It was all chalk through the first round, but the semifinals of the 2023 WNBA playoffs are set: The No. 2 seed New York Liberty will square off against the No. 3 seed Connecticut Sun, while the top-seeded Las Vegas Aces will face the No. 4 seed Dallas Wings.
The best-of-five series tip off Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on ESPN.
The defending champion Aces are six wins away from becoming the first WNBA team to repeat since the 2001-02 Los Angeles Sparks, while the Liberty and Sun are two of three active franchises that have never won a WNBA title. The Wings franchise won three titles when it was located in Detroit as the Shock, but it has not gotten close to reaching those heights in Tulsa or Dallas.
The Aces and Sun have each advanced to the semifinals for five consecutive seasons, while the Liberty are playing in the semifinals for the first time since 2015 and the Wings were last here in 2009, as the Shock.
The Wings were the only team this season to beat the Aces, Liberty and Sun (the top three teams in the standings), but can they sustain consistent high-level play across a series, against such an experienced opponent? And while the Sun haven't beaten the Liberty this summer, last year they managed to take down Chicago in five games in the semifinals -- after going winless against the Sky in the regular season.
We break down the matchups and what to look for as the next round of the playoffs gets underway.
(1) Las Vegas Aces vs. (4) Dallas Wings
Game 1: Dallas at Las Vegas, 5 p.m. ET Sunday (ESPN2)
Regular season: Las Vegas won 3-1
The Aces were 12 games better than the Wings in the regular-season standings, but it doesn't seem like the teams are quite that far apart entering this series. The Wings have the personnel -- especially their depth inside -- to potentially make this a compelling matchup.
Both teams played well in the first round. The Aces never trailed against the Sky. The Wings had to rally in Game 1 vs. the Atlanta Dream but then showed their full offensive force in Game 2 with seven players scoring in double figures. The Aces have had plenty of rest; they wrapped up their first round on Sunday. The Wings did so on Tuesday.
Las Vegas can run teams into the ground with its transition game, but that's a strength for Dallas as well. In fact, in their four regular-season meetings, the Wings outscored the Aces 69-54 in transition points.
"That's what we love to do -- get out and run, turn our defense into offense," Dallas coach Latricia Trammell said. "That's kind of what fuels our fire."
The Wings' size -- two players at 6-foot-7 in Teaira McCowan and Kalani Brown, two at 6-4 in Satou Sabally and Awak Kuier, and 6-2 former WNBA Defensive Player of the Year Natasha Howard -- will make Aces 6-4 star A'ja Wilson work. During the regular-season meetings, Dallas held Wilson to 39% on contested shots. McCowan and Howard were the primary defenders against her in those games.
By the same token, Wilson is the reigning WNBA defensive player of the year, and she was tough on the Wings in the regular season. She held them to 33% on shots she contested. The 6-3 Kiah Stokes, whom Wilson says is one of the biggest keys to Las Vegas' defense, will need to be a force against the Wings' many threats inside. And she will have to work the boards hard against a Dallas team that led the WNBA in rebounding.
What X factor or one-on-one matchup will most impact the series?
We haven't even talked about the guards yet. The Aces have the top perimeter trio in the league in All-Stars Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young. Each is capable of taking over the game, and they play extremely well together.
But Young's former Notre Dame teammate, Arike Ogunbowale, is not just a scorer for Dallas; she's a much better playmaker who has taken advantage of the Wings' post depth and led the team in assists. Crystal Dangerfield, the 2020 Rookie of the Year while in Minnesota, has found a home this season in Dallas. Veteran Odyssey Sims can push the Wings' pace faster offensively, and Veronica Burton is a defensive stopper on the perimeter.
The Aces still have the edge with how dynamic their guards are. But if Dallas can hold its own on the perimeter, this series could be intriguing. -- Voepel
Philippou: Las Vegas in 4
Voepel: Las Vegas in 5
(2) New York Liberty vs. (3) Connecticut Sun
Game 1: Connecticut at New York, 1 p.m. ET Sunday (ESPN)
Regular season: New York won 4-0
New York enters the semifinals following a hard-fought sweep of the Washington Mystics in the first round. The series encapsulated the organization's vision in assembling its superteam roster this offseason: a well-rounded, complementary collection of talent with everyone having a hand in a championship run.
In Game 1, Sabrina Ionescu went off for 29 points. Breanna Stewart led the way with 27 in Game 2. Jonquel Jones was indispensable down low in both contests. Overlook Betnijah Laney and Kayla Thornton, even Marine Johannes despite her quiet start to the playoffs, at your own risk, and never undervalue the importance of Courtney Vandersloot in conducting the whole offensive operation.
Connecticut, meanwhile, has a mix of players who have been here before (Alyssa Thomas, DeWanna Bonner, Natisha Hiedeman), as well as newcomers (Tiffany Hayes, Rebecca Allen, Tyasha Harris). They needed a Game 3 road victory against the Minnesota Lynx to seal a first-round victory but looked firmly in control for the majority of the series. Triple-double/double-double sensation Thomas enters the semifinals after scoring 54 points in a two-game span, the most in Sun franchise history, and in Game 3 on Wednesday scored or assisted on a WNBA playoff-record 58 points for Connecticut.
The Connecticut Sun beat every team in the regular season except one - The New York Liberty.— espnW (@espnW) September 21, 2023
They now face each other in the WNBA semifinals 👀 pic.twitter.com/tsvfO8rwfF
What X factor or one-on-one matchup will most impact the series?
The loss of center Brionna Jones to a season-ending Achilles injury could be felt dramatically this series. The Liberty are at their best when they get strong play from center Jonquel Jones, and she proved a critical piece to New York pulling off its first-round win (further underscored by her overtime-forcing offensive rebound and made free throws at the end of regulation in Game 2). The 2021 MVP (from when she played for the Sun) went for 20 points and 12 rebounds in Game 1 and 19 and 14 in Game 2, and the Liberty improved to 13-0 when she has recorded a double-double.
The Sun have been a strong defensive team all season even without Brionna Jones, typically playing undersized in the post but starting a lengthy Allen on the wing, but a 6-foot-6 Jonquel Jones playing this confidently and comfortably could be too much to overcome.
Guard play has been the consistent X factor for the Sun all season, and a huge reason they easily won Games 1 and 3 against the Lynx. Can the Sun get their 3-point shooting going from Harris, Allen and Hayes? The latter has been dealing with some left knee pain this postseason. And can the Connecticut defense, spearheaded by Thomas, consistently keep the high-powered Liberty offense out of rhythm? -- Philippou
Philippou: New York in 4
Voepel: New York in 4