Twelve teams started the WNBA regular season in May, and on the eve of the playoffs, eight remain. The Washington Mystics and Connecticut Sun clinched the no. 1 and 2 overall seeds, while the Los Angeles Sparks, Las Vegas Aces, Chicago Sky, Seattle Storm, Minnesota Lynx, and Phoenix Mercury will fight through two single-elimination rounds for the honor to play them in the semifinals and possibly advance to the championship.
With such a stacked group of dynastic franchises, up-and-coming teams, and possibly the best squad in WNBA history making up this playoff field, the trophy is anyone’s for the taking. Can Seattle go back-to-back? Will the Mystics redeem themselves after last year’s Finals sweep? Can the Sparks extend their 14-game home winning streak into the postseason? With so many teams evenly matched, the margin for error is minimal. But there are a few players who could be the difference between their team going fishing or competing for a championship banner. Here’s how they’ll do it:
Emma Meesseman, Washington Mystics
After sitting out the entire 2018 season to rest, Meesseman hasn’t missed a beat this year. She averaged solid figures (13.1 points and 4.2 rebounds in 23.6 minutes per game) in the regular season, and she’s peaking at the perfect moment—Meesseman dropped 25 points on Dallas earlier this week while pulling down 10 rebounds. She stretches the floor with her crisp midrange jump shot and can also slash to the rim for a floater. Plus the Mystics have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, and Meesseman’s scoring average increases to 13.5 points on 10.5 shots playing in D.C. Last year the Mystics went all the way to the Finals, but came up short against a thunderous Seattle Storm team. But with Meesseman back in the fold, they may have the key piece to get over the hump and win the championship.
The Mystics are 13-2 since the All-Star break, and this season has been the franchise’s best to date. They’ve scored 100-plus points six times, a new franchise record. And with a league-best 14.8 net rating and 112.8 offensive rating, they’re also the most entertaining team to watch. That’s had a lot to do with their MVP front-runner, Elena Delle Donne, but she hasn’t done it alone. Meesseman has been the missing link this season, and they’ll need her best basketball to have another shot at the title.
Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut Sun
The 6-foot-2 power forward is a force to be reckoned with. Her ability to go coast-to-coast after snagging defensive boards makes for a nightmare matchup. She sprints the floor, cuts hard to the paint, and can finish in traffic with ease. Connecticut’s leading scorer, Jonquel Jones (who averages 14.6 points per game), draws a lot of attention at center, but when double-teams fly her way, Thomas is always there for the low-post dish. She’s also a presence on defense, creating sparks that her entire team feeds off of. She likes to trap on-ball screens, which sends smaller guards into a panic and leads to turnovers. The Sun aren’t second in steals and rebounds for no reason; they get in your face, pressure the ball, and box out on each possession. In a best-of-five series, though, they’ll need to find stability on the offensive end to hoist the team’s first trophy come October.
The key for Thomas—and the Sun—will be consistency. She’s had seven monster 20-plus-point games, but following five of those, she’s scored fewer than nine in her next game. Her team follows a similar pattern. Connecticut went on a seven-game winning streak early in the summer only to follow it up with a five-game losing streak. The Sun don’t have much playoff experience—they haven’t won a postseason contest since 2012—and Thomas and Co. will have to string together powerhouse performances to have a fighting chance.
Chiney Ogwumike, Los Angeles Sparks
This Sparks squad belongs to Ogwumike’s sister, Nneka, the team’s leading scorer (16.1 points per game) and one of the forces who led the Sparks to a championship in 2016. So fans were excited when news broke this offseason that the Ogwumike sisters would be playing together again. The Sparks faithful were expecting a ferocious one-two punch like we saw at Stanford. Instead, Chiney’s production has taken a significant dip. She’s averaging a career low in virtually every category, including points (9.6), minutes (21.8), and rebounds (5.8). She started each of the 31 games she played last season for the Sun, and now she’s not even the first sub off the bench in L.A.
For the Sparks to advance far in the playoffs—or even just past the secondround—they’ll need more production off the bench. And that’s where Chiney could rise to the occasion. She is scrappy and can go on tears, weaving multiple steals together with second-chance opportunities. With her team facing a win-or-go-home scenario, Chiney must squeeze every bit out of her time on the floor to help keep the 22-12 Sparks from being eliminated.
Kayla McBride, Las Vegas Aces
Vegas’s championship betting odds favored the Aces early in the season after a blockbuster trade brought Liz Cambage over from the Dallas Wings. They had the best record in the league through June and July, and held the top spot in the Western Conference. Then A’ja Wilson went down with an ankle injury right before the All-Star break, and they fumbled the back half of the season, eventually earning the no. 4 seed in the playoffs.
McBride stepped up big in Wilson’s absence, averaging 14.1 points per game, and they’ll need every bit of that production in the postseason. She also has the fifth-best 3-point percentage in the league (42.8), on 4.3 attempts. That shooting ability allows the Aces to spread the floor, and with Wilson and Cambage drawing the defenders inside, she’s able to spot up and drill it from deep. The inside-outside offense has worked for Vegas throughout the regular season, and if it’s not broke, there’s no need to fix it.
The Aces have been a close-game team all season—12 of their contests have come down to five points or fewer—and if they find themselves in a similar predicament in the playoffs, expect head coach Bill Laimbeer to play his ace (sorry). My money is on McBride knocking down the 3 when the game’s on the line.
Allie Quigley, Chicago Sky
Everyone knows the defensive scouting report on Quigley: chase her off the 3-point line. She and her quick trigger lead the league in 3-pointers made (80), and she’s second in 3-point percentage (44.2). Unfortunately for Phoenix, she’s shot it quite well in this matchup. The Sky went 3-0 against their first-round opponent in the regular season, with Quigley connecting on 43 percent of her shots from beyond the arc, and she dropped 24 points against the Mercury in late August. But if the Sky advance to the next round, Quigley better hope they’ll be playing the Sparks. In their last two meetings, back-to-back contests in mid-August, she scored 20 and 26 points, respectively. Against the Aces, the other team Chicago could potentially see in the second round, Quigley struggled, knocking down just one 3-pointer on six attempts. For the Sky to have a chance at the ’ship, Quigley is going to have to dig deep in her bag of tricks to create her own shot. Her wife—and the league’s best passer—Courtney Vandersloot can dish it, but when the defense closes it out, Quigley’s going to have to put the ball on the floor and make a play.
Jordin Canada, Seattle Storm
Last week, the Storm officially announced that Sue Bird won’t participate in this year’s playoffs as she recovers from a knee injury that’s sidelined her all season. She’ll be looking on from the bench along with reigning MVP Breanna Stewart, who’s also been out for the season with an Achilles injury. But the defending champs still found their way to the postseason even without their two superstars. With Bird out, Canada has taken on the role of floor general, and she’s been a major factor in Seattle’s success. The sophomore point guard has started 29 out of the 30 games she played this year and has increased her assist average from 3.3 to 5.2. While in tandem with Jewell Loyd, Canada pushes the tempo at every opportunity. She’s constantly surveying the floor, trying to catch her teammate Natasha Howard for an easy layup in transition. (As she should—Howard is the fourth-leading scorer in the WNBA and one of the best rim runners.) When her team needs a bucket, Canada attacks the lane with a spin move or dribble drive for a pull-up bank shot off the glass. Seattle will also need all of her 9.8 points per game during the first-round matchup against Minnesota.
Canada’s biggest contribution, though, will be her defense. She leads the league in steals per game and snatched 68 during the regular season. Howard also swiped the ball 74 times, and that duo makes up a large part of Seattle’s league-leading 9.5 steals per contest. The Storm’s ability to jump the passing lanes rattles opponents, including the Lynx. The last time these two teams met, the Lynx turned the ball over 17 times. But Seattle is 0-2 in single-elimination games since the WNBA switched to the new playoff format in 2016. If they’re going to defend their title, Canada will need to be the one running the show.
Odyssey Sims, Minnesota Lynx
The Lynx clawed their way to the no. 7 seed, and now that they’re here, they’ll need their entire lineup to contribute. Sims, who’s one of the favorites to win Most Improved Player of the Year, has been on fire. Her 14.5 points and 5.4 assists per game led the team during the regular season. And she’s had some success against the Storm this year. When the teams faced off in August, she had a season-high 30 points on a miraculous 11-of-14 shooting.
The Lynx are trying to get back to being the championship team they were two years ago, and trading for Sims this past offseason was a great first step. Sylvia Fowles was their only returning starter from last year, but with a Rookie of the Year candidate in Napheesa Collier and Sims playing her best basketball in four years, Minnesota could make a deep playoff run yet again.
Diana Taurasi, Phoenix Mercury
Taursai is in the running to be considered a “difference maker” this postseason only because she missed 28 regular-season games due to an April spinal surgery. In 2018, she averaged 20.7 points per game as Phoenix made it to the semifinals. Now, facing the fifth-ranked Sky on Wednesday, she’ll be back in her element. High stakes, and with the season on the line, Taurasi wouldn’t know any other way but to turn up and show out. Her team inched its way to the last spot in the standings, and now the two-time Finals MVP can take it from here. In her first contest back in August—against Chicago, the Mercury’s first-round opponent—she racked up 12 points. Her four most recent games haven’t been quite as pretty; she’s gone just 1-15 from beyond the arc. But her teammates, fans, and WNBA followers everywhere knows she’ll bounce back when it matters most. With a championship-winning Big Three in Griner, DeWanna Bonner, and Taurasi still on the roster, who’s to say Phoenix can’t do it again?