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WNBA playoffs 2022: First-round predictions and the five teams that could win the title

In perhaps the toughest series of the first round, Elena Delle Donne, right, and the Mystics face Breanna Stewart and the Storm, two teams that combined to win three of the last four championships. Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

As we head into the 2022 WNBA playoffs, which begin Wednesday, the major storylines from the start of the season are still in play. Will the Chicago Sky become the first franchise to repeat as WNBA champion since the 2001-02 Los Angeles Sparks? Will the Las Vegas Aces give their franchise its first title under first-year coach Becky Hammon?

Can the Connecticut Sun, in the franchise's 20th season in the state of Connecticut, finally break through to a championship? Could legend Sue Bird, who will retire at season's end, help lead the Seattle Storm to a fifth title? Or could Elena Delle Donne, who missed all of 2020 and most of 2021 with back issues after having led the Washington Mystics to the 2019 championship, help them win it all again in 2022?

These five teams all finished with at least 22 victories -- led by the No. 1 seed Aces and No. 2 seed Sky each with 26 -- and can be seen as viable contenders for the crown. The other three playoff teams -- the Dallas Wings, New York Liberty and Phoenix Mercury -- all would feel very good about winning a series.

The WNBA has returned to an all-series playoff format this season, after six years of single-elimination first- and second-round games. The first round's best-of-three series give the better seed the first two games at home. However, a split would allow the lower seed to host the decisive Game 3.

The semifinals and WNBA Finals are still best of five, and could give us some epic games. ESPN's Kevin Pelton, Alexa Philippou and M.A. Voepel break down the first round and offer predictions.

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Chelsea Gray beats the buzeer with a 3-pointer

Aces' Chelsea Gray pulls up from beyond the arc and drops in the 3-pointer as the third quarter ends.

(1) Las Vegas Aces vs. (8) Phoenix Mercury

Game 1: Phoenix at Las Vegas, 10 p.m. ET Wednesday (ESPN)
Regular season: Las Vegas won 3-0

These teams met last year in a very competitive semifinals series, which Phoenix won in five games. But the difference between where both teams are now is large. The Aces have been at or near the top of the league all season under Hammon; the only question was if they would be the No. 1 seed. A'ja Wilson is one of the favorites for the MVP award, and the rest of the team is playing very well, too.

The Mercury have been through the wringer this year with so many issues. Brittney Griner's imprisonment in Russia since February. Tina Charles leaving the team in late June. Diana Taurasi's quad injury that has caused her to miss the last five games and leaves her questionable for the playoffs. Skylar Diggins-Smith leaving the team for personal reasons in the last week of the regular season.

"We're excited to be alive," first-year Phoenix coach Vanessa Nygaard said about the Mercury making the playoffs for the 10th consecutive season. "The pressure's not on us. We're happy to be in."

What X factor or one-on-one matchup will most impact the series?

Las Vegas won the three regular-season games -- all in May -- against Phoenix by an average of 16.7 points. It has been three months since their last meeting: a 100-80 Aces victory May 21. Las Vegas' Dearica Hamby is currently out injured, but the Aces still beat Seattle 109-100 on Sunday in a game that had no implications for either but felt like a playoff game.

So it's hard to see the individual matchups going Phoenix's way in this series. But Diamond DeShields has WNBA championship experience from last year with Chicago, and the Mercury will need a lot from her. We will see if guarding DeShields is primarily Jackie Young's defensive assignment.

The Mercury couldn't come closer than 12 points against the Aces even when Taurasi, Diggins-Smith and Charles were in the lineup. All credit goes to the scrappiness of Phoenix, especially the way players like Sophie Cunningham, Shey Peddy, Brianna Turner, Jennie Simms and Megan Gustafson have fought to get into the postseason against the odds. But this series should not be close. -- Voepel

Who wins?

Pelton: Las Vegas in 2

Philippou: Las Vegas in 2

Voepel: Las Vegas in 2


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Marine Johannes knocks down the Liberty 3-pointer

Marine Johannes knocks down the 3-pointer for the Liberty as they lead vs. the Dream.

(2) Chicago Sky vs. (7) New York Liberty

Game 1: New York at Chicago, 8 p.m. ET Wednesday (ESPN2)
Regular season: Chicago won 3-1

Facing Chicago will feel very familiar to Liberty coach Sandy Brondello. She was Phoenix's coach last year when the Mercury lost the WNBA Finals to the Sky. Chicago won the regular-season series against New York 3-1, and has appeared all season to be capable of defending its title. However, August has presented some worries. The Sky lost just four games combined in June and July, but lost three this month. But the Sky looked like themselves in winning 82-67 at Phoenix in the regular-season finale Sunday.

Things looked bleak for New York in July; the Liberty lost four in a row and five of six right after the July 10 All-Star Game. But going 5-2 in August was enough for the Liberty to earn their second consecutive playoff berth. Sabrina Ionescu leads the team in scoring and assists, and she and Natasha Howard combine for nearly 14 rebounds per game. The late-season return of Betnijah Laney has helped the Liberty; she had knee surgery June 1 and was back on court for a game Aug. 6.

What X factor or one-on-one matchup will most impact the series?

Everyone will have their eyes on the elite perimeter duel between guards Ionescu and Courtney Vandersloot of Chicago, two players capable of triple-doubles. But the interior is where the Liberty must find a way to slow down the Sky to have a chance of winning the series. With Emma Meesseman joining Candace Parker in Chicago this season, that has become an even bigger strength for the Sky.

The Liberty are deserving of their playoff spot, and credit goes to Brondello for guiding them through some rough patches this season. When the Liberty click offensively, they are a lot of fun to watch. But Chicago has the league's fourth-best defensive rating and, at 14-4, the Sky had the league's best record at home this season. -- Voepel

Who wins?

Pelton: Chicago in 2

Philippou: Chicago in 3

Voepel: Chicago in 2


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Alyssa Thomas gets the steal and score

Alyssa Thomas gets the steal and score as the Sun pad their lead at the end of the first quarter.

(3) Connecticut Sun vs. (6) Dallas Wings

Game 1: Dallas at Connecticut, 8 p.m. ET Thursday (ESPNU/NBA TV)
Regular season: Dallas won 2-1

The Sun took care of business by securing the No. 3 seed, but their matchup might not be ideal: The Wings beat them in two of three meetings during the regular season.

The Wings will be without top scorer Arike Ogunbowale (abdominal injury) through the first round of the playoffs, but they've faired decently without her, going 4-2, including Sunday's 116-88 beatdown over the Sparks. Across the last seven games (including the one in which Ogunbowale got hurt), the Wings' 113.8 offensive rating is second-best in the league, and their 3.8 net rating ranks fifth. Also notable: Satou Sabally (ankle) has missed all but 11 games for Dallas this season, and Isabelle Harrison (shoulder) was ruled out Sunday.

"They're young and dynamic and can really score the basketball, probably score more points out of system or unassisted than anyone else in the league," Sun coach Curt Miller said Sunday. "You have talented 1-on-1 players. They're long, they're athletic, they pose problems." The Sun -- who went 11-3 since the All-Star break -- are looking to finally cross the finish line after reaching the semifinals or further each of the last three years in the playoffs. For the third time in three seasons, they've had to manage without a starter: Jonquel Jones in 2020 (opt-out), Alyssa Thomas in 2021 (who ultimately returned from an Achilles' tear just in time for the postseason) and Jasmine Thomas (ACL) in 2022. Bria Hartley, a late-season addition, also tore her ACL three games into her short-lived stint with the team.

The Wings are appearing in the postseason for the second consecutive season, but haven't won a playoff game since the franchise moved from Tulsa to Dallas.

What X factor or one-on-one matchup will most impact the series? Natisha Hiedeman vs. Marina Mabrey. Mabrey has stepped up massively with Ogunbowale out, scoring at least 15 points in all but one of the last seven games and 20-plus three times. She also dropped 20 earlier this season versus Connecticut. Hiedeman, meanwhile, has been an X factor this summer. The Sun will look to her to get going from deep, like she did Sunday against the Lynx (4-for-8), and for her to hold her own defensively against a strong Wings backcourt.

Another matchup to watch is down low between Jonquel Jones/Brionna Jones vs. Teaira McCowan. After a quiet start to her career in Dallas, McCowan has found a stride this season, averaging 17.4 points and 11.6 rebounds across the last seven games. Between the two of them, the Joneses have put together an all-WNBA-caliber season (Jonquel) and surefire bid for Sixth Player of the Year (Brionna). -- Philippou

Who wins?

Pelton: Connecticut in 2

Philippou: Connecticut in 3

Voepel: Connecticut in 3


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Stewart drops in pull-up 3-pointer for the Storm

Seattle's Breanna Stewart pulls up to the 3-point line and knocks down the jumper in the third quarter.

(4) Seattle Storm vs. (5) Washington Mystics

Game 1: Washington at Seattle, 10 p.m. ET Thursday (ESPN2)
Regular season: Seattle won 2-1

For the first time since Seattle swept Washington in the 2018 Finals, the teams that combined to win three of the last four championships square off. They've experienced turnover since then, with Alysha Clark leaving the Storm for the Mystics in free agency and Tina Charles landing in Seattle after a season spent in DC. The Storm also have a new coach in Noelle Quinn, who was playing for Seattle back in 2018. However, the core matchups remain the same: Delle Donne vs. Breanna Stewart up front and Washington's backcourt of Ariel Atkins and Natasha Cloud against the All-Star duo of Bird and Jewell Loyd. One of these teams with championship aspirations will be knocked out in the first round of the playoffs.

What X factor or one-on-one matchup will most impact the series?

Delle Donne vs. Stewart, a battle of MVPs. Delle Donne played all three games against Seattle, and the Storm's 2-1 series win represented more than a quarter of all losses the Mystics suffered when she suited up (18-7). Delle Donne was still terrific in those games, averaging 19.7 PPG, but Stewart countered with 20 PPG and 4.7 APG -- her highest average against any opponent.

More than any other first-round series, home-court advantage will be critical in this matchup of teams with identical 22-14 records. Seattle hosts the first two thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker and will likely have huge crowds throughout Bird's final playoff run. That's enough to favor the Storm. If Washington can steal a road win, however, the edge shifts to the Mystics hosting the deciding Game 3. -- Pelton

Who wins?

Pelton: Seattle in 2

Philippou: Seattle in 3

Voepel: Seattle in 3