After two exciting single-elimination rounds, the semifinals of the 2021 WNBA playoffs have arrived. Getting the action started on Tuesday night will be Game 1 between the top-seeded Connecticut Sun and No. 6 seed Chicago Sky.
The Sun were absolutely dominant down the stretch, closing the regular season on a 14-game winning streak to earn a bye to the semifinals and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. They have a good chance to win a title for the first time in franchise history, but first they'll have to get past the Sky. Heading into the playoffs that might not have seemed like much of a challenge given the Sky's inconsistency, but Candace Parker and Co. have cruised through the first two single-elimination rounds and are playing terrific basketball right now.
Ahead of Tuesday night's Game 1, let's take a closer look at this best-of-five series:
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(1) Connecticut Sun vs. (6) Chicago Sky
(All times Eastern)
- Game 1: Sky at Sun | Tuesday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. | TV: ESPN 2 | Stream: fuboTV (Try for free)
- Game 2: Sky at Sun | Thursday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. | TV: ESPN 2 | Stream: fuboTV (Try for free)
- Game 3: Sun at Sky | Sunday, Oct. 3, 1 p.m. | TV: ESPN | Stream: fuboTV (Try for free)
- Game 4*: Sun at Sky | Wednesday, Oct. 6, TBD | TBD
- Game 5*: Sky at Sun | Friday, Oct. 8, TBD | TBD
Players to watch
Sun: Jonquel Jones. There's only one choice for the Sun, and that's the presumptive 2021 MVP, Jonquel Jones. After sitting out of the bubble last season, Jones returned this summer better than ever. An incredibly versatile big who can play inside or outside on both sides of the ball, she was the best player in the league all season long. The Sun go as she goes, and with her in the lineup this season they were 24-3.
Sky: Candace Parker. As has been the case for the first two rounds, the player to watch for the Sky is Parker. She's not going to put up the biggest numbers at this stage of her career, but the team is much, much better when she's on the floor because of her playmaking, defense and leadership. When Parker is active and getting involved on both sides of the ball, the Sky usually have success.
Three keys that will decide the series
1. Rest vs. rhythm. For a quick refresher on the WNBA's playoff format for those who aren't familiar, the top-two seeds in the regular season get a bye all the way to the semifinals, the Nos. 3 and 4 seeds get a bye to the second round, and everyone else has to begin play in the first round. Because the first two rounds are single elimination, getting a top-two seed is obviously a massive advantage.
But once the semifinals arrive, it brings up the age-old question of rest vs. rhythm. In this particular matchup, that divide could be especially interesting.
The Sun were playing tremendous basketball to close out the season, winning 14 straight games and 12 of them by double digits. Now, because of their bye, they haven't played since Sept. 19, nearly 10 days ago. Will they be able to pick right back up and recapture that form?
As for the Sky, they had to face two single-elimination rounds to get here. That wasn't what they wanted, but they won those games easily and seem to have found a nice rhythm in the process. For a team that's struggled with consistency all season, could those confidence-building wins carry over into the semis?
For what it's worth, the historical perspective says that rest -- or perhaps just talent, considering the top two seeds are in that spot for a reason -- usually wins out. Since the league switched to this format in 2016, the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds have met in the Finals in four of the five seasons. The only non-top-two seed to make the Finals was the No. 3 seed Washington Mystics in 2018.
Every series is different, though, and most No. 6 seeds aren't as talented as the Sky. They won't be the favorites, but they have a real chance if they keep playing like they did in the first two rounds.
2. Backcourt battle. As noted in the "Players to watch" section, the big stars in this series are in the frontcourt. But while Jonquel Jones and Candace Parker are the best players on their respective teams, the backcourt battle figures to be more interesting, and perhaps more important.
On the Sun side you have Briann January, Jasmine Thomas and Natisha Heideman, all three of whom are strong defenders and can really shoot the ball. January (First Team) and Thomas (Second Team) were just named All-Defensive players, and the trio all shot at least 38 percent from 3-point land. None of them is super dynamic, but they play smart and hard, and aren't going to make many mistakes.
As for the Sky, their backcourt is led by Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley and Kahleah Copper, with Diamond DeShields as an X-factor. Though Copper usually takes on the toughest defensive assignments, the group as a whole is much more offensive minded. Vandersloot has led the league in assists five seasons in a row, Quigley is arguably the best shooter in the world and Copper is a terrific slasher.
Will the Sky's unit be able to withstand the Sun's defensive pressure and keep their offense, which has looked terrific so far in the playoffs, humming along? Can the Sun's guards hit enough shots to keep up with what can be a potent Sky offense, and keep some of the pressure off Jonquel Jones and DeWanna Bonner? The answers to those questions could make the difference in this series.
3. How much can Alyssa Thomas give the Sun? Toward the end of the regular season, the Sun made a shocking announcement: Just nine months after tearing her Achilles tendon while playing overseas in the Czech Republic, Alyssa Thomas would be returning to the lineup. In two games, Thomas recorded a total of 35 minutes, 11 points, 10 rebounds and four assists.
A two-time All-Star and three-time All-Defensive selection, Thomas has been a key part of this Sun core during their rise the past few seasons. Perhaps the most unique player in the league, she operates as a wrecking ball of a point forward who never stops putting pressure on the opposing team. She defends and crashes the glass relentlessly, and is a skilled playmaker. About the only thing she won't do is shoot outside of the paint -- in large part because she's been playing with torn labrums in her shoulders for years.
No one expected her to return this season, but here she is in time for the playoffs. As her regular season cameos showed, she's not going to jump right back into the starting lineup and play 30 minutes a night. But if she's able to give the Sun some short bursts of energy and defense here and there off the bench, that could be a huge boost for them in their title run.
The Sun have been the best team in the league all season long, and are the title favorites for good reason: they have the presumptive MVP in Jonquel Jones, the best defense by some margin and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. While you cannot discount the Sky's talent, they have just been too inconsistent all season long to put your faith in them. Pick: Sun in four