The Las Vegas Aces bumped the Seattle Storm from the No. 1 spot they had clung to for much of the season, and the defending champion Washington Mystics — without Elena Delle Donne and other key starters from last year’s squad — notched a seven-point victory to claim the eighth and final playoff spot. It was a fitting end to a regular season — delayed by two months and played inside a so-called bubble in Florida — whose final playoff seeding came down to the last minute.
Blockbuster free agency moves in the off-season had teams struggling to find their stride in the season’s early going. The new-look and still-feisty Connecticut Sun — runners-up in the 2019 finals — overcame five straight losses to start the season to claim the No. 7 seed. The Phoenix Mercury (No. 5) and Chicago Sky (No. 6), who played each other in the first round of the playoffs last year, managed to thrive despite the late-season departures of star players.
Now the playoffs begin with two single-elimination games in the first round on Tuesday involving the Nos. 5-8 seeds. The winners will face the third and fourth seeds in single-elimination games on Thursday for the second round. The top two seeds — the Aces and the Storm — will face Thursday’s winners in best-of-five semifinal series starting on Sunday.
Here’s what to expect:
First Round: Single Elimination
No. 5 Phoenix Mercury (13-9) vs. No. 8 Washington Mystics (9-13)
The 2020 playoffs begin with 2019’s No. 1 team battling from the bottom in a single-elimination game. With Washington missing several players integral to last season’s success, role players like Myisha Hines-Allen and Ariel Atkins have provided key performances, especially late in the regular season. To win a championship, they’ll need more from Emma Meesseman, whose once-electrifying 3-point shooting has dwindled without Elena Delle Donne drawing defenders into the paint. Delle Donne, the reigning Most Valuable Player Award winner, has not played this season because of health concerns.
But the Mystics can take advantage of the Mercury’s depleted roster. In the final few games of the regular season, the Mercury dressed as few as seven players. Bria Hartley — whose signing in this year’s free agency period reinvigorated the team’s hopes of playoff success — is done for the season with a knee injury. Brittney Griner, the six-time All-Star center, left the bubble at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., after 12 games for personal reasons.
Still, the 3-point firepower of Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith can help the Mercury, with Kia Vaughn playing well inside and Brianna Turner rebounding like a woman who wants to win a championship.
No. 6 Chicago Sky (12-10) vs. No. 7 Connecticut Sun (10-12)
From runner-up in last year’s finals to the No. 7 seed in the playoffs, the Sun have been on a journey this season with Coach Curt Miller. Connecticut lost the longtime fan favorites Courtney Williams and Shekinna Stricklen and brought in their former Mercury rival DeWanna Bonner. Cohesion didn’t come easy — the Sun lost five straight games to start the season — but it appears to be forming at the right time.
Bonner came up big in the Sun’s first meeting this season against her former team, scoring 25 points for a playoff-clinching win. But the team’s success goes through the team’s engine, Alyssa Thomas (second in rebounding this season and leading the league in steals), especially with Jasmine Thomas dealing with a foot injury.
But the Sky won’t make this an easy matchup, even without the All-Star Diamond DeShields (personal reasons) and Azurá Stevens (foot). Courtney Vandersloot — who recorded the most assists in a single game in W.N.B.A. history this season (18) and averaged a double-double — will make sure of it.
Second Round: Single Elimination
No. 3 Los Angeles Sparks (15-7) vs. Lowest-Seeded Winner in First Round
After losing in the semifinals last year in a three-game sweep, the Sparks are out for redemption, especially Coach Derek Fisher. His decision to play Candace Parker — a two-time league M.V.P. and the 2016 finals M.V.P. — just 11 minutes in that fateful Game 3 tipped off a messy off-season that saw Penny Toler, the longtime general manager, fired. The Sparks appear to have reset, especially Parker, whose league-leading 9.7 rebounds have kept the Sparks in games.
A trip to the finals, however, depends on Riquna Williams sustaining her career-high 42.2 percent 3-point shooting and perhaps attempting more shots from range, and on Nneka Ogwumike, who has dealt with injuries, returning to her career average of 16.2 points per game. But it could be the four-time champion Seimone Augustus who serves as the key for a finals bid — even off the bench.
No. 4 Minnesota Lynx (14-8) vs. Highest-Seeded Winner in First Round
Amid continued rebuilding around Napheesa Collier, last season’s Rookie of the Year Award winner, the Lynx have a chance to win it all if the veteran Sylvia Fowles is healthy. Fowles, the 2017 league M.V.P. and three-time Defensive Player of the Year Award winner, set the W.N.B.A. record for career rebounds in July, but a calf injury has kept her off the court since mid-August. The Lynx miss the larger-than-life presence she can be in the paint.
To patch in the gaps, Collier has soared past her rookie production to near double-double averages, but postseason prospects for this inexperienced team are uncertain, even though the rookie Crystal Dangerfield has been a force at starting point guard.
The good news for Coach Cheryl Reeve is the confidence of the role players Bridget Carleton and Damiris Dantas and the apparent fearlessness of the rookie Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, who never seems to back down in tense games.
Semifinals: Best of Five
No. 1 Las Vegas Aces (18-4) vs Lowest-Seeded Winner in Second Round
The Aces jumped past the Storm for the No. 1 seed by beating them on the final day of the regular season on Sunday. With the win, the Aces secured a 2-0 regular-season sweep of the Storm. The Aces spent the season without Liz Cambage, their All-Star center who has a medical exemption this season, and Kelsey Plum, their starting point guard who tore her Achilles’ tendon just before the season.
Yet Las Vegas found success with its speedy, 3-point-shooting guards like Danielle Robinson creating room for A’ja Wilson, the 2018 rookie of the year, to operate in the paint. And the bench is so deep that it includes Dearica Hamby, the 2019 Sixth Woman of the Year Award winner, and Jackie Young, the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft. But the Aces’ postseason aspirations go through the five-time All-Star Angel McCoughtry, who, in pursuit of her first W.N.B.A. championship, imposes her will on every possession with ease.
No. 2 Seattle Storm (18-4) vs. Highest-Seeded Winner in Second Round
The Storm’s quest for their second championship in three years may just depend on Sue Bird’s gimpy knee. The W.N.B.A.’s career assists leader, Bird is a masterful playmaker whose game is defined by impeccable court vision and a soaring basketball I.Q. that she uses to force opponents to fall prey to their worst inclinations.
Though impressive this year, the Storm have been tested — twice losing to the top-ranked Aces and experiencing stunning defeats to the Mystics and the Indiana Fever, who missed the playoffs. Although Breanna Stewart, the 2018 league and finals M.V.P., has been spectacular after missing all of 2019 with a ruptured Achilles’ tendon, the Storm will also need more: Jewell Loyd extending her strong season, and Alysha Clark, a defensive-minded menace, spreading the floor with her 3-point shooting. Seattle’s chances will improve significantly if Sami Whitcomb thrives from deep and Natasha Howard reclaims the scoring and rebounding dominance of her last two seasons.