https://www.sportsnet.ca/wnba/article/wnba-playoffs-takeaways-chicago-sky-soaring-opportune-moment/

The single elimination rounds of the WNBA playoffs are over, with the winners advancing to the semifinals, where they will now take on Connecticut and Las Vegas for a shot at the title.

But, before those championship-shaping games take place, the first four games of these playoffs are worth taking note of.

From Game 1, there was an unmistakable intensity. Here’s what you may have missed.

Phoenix continues to fight to the finish

The Phoenix Mercury have some of the best players in the league, and it’s no shock that they advanced to the semifinals as a fifth seed with players like Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith putting on a show for each crowd they played in front of.

However, their road was everything but easy. The eight-seeded New York Liberty would not go down without a fight, and the game went down to the final seconds as the Mercury narrowly escaped in the 83-82 victory.

Griner put up a 16-point, 10-rebound double-double as she continues to be one of the best centres in the league, but she added six assists, too, using her size advantage to see the floor and make key passes for her teammates.

Diggins-Smith also was on a tear — as she has been in the second half of the season — with a 22-point outing. But it was Sophie Cunningham who made the difference for the Mercury, delivering a 21-point performance, including shooting 6-of-7 from the three-point line in the win.

Betnijah Laney, who has been the key part in New York’s offence all season, poured in 25 points — almost one-third of New York’s scoring — while Natasha Howard tallied a 16-point, 10-rebound double-double with her stellar defensive play. Sabrina Ionescu has had a tough season adjusting after missing her rookie year, but her instinctive court vision was apparent with her 14-point, 11-assist double-double.

Phoenix Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith drives past New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu (20) during the first half in the first round of the WNBA basketball playoffs, Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, in Phoenix. (Rick Scuteri/AP)



In the second round, Phoenix faced defending champions Seattle, though they were without a key player in Breanna Stewart.

Seattle, of course, still has many other talented athletes like Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd, but the absence of the 2020 Finals MVP was apparent.

With a back-and-forth game that ended up going to overtime, Phoenix managed to pull away for an 85-80 victory after Seattle was unable to hit shots in the dying second and relied on Phoenix missing foul shots to get the ball back for a chance at a comeback.

Phoenix held sharpshooter Loyd to just 15 points on 5-of-24 shooting, including keeping her 0-for-7 from the three-point line. Bird and Katie Lou Samuelson more than made up for the scoring, with 16 and 18 points respectively, and centre Mercedes Russell continued to show her dominance with a double-double of 10 points and 12 rebounds.

However, for Seattle, their bench contributed just 12 points in the loss, and was unable to support the starters’ efforts when on the floor.

Griner once again proved how invaluable she is to the Mercury, with a 23-point, 16 rebound performances while having to protect the rim against some of Seattle’s best. Diggins-Smith poured in another 20-point performance while Brianna Turner, who was also named to the WNBA’s All-Defensive first team, recorded a 12-point, 12-rebound double-double in the win.

Kia Nurse, who was playing in only her second career playoff game, added 12 points in the win. Phoenix is now 8-2 in single-elimination playoff games since the league changed the playoff format in 2016.

Chicago soars to semifinals

A team that has faced some ups and downs with injury and cap space all season, the Sky have finally gotten their rhythm and are looking unstoppable on the court.

Both of Chicago’s wins have been by a margin of at least 13 points, with their balanced offence able to share the load and cause defenders to work overtime in order to be able to stop the Sky.

In Chicago’s first game against Dallas, Candace Parker made the most of her playoff debut as a member of the Sky, and the forward’s balance on both sides of the court showed why she changed how forwards play the game of basketball forever. With 11 points, 15 rebounds — including 13 defensively — and seven assists, Parker was presence too dominant for Dallas to stop.

But, if you ask Parker, it was Kahleah Copper who drove the momentum for Chicago, with a 23-point performance on 10-of-14 shooting from the field. Courtney Vandersloot also balanced the offence with 17 points, six assists and eight rebounds in the win.

Dallas may not have left with the result they wanted, but they have built a foundation for the future under Vickie Johnson as the Wings have a young core with Arike Ogunbowale and Satou Sabally leading the charge. Ogunbowale tallied 22 points and Sabally added 12, the only two scorers in double digits for Dallas.

Izzy Harrison, the Wings’ key sixth woman, led the defensive charge with a 10-rebound performance that included eight boards on the defensive glass. Allisha Gray also added nine points and six rebounds in the loss, and the key pieces showed progress from earlier in the season.

Chicago Sky forward/centers Azurá Stevens (30) and Candace Parker (3) celebrate their win over the Minnesota Lynx in a WNBA basketball game, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, in Minneapolis. (Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune via AP)



Moving onto third-seed Minnesota, Chicago was now up against Defensive Player of the Year Sylvia Fowles, as well as a well-rounded team with Napheesa Collier, Layshia Clarendon, Kayla McBride and Aerial Powers.

After trailing by one in the first quarter, Chicago pulled away slowly, leading quarter by quarter until the fourth, when they sealed the win with a 27-20 finish to advance to the semifinals.

The game was won on the glass as Chicago managed to out-rebound their opponent and Minnesota was only able to get six offensive boards in the win. The Sky also had a 22-6 advantage in fast-break points with 11 steals in the game.

Minnesota was able to contain Parker and keep her to just eight points and four rebounds, but Copper once again popped off with a 16-point, 10-rebound performance. Stepping up for Chicago when they needed it was Azura Stevens with a 15-point, eight rebound performance, and Diamond DeShields tipped in 14 points as well.

Vandersloot was stellar once again with a 19-point, five-rebound and five-assist performance for the Sky.

Chicago stopped Collier and Clarendon, holding them to eight and zero points respectively, though Aerial Powers stepped up for the Lynx with her 24-point performance.

Fowles added a near double-double with 17 points and eight rebounds, as did McBride with 19 points and seven rebounds, but the Lynx bench provided just eight points which was not enough to keep up with Chicago’s pace.

Up next

Chicago will open their best-of-five series against the No. 1-seeded Connecticut Sun, who ended their season on a 14-game winning streak. Phoenix will face off against second-seed Las Vegas, who were in the WNBA Finals against Seattle last season and will look to claim the title with the defending champions out.

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