The WNBA semifinals are set, and it is hard to argue that anything less than the true cream of the league has risen to the top.
Yes, the seventh-seeded New York Liberty gave the Chicago Sky a Game 1 scare, and the sixth-seeded Dallas Wings countered the Connecticut Sun in Game 2 of their series. But ultimately, the four teams that prevailed in the first round of the playoffs — the Sun, Sky, Las Vegas Aces and Seattle Storm — are not just the top four seeds, but clearly the best teams all season across the board.
By net rating, these were the WNBA’s top four teams during the regular season. None of the four were outside the top half of the league in offensive rating or defensive rating, and the group finished 1-2-3-4 in true shooting percentage as well.
So a lot of what happens from here on out has less to do with the superiority of one team over another — each of the four remaining squads can plausibly claim to be a favorite to earn a trip to the WNBA Finals — and much more based on how individuals perform, not to mention the specifics of each semifinal matchup.
No. 2 Chicago Sky vs. No. 3 Connecticut Sun
FiveThirtyEight favorite: Sun (51 percent)
At first glance, the Sky seem like clear favorites here. They dominated their season series with the Sun this year, winning each of the four matchups.
But those four games were decided by an average of 4.5 points (all four were in single digits), and one went to overtime. So assuming a Chicago romp would be a mistake. In fact, the Sun actually led the WNBA in regular-season net rating (by nearly 2 points per 100 possessions over the Aces), and FiveThirtyEight’s projections actually place Connecticut as the ever-so-slight favorite to win this series and advance to the finals.
To get there, the Sun don’t need to perfectly match the production of Chicago’s point guards with their own — but they do need to make it competitive.
In the four games between these two teams, Courtney Vandersloot averaged 13.3 points, 7.8 assists and 2.0 steals per game, shooting 48.7 percent from the field in the process. You know, a standard Courtney Vandersloot performance. By contrast, the Sun’s more traditional point guards — specifically, Natisha Hiedeman and DiJonai Carrington — have struggled to score against the Sky. In round one against the Wings, Sun head coach Curt Miller turned to unconventional offensive distributors like DeWanna Bonner and Courtney Williams (along with the always-dangerous secondary playmaker Alyssa Thomas) to bridge the gap from the greatly missed Jasmine Thomas, out for the season with a knee injury.
If the Sun fall short, it will be due to missing Thomas, a blow that would have sent other teams out of the league’s elite. It is a credit to Miller’s coaching that the Sun remain among the favorites. However, he simply needs at least some production out of the PG position — the late-season acquisition of Odyssey Sims pointed to an understanding of this — to defeat the Sky and advance to the Sun’s second WNBA Finals in four seasons.
As for the Sky, the blueprint for beating them was only reinforced in their Game 1 loss to the Liberty. As surprising as it is for a team featuring four-time 3-point shooting contest champion Allie Quigley (among other shooters), the Sky have not been consistent from beyond the arc, and their failures there have been their undoing.
In wins this season, Chicago is shooting 38 percent from three, sixth in the league. It is not all they do, but it is a featured part of their attack when things are going well. However, no team is worse from deep in losses than the Sky, at a paltry 27 percent when they were on the wrong side of the outcome. And how did they shoot from three in the loss to the Liberty? That’s right: 28 percent. It is no guarantee of victory to limit them from beyond the arc — New York managed to do so in Game 2 and 3 as well — but it is a prerequisite.
No. 1 Las Vegas Aces vs. No. 4 Seattle Storm
FiveThirtyEight favorite: Aces (64 percent)
In the other semifinal matchup, the Aces face a Storm squad they defeated in three of four matchups during the regular season, including twice in the final four games — and the FiveThirtyEight projections see more of the same to come, with Las Vegas installed as a solid favorite to advance to the WNBA Finals. (In large part, this is also why the Aces are now the front-runners in the projections to win it all).
A primary reason for Las Vegas’ edge should come from its best player, A’ja Wilson, finding another level against the Storm during the regular season. In their four matchups, Wilson averaged 22.8 points and 11.8 rebounds per game on 52.9 percent shooting, all above her already stellar regular season averages. She even hit 50 percent of her threes (on an admittedly small sample)!
Of course, Seattle’s Breanna Stewart is capable of similarly transcendent play: She averaged an identical 22.8 points per game against the Aces, to go with 10.0 boards and 45.5 percent shooting from three. But even if Stewart matches Wilson bucket for bucket, the series then becomes a battle between their two supporting casts — and Las Vegas simply runs deeper offensively.
The Aces have the most efficient offense in the league, while Seattle comes in sixth. The Storm, though, are the better defensive team, and it is no accident that the only time Seattle won was the only time the Storm held the Aces to fewer than 85 points.
It’s a difficult needle to thread for the Storm. No team is more efficient, per Synergy, at scoring in transition, for instance. But no team plays faster than the Aces, and the two teams were nearly even on fast break points per game during the season, so an uptempo game one wouldn’t clearly favor Seattle the way it would against other opponents — particularly since the Aces are better than anyone else at avoiding turnovers, denying easy transition chances the other way. (That happens when you can deploy Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young for long periods of time together.)
It all makes the Aces a uniquely difficult matchup for Seattle. Had the Storm drawn the Sun, the particulars of the matchup might make for a different story (though Connecticut also swept the season series against Seattle). But as it is, this is far from the coin-flip that Chicago-Connecticut is on the other side of the bracket.
Check out our latest WNBA predictions.