Can anybody stop the Connecticut Sun?
Entering the 2021 WNBA playoffs, no question looms larger after the top-seeded Sun closed the regular season on a record-setting 14-game winning streak. As one of the two best teams in the league, Connecticut earned a coveted spot alongside the Las Vegas Aces in the best-of-five semifinals.
Filling out the rest of the postseason bracket went down to the wire.
The New York Liberty beat the Washington Mystics on Friday in their finale. That left their playoff door cracked open, with New York needing Washington and the Los Angeles Sparks to lose Sunday to secure the No. 8 seed.
The Mystics did their part by falling to the Minnesota Lynx, 83-77, and the Sparks dropped their last game to the Dallas Wings, 87-84.
The WNBA playoffs will tip off Thursday with two single-elimination games in the first round:
The <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/WNBAPlayoffs?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#WNBAPlayoffs</a> bracket is set ✅<br><br>Single elimination games start this THURSDAY at 8pm/ET on ESPN2 😈 <a href="https://twitter.com/Google?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Google</a> <a href="https://t.co/r73XQ99Sx4">pic.twitter.com/r73XQ99Sx4</a>
The Sun and Aces were the Finals runners-up in each of the last two seasons, and there's a good chance one of the two will get to celebrate a championship this fall. FanDuel lists Connecticut as a slim favorite (+200) over Las Vegas (+230) in the title race.
Net rating tells the story as to how these two franchises have distanced themselves from the pack. The Sun are first with a 12.4 net rating and the Aces are second at 11.1, per WNBA.com. In third place sit the Seattle Storm at 5.2.
Jonquel Jones is emblematic of a Sun squad that's ready to triumph in the WNBA Finals.
The 6'6" forward was the Most Improved Player in 2017 and Sixth Woman of the Year in 2018. Now, she's the presumptive MVP winner after having averaged 19.5 points, 11.3 rebounds and 1.2 blocks entering Sunday.
The Sun complement Jones with a core of DeWanna Bonner, Jasmine Thomas, Brionna Jones and Briann January.
Bonner continues to be an excellent perimeter defender, and she has seen her three-point percentage improve from 25.2 percent in 2020 to 31.2 percent. Brionna Jones might become the fourth Sun player to win Most Improved Player after having averaged 14.7 points and 7.2 rebounds.
Especially with Alyssa Thomas returning from an Achilles tear earlier than expected, no team is better positioned going into the playoffs than the Sun.
The Aces aren't far off, though.
A'ja Wilson isn't performing at the MVP level she reached in 2020, but that was to be expected with Liz Cambage rejoining the team. Through 31 games, Wilson was putting up 18.6 points, 9.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists.
The signing of Chelsea Gray has had the intended effect. The Aces are first in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.78), per WNBA.com.
With a resurgent Kelsey Plum, Las Vegas also has an added dimension it lacked during its 2020 Finals run. Plum has come back from her Achilles injury to shoot 39.4 percent from beyond the arc and average 14.5 points per game. Fans have long awaited a breakout from the 2017 No. 1 overall pick, and she's finally delivering.
Over the last three seasons, the Aces haven't finished lower than second in defensive rating, per WNBA.com. With the margin for error getting smaller in the playoffs, Las Vegas hasn't had the offense to get the job done.
Now, Bill Laimbeer may have all the pieces for a championship run.
When it comes to a possible spoiler for Las Vegas or Connecticut, nobody is a bigger wild card than the Seattle Storm.
The Storm were riding high after hammering the Sun 79-57 to win the inaugural Commissioner's Cup on Aug. 12. Following that game, they went 5-6 to close the regular season.
More concerning, Breanna Stewart has been out since Sept. 7 with a foot injury, and her status for the postseason is unclear.
Seattle lost Alysha Clark, Sami Whitcomb and Natasha Howard from its 2020 title-winning roster but did well to weather those departures for the first half of the year. However, it may not be a coincidence the team faded down the stretch given the depth it lost.
Without Stewart, a return to the Finals is probably too much to ask of the Storm. Still, they suddenly become more formidable if the 2018 MVP is lining up next to Jewell Loyd, Sue Bird and Mercedes Russell.