mercury to an even higher level.

Laney will be the focal point for the Liberty, but all eyes will be on Howard and how she attempts to contain Griner. It won’t be easy for Howard, the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year, given the 7-inch height difference and Griner’s overall dominance. Howard will not be able to stop Griner, but she can at least try to disrupt her and try to make her work harder for her points. 

Winning blueprint

If there’s one weapon that underdog teams can live and die with in a single-elimination game, it’s 3-point shooting. The Liberty are the No. 1 team in terms of 3-point shots made (10.0) and attempted (27.7) per game, and third-best in 3-point shooting percentage (36.2 percent) behind the Seattle Storm and Las Vegas Aces. If they can find their rhythm from downtown, then they could give the Mercury a legit scare.

The Mercury, however, are built for big-time moments. They have the tools, the depth, and the experience to counter whatever surprises that the Liberty will have in store. With Griner and Diggins-Smith at the forefront, all they really have to do is play their usual game and not let a nothing-to-lose and everything-to-gain team pull off a shocker.