WNBA playoffs 2023: How Liberty, Wings can complete sweeps

ByMichael Voepel and Alexa Philippou ESPN logo
Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Veteran leadership is always big during the WNBA playoffs, but the league's next generation is making its presence felt now. Three recent draft lottery picks were at the top of their games Friday in the WNBA playoffs and will try to do more of the same Tuesday as the first round continues.

Guard Sabrina Ionescu, the No. 1 pick in 2020, hopes to help the No. 2 seed New York Liberty close out their first-round series against the No. 7 Washington Mystics in Game 2 (7 p.m., ESPN/ESPN App) at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

Her former Oregon Ducks teammate and 2020 No. 2 pick Satou Sabally hopes to do the same for the No. 4 Dallas Wings against the No. 5 Atlanta Dream and Rhyne Howard, who was the No. 1 pick in 2022. Their Game 2 tips at 9 p.m. ET (ESPN/ESPN App) at College Park Center in Arlington, Texas.

On Wednesday at Target Center in Minneapolis, the No. 6 Minnesota Lynx -- with rookies Diamond Miller (No. 2 pick) and Dorka Juhasz (No. 16) in the starting lineup -- attempt to upset the No. 3 Connecticut Sun in Game 3 of their series (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App).

The Liberty-Mystics series features three former MVPs in New York's Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones and Washington's Elena Delle Donne. But Ionescu was the leading scorer in Game 1 on Friday, with 29 points and seven 3-pointers.

In Friday's second game, Howard went one better, hitting eight 3s on the way to 36 points, both WNBA records for a player in her postseason debut. Still, it wasn't enough against the Wings, who rallied behind Sabally's 32 points to erase a 20-point deficit and win by 12.

Howard, the former Kentucky Wildcats star, said afterward that individual numbers didn't mean much to her because the Dream lost. Still, having scored 19 of her points in the first quarter, Howard showed how ready she was to get going in the playoffs.

New York hasn't advanced past the first round of the postseason since 2015, the last year the playoff format was divided between Eastern and Western conference teams. The Liberty lost to the Indiana Fever in the East finals that season.

Dallas hasn't moved past the first round since 2009, the franchise's final season in Detroit. The team lost to Indiana in the East finals then.

Connecticut reached the WNBA Finals last season, but also had to go on the road then to close out its first-round series. Can the Sun do it again? In addition to keeping an eye on the emerging stars, here's what else we're watching in all three games.

How does Washington avoid elimination against New York?

The most glaring shift within Game 1 was how the Mystics' offense stalled as the night went on: Washington put up 29 points in the first quarter but 13 and 15 in the next two periods. Coach Eric Thibault said the Mystics had "probably too many possessions where we came down and it was one action and then look at each other," but that they also let two of his key areas of focus slip: transition defense and rebounding.

And when it comes to defense, Washington guard Natasha Cloud is taking her matchup with Ionescu personally.

The Mystics also need more from their two-time MVP Delle Donne, who had a relatively quiet night with 11 points on 5-for-12 shooting. Eight of those points came in the first half -- she didn't attempt a field goal in the third quarter and took just three shots in the fourth. Delle Donne has dealt with an ankle injury most of the summer, but it's hard to see Washington beating the Liberty twice in a row without her fingerprints all over those games.

"They're giving her a ton of attention when we're setting off-ball screens for her, and we've got to make sure we're giving her the right space to operate," Thibault said. "I thought we maybe lost her on the weak side a few times, but it's hard. You're trying not to call a lot of plays and totally lose your pace and your rhythm, but when the possessions get a little ugly, you want to make sure she touches it. That's a fine balance and it's one we've got to do a better job with, starting with myself." -- Philippou

What more can Atlanta do to slow down Dallas?

The Dream did everything right in the first quarter Friday and led by 15. But the Wings didn't get rattled even when that lead bumped to 20. By the time the game was over, the Wings had made a complete turnaround in winning 94-82.

Afterward, the Dream talked about maintaining composure better. That's tough to do, especially against a team that led the league in rebounding this season and won the board battle by 12 on Friday. The Wings are built to be able to rally.

Dream coach Tanisha Wright said she wished she had called a timeout during Dallas' 14-2 run in the second quarter that cut Atlanta's lead to 43-35. She did get a timeout then, but the damage was done as the Wings went on to tie the score 49-49 by halftime.

Dallas veteran guard Odyssey Sims came off the bench to really push the pace in the Wings' comeback, and the Dream weren't able to counter.

It's a lot to ask Howard to try to exactly duplicate her scoring effort from Game 1. But if the Dream get another strong outing from her, are able to match the Wings' aggressiveness and slow down the pace a bit, they will have a better formula for Game 2. -- Voepel

Can the Lynx make history and knock off the Sun?

Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said before Game 2 that her team would have to play "above ourselves" to beat the Sun. Kayla McBride (28 points, 8 rebounds) and Napheesa Collier (26 points, 13 rebounds) obviously had spectacular games, and their supporting cast had important moments, but no one else played out of their minds.

Does that mean we've yet to see the true ceiling of the Lynx in this series? McBride and Collier will have to be stars once more to get the Lynx over the finish line Wednesday, but a breakout game from a role player or two -- Miller? Juhász? Rachel Banham? Tiffany Mitchell? -- would go a long way.

Connecticut coach Stephanie White pointed out a few other areas that flipped in Minnesota's favor in Game 2 after the Sun won them in Game 1: rebounding, turnovers/points off turnovers, overall shooting percentage and from 3-point range. Reeve said the Lynx didn't have to do anything dramatically different to win Game 2 aside from simply executing, and that "we could control our own destiny with our effort."

Both teams have struggled with consistency at times this season, but Game 3 is all about putting it together for 40 minutes. The Sun are also hoping to get a strong game from Tiffany Hayes, who White indicated is still dealing with a knee injury and isn't 100%. -- Philippou

Related Video