2021 WNBA playoff preview: Bracket breakdown plus our best bets, including a +900 longshot

The second half of the WNBA regular season flew by; now we are gearing up for the playoffs, which start on Thursday. With that, let’s take a look back at how this all came to be.

All playoffs teams showed bits of how dynamic each could be when rosters are at full strength and not plagued with injuries or COVID protocols.

The 2021 WNBA regular season was highly anticipated, as Las Vegas and Seattle came in as title favorites. But following a dominant second half of the campaign, Connecticut emerged as the team to beat. Another team that came alive after the month-long pause was the Phoenix Mercury. The Mercury made some offseason moves to bring in Kia Nurse and Megan Walker from the Liberty, who visit Phoenix in the first round. New York barely squeaked into the playoffs after losing last 9 of its last 11 games.

Two squads that also clinched playoff berths on the heels of rocky starts to the season are Minnesota and Chicago. The Lynx earned a first-round bye, while Chicago has a tough opening matchup against Dallas in a win-or-go-home game. Dallas took the regular-season series, 2-0. Something to note prior to Thursday: since the 2016 adoption of the new playoff structure, no team that did not receive a bye to the semifinals has won the WNBA title.

Looking ahead to the WNBA playoffs, here is a breakdown of the format and schedule for each of the four rounds. If you prefer a visual, check it out here.

WNBA Playoff Format & Schedule

First-Round (Single Elimination)

(8) New York at (5) Phoenix and (7) Dallas at (6) Chicago

Second-Round (Single Elimination)

Highest Remaining Seed at (4) Seattle and Lowest Remaining Seed at (3) Minnesota

Semifinals (5-Game Series with 2-2-1 format)

Highest Remaining Seed vs. (2) Las Vegas and Lowest Remaining Seed vs. (1) Connecticut

*Games 1, 2, 5 will be played at higher seed; Games 2 and 3 are at lower seed

WNBA Finals (same format as semifinals)

Title Contenders

Las Vegas Aces (+220)

After being swept by the Seattle Storm in the 2020 WNBA Finals, the Aces were heavy favorites entering the 2021 season. In the 2020 Finals, the Aces were without center Liz Cambage–who opted out–as well as bench players Dearica Hamby, who suffered a season-ending injury during the semifinals against the Sun. Kelsey Plum missed the whole 2020 season due to an Achilles’ injury. In the offseason, Las Vegas also signed Chelsea Gray from Los Angeles as Kayla McBride headed to Minnesota. This team also holds a top spot in offensive and defensive ratings in addition to averaging the most points per game. However, one thing Las Vegas did not do this year was beat Connecticut. 

Seattle Storm (+400)

Sue Bird is back in the WNBA playoffs as she seeks her 5th title and first chance at back-to-back championships. The Storm were solid throughout the first half of the season but lost their footing a bit coming off the month-long pause. I do not believe this is the same championship-caliber team that won last year. They lost Alysha Clark to Washington and Natasha Howard to New York, and they are irreplaceable pieces. However, if the Storm make it out of the semifinals they could play Connecticut in a 5-game series. The Storm is the only team to sweep the Sun this season. 

Best Bet: Connecticut Sun (+200)

Luckily for me, I took the Sun at (+550) back on June 1 once the Sun defeated the title-favorite Aces. But that’s not my point. This is: Connecticut is not the most talented overall team in the league, but it understands its strengths and uses them to in the perfect ways. That then makes the Sun the best team in the league.

In a league full of shot attempts, transition buckets, and pace of play, the Sun have taken the opposite approach of slowing down the tempo and utilizing a full shot clock to break down the defense in order to get a high percentage shot. That has been one huge advantage for this team is tiring out their opponent on both ends of the floor. The guard play of Jasmine Thomas and Briann January, especially on the defensive end is unlike no other guard duo out there. While those two don’t consistently score every game, DeWanna Bonner, Jonquel Jones, and Brionna Jones do–and do it well.

Alyssa Thomas also recently joined the team on the active roster as she brings another post presence along with both Joneses, while Natisha Hideman has been lethal as of late behind the arc. Only downside to the Sun is the amount of minutes logged each game for their starters. The addition of Thomas helps relieve some post minutes for the Joneses, but there are doubts out there if they can maintain their high-pressure defense and physicality in potentially two 5-game series.

Longshot: Phoenix Mercury (+900)

Mercury fans were in the right to be a bit concerned after their squad went an unsettling 9-10 in the first half of the season. Although Diana Taurasi missed the majority of those contests, Phoenix basically traded its life away in the offseason to land Kia Nurse and Megan Walker from the New York Liberty in hopes these missing pieces would help in contending for another title. The Mercury went on a 10-game winning streak to start the second half but did drop their last 3 regular-season games. However, by then they had already clinched a playoff spot. If Taurasi is healthy, this team has the firepower to beat Las Vegas and Connecticut when you consider its starting lineup in addition to Shey Peddy and Sophie Cunningham off the bench.

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