2021 WNBA playoffs: New York Liberty’s Sabrina Ionescu, Dallas Wings’ Arike Ogunbowale seek upsets in the first round

Among the teams in the 2021 WNBA playoffs , the top-seeded Connecticut Sun have lost only once since July 9, and the No. 8-seeded New York Liberty have won just twice during that same period. Such is the gulf between the top and bottom of the playoff teams, but as the saying goes, the slate is wiped clean now for the postseason.

The Sun’s aforementioned one loss didn’t even count in the standings, as it came in the Commissioner’s Cup final. Connecticut (26-6) and the No. 2-seeded Las Vegas Aces (24-8) advance to the best-of-five semifinals, which start Sept. 28.

The Liberty had to wait until Sunday night to claim the No. 8 seed, thanks to losses by the Washington Mystics and Los Angeles Sparks . Since the Olympic break, the Liberty are 2-9. But considering they were 2-20 all of last season, a playoff berth is a tangible sign of progress.

New York faces the No. 5-seeded Phoenix Mercury in a single-elimination first-round game Thursday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2). The other first-round game that night pits the sixth-seeded No. 6 Chicago Sky vs. the No. 7-seeded Dallas Wings (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2).

Will we see Mercury legend Diana Taurasi on Thursday? She has been limited to 16 games this season due to injuries and last played Sept. 6. We’ll also be keeping an eye on the injury status of players like Breanna Stewart (foot) of the fourth-seeded Seattle Storm and Connecticut’s DeWanna Bonner (back).

Our panel — ESPN’s Kelly Cohen, Kevin Pelton and Mechelle Voepel — takes a look at Thursday’s playoff openers, along with a peek at the second round. Check back later in the week for our full WNBA playoff predictions. No. 8 New York at No. 5 Phoenix

The Mercury won the season series 2-1, and they’re a favorite to advance even if Taurasi doesn’t play. Skylar Diggins-Smith and Brittney Griner both are candidates to be first-team All-WNBA, and if Taurasi returns that "big three" is very tough to contain. Yes, the Mercury lost their last three games of the regular season. But considering those were against Connecticut, Seattle and Las Vegas, they can still go into this first round with confidence.

The Liberty head into the game with a nothing-to-lose mindset. Michaela Onyenwere is expected to be Rookie of the Year, and DiDi Richards might join her on the all-rookie team. Sabrina Ionescu is technically in her second season, but she played only three games last year before a season-ending injury. So there’s still a lot of youth with the Liberty, and any postseason experience should be a positive.

What one-on-one matchup will most impact the game?

Mechelle Voepel: How does a team without a true center beat a team that has one of the best centers who has played in the WNBA? It won’t be easy, but New York forward Natasha Howard, the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year, will need to do the best she can against Phoenix’s Griner.

The Liberty’s victory against the Mercury came June 13 […]

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