WNBA playoffs 2023: First-round predictions and keys to each series

ByM.A. Voepel and Alexa Philippou ESPN logo
Tuesday, September 12, 2023

WNBA fans have two days to catch their breath before the race to the 2023 championship continues Wednesday. The seeding order of the WNBA playoffs wasn't finalized until the last day of the regular season Sunday, but the two teams projected to be on top -- the Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty -- are there.

Will that still be the case about a month from now when the WNBA Finals begin Oct. 8?

"You can't really focus on anything but the next game, because people are too good," Las Vegas guard Kelsey Plum said. "Forget everything that happened in the regular season. You have to treat it as a one-and-done type of thing in terms of our sense of urgency."

Two of the first-round series, which are best of three, will open Wednesday; the other two begin Friday, with all games on the ABC/ESPN family of networks. Can the Aces become the first team to win back-to-back titles since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001-02? Can the Liberty, an original WNBA franchise, finally win the league title? Or will we end up with a more unexpected Finals matchup?

We break down the matchups, along with some help from ESPN Fantasy Games writer Eric Moody.

(1) Las Vegas Aces vs. (8) Chicago Sky

Game 1: Chicago at Las Vegas, 10 p.m. ET Wednesday (ESPN)

Regular season: Las Vegas won 3-0

The Aces' won their most recent game against the Sky, 94-87 on Aug. 24 in Chicago, but trailed 50-37 at halftime. Las Vegas coach Becky Hammon said, "We had to put together a hell of a second half to pull that game out. They're kind of a three-headed monster with that guard trio."

The Aces' perimeter starters -- Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young -- are an even bigger obstacle. Still, Chicago's Kahleah Copper, Marina Mabrey and Courtney Williams -- who had her second triple-double of the season Sunday -- also can cause teams a lot of trouble.

"Copper is super dynamic, can score at all three levels," Plum said. "Marina is a flame-thrower. Courtney, I've been impressed with her this entire season, how she's kind of been the leader and managed the team. And then Dana [Evans] coming off the bench; I think she's the fastest guard in the league in terms of spot to spot. I have to be guarding all the fast people, so I would know."

The Aces' guard trio, though, averaged 51.1 points and 15.5 assists. And forward A'ja Wilson (22.8 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 2.2 BPG) has put together another potential MVP season. With Candace Parker out injured since early July, Wilson has again carried the weight inside for Las Vegas.

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

As good as the Aces' offense has been these past two seasons, averaging a league-high 92.8 PPG this year, the 2023 defense is even better than in 2022. The starters really work together well as a unit, and it's a big help to have a versatile, defensive-minded player like Alysha Clark to come in off the bench. She can help slow down the Sky's perimeter attack and has a lot of postseason experience, too. So even if the Aces have somewhat of an off-game shooting, they have a strong defense to rely on. -- Voepel

Moody's take

The Aces were a juggernaut in the regular season, finishing first in offensive rating and first in defensive rating. When you look at the plus/minus statistic, Las Vegas defeated opponents by 12.6 points per game. After trading for Marina Mabrey in a blockbuster trade this offseason, the Sky are happy to secure a postseason berth. But it won't take long for Chicago's validation to wear off -- and then we will truly see the ripple effect of Chicago giving up so many draft picks. The Aces swept the Sky in the regular season, outscoring them by 32 points. With their transition offense, Las Vegas should win this series.

Who wins?

Moody: Las Vegas in 2

Pelton: Las Vegas in 2

Philippou: Las Vegas in 2

Voepel: Las Vegas in 2

(2) New York Liberty vs. (7) Washington Mystics

Game 1: Washington at New York, 7:30 p.m. ET Friday (ESPN2)

Regular season: Tied 2-2

These two teams meeting in a first-round series seemed outlandish in the preseason; the Mystics were considered a dark horse capable of challenging the super team Aces and Liberty, but haven't been able to emerge as that team this summer due to a litany of injuries.

Although they lost Kristi Toliver to a season-ending ACL injury last week, things otherwise have taken a turn for the better in D.C., with Elena Delle Donne (ankle) and Ariel Atkins (ankle, nasal fracture) back in the fold to close the regular season after missing significant time the second half of the season.

New York faces a tough first-round challenge amid its quest to win the franchise's first WNBA championship: The Mystics beat the Liberty in their season opener and Sunday's regular-season finale off a Brittney Sykes buzzer-beater, while New York won the meetings at the end of June and July.

But the Liberty are peaking at the right time, going 13-2 across August and September and beating Las Vegas to win the 2023 Commissioner's Cup. While their superstars get much of the attention, the Liberty's role players and reserves have been just as critical in their recent success, as evidenced by their front office locking in Kayla Thornton and Betnijah Laney with contract extensions this past week and a recent 17-point outburst from Stefanie Dolson off the bench.

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

Washington's health, and ability to come together at the right time. Shakira Austin's status for the playoffs remains up in the air after she re-aggravated a hip injury, which could impact the Mystics' ability to slow down players like Jonquel Jones and Breanna Stewart in the paint. Delle Donne and Atkins are back, but will they be able to be fully impactful and play significant minutes?

This matchup could come down to who wins the battle in the backcourt. New York thrives when guards Sabrina Ionescu and Courtney Vandersloot get going, but Washington has the stellar defensive duo of Sykes and Natasha Cloud. Ionescu has been dealing with a sore calf recently, but the Liberty will need her back to her normal self.

Of note: New York averaged 37.6% on 3-pointers but shot but below that season clip in each game against D.C. this season. Keep an eye on how the Liberty are faring from 3, and their ability to not overly rely on hitting from the perimeter. -- Philippou

Moody's take

As the old adage goes, it's not how you start, but how you finish. New York has ranked first in both offensive rating and defensive rating over the last 15 games. The Liberty had a 13-2 record during that time. The Mystics are dealing with a lot of injuries, which have affected their record and seeding. This series won't be a cakewalk for the Liberty, but New York has too much talent to lose and is in the midst of a record-breaking season. After losing to the Mystics in the regular-season opener and finale, the Liberty will be looking for revenge.

Who wins?

Moody: New York in 3

Pelton: New York in 2

Philippou: New York in 3

Voepel: New York in 3

(3) Connecticut Sun vs. (6) Minnesota Lynx

Game 1: Minnesota at Connecticut, 8 p.m. ET Wednesday (ESPN2)

Regular season: Sun won 3-1

It's a matchup between two teams that have exceeded expectations this summer. Following the departures of Jonquel Jones, Jasmine Thomas and Curt Miller in the offseason, plus the season-ending injury to Brionna Jones in June, many didn't know what to make of the Sun and whether they'd still manage to be championship contenders.

The Lynx faced their own changing of the guard following the retirement of Sylvia Fowles, the sole remaining piece of their 2010s dynasty. Napheesa Collier returned for her first full season back from pregnancy with more responsibility than ever before on her shoulders, and Minnesota took some time to find its footing, starting the season 0-6.

Behind their respective MVP candidates in Alyssa Thomas and Collier, both teams made the playoffs, the Sun for the seventh consecutive year and the Lynx after missing out in 2022. DeWanna Bonner has had a stellar year for Connecticut, her 14th in the league, while 2023 draftees Diamond Miller and Dorka Juhasz have bolstered the Lynx.

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

For Connecticut: Will the guards step up? The Sun thrive when their backcourt brings offensive punch, whether it be from Natisha Hiedeman and Tiffany Hayes, wing Rebecca Allen or reserves Tyasha Harris and DiJonai Carrington (Carrington is just coming back from a foot injury that sidelined her for a few weeks toward the end of the regular season). Triple-double sensation Alyssa Thomas can do a lot of things single-handedly, but the Sun will be a much tougher out if she has some help.

For Minnesota: The Lynx's defensive rating ranks 10th out of 12 teams at 105.7 points allowed per 100 possessions, and that's the phase of the game where coach Cheryl Reeve always has high standards. In their regular-season finale Sunday they allowed a lottery-bound Indiana team to score 87 points on nearly 48% shooting. To be able to steal at least one game on the road at Mohegan Sun, the Lynx will need to be much more consistent on that end of the floor. -- Philippou

Moody's take

The Lynx are just the second team in league history to make the playoffs after starting 0-6. Minnesota has been a joy to watch this season with Collier, Kayla McBride, Aerial Powers, Jessica Shepard and Juhasz, but the Sun will be too much. As stated above, no one expected the Sun to be this good after losing Jonquel Jones to the Liberty in the offseason and Brionna Jones to a torn Achilles.

The Sun's success in the second half of the season is largely due to Alyssa Thomas. She averaged an astounding 15.5 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 8.0 assists this season. While the Sun likely lack the firepower to defeat the Aces or Liberty in a series, they have a good chance of defeating the Lynx. Beyond the first round, they could relish being a spoiler this postseason.

Who wins?

Moody: Connecticut in 3

Pelton: Connecticut in 2

Philippou: Connecticut in 3

Voepel: Connecticut in 3

(4) Dallas Wings vs. (5) Atlanta Dream

Game 1: Atlanta at Dallas, 9:30 p.m. ET Friday (ESPN2)

Regular season: Dallas won 3-0

As is the case with the Liberty-Mystics, this matchup is between teams that met in the regular-season finale Sunday. Dallas won 99-74, led by Arike Ogunbowale's 32 points.

The Wings now have made the playoffs five of their eight seasons in Dallas but haven't moved past the first round. The last time the organization won a postseason series was 2009, the final year the franchise was in Detroit. That could change this season, which is the first for coach Latricia Trammell with the Wings. The key will be Dallas setting the tone in this series at home, where the Wings were 11-9 this season.

Ogunbowale is one of the most difficult players to slow down offensively, but she has more help from her post players than in any of her previous four seasons. Satou Sabally, Natasha Howard and Teaira McCowan are a big key to why the Wings lead the WNBA in rebounding (38.7 RPG). Dallas is also third in the league in scoring (87.9 PPG), led by Ogunbowale's 21.2 PPG.

The Dream are in the playoffs for the first time since 2018, led by guards Rhyne Howard (17.5 PPG) and Allisha Gray (17.1) and forward Cheyenne Parker (15.0). It has been a good follow-up to Howard's Rookie of the Year season in 2022, a successful move for Gray (who spent her first six seasons in Dallas) and the best season of her career for Parker.

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

The Wings and Dream have fairly similar numbers in scoring and rebounding. But Dallas held Atlanta at 38% or below shooting from the field in all three matchups during the regular season. McCowan has helped anchor the defense and is one of the strongest players in the league. Overall, defense could be the difference in this series, and Dallas has the edge there.

Moody's take

The Wings were one of four teams to finish the season with a record above .500. This matchup should be fun to watch since both teams play at two of the fastest paces in the league. Ogunbowale will play an important role in this series, especially if she shoots well from the floor. This season, she has 22 games with 20 or more points, which is tied for fourth most in the league. It has been a roller-coaster ride for the Dream throughout the regular season. That will hurt in a playoff series against a team like the Wings.

Who wins?

Moody: Dallas in 3

Pelton: Dallas in 3

Philippou: Dallas in 2

Voepel: Dallas in 3

Related Video