2021 WNBA Playoffs: Storylines to know before the regular season ends

The Connecticut Sun's Brionna Jones #42 hi-fives Jasmine Thomas #5 and Jonquel Jones #35. The Sun have clinched the No. 1 seed heading into the 2021 WNBA Playoffs.
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The 2021 WNBA Playoffs begin next week and this year’s playoff field is nearly finalized.

Of the eight playoff berths, seven have been clinched by the following teams: Connecticut Sun, Las Vegas Aces, Minnesota Lynx, Seattle Storm, Phoenix Mercury, Chicago Sky, Dallas Wings.

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Two teams (Atlanta Dream, Indiana Fever) have been eliminated from playoff contention, while three teams (Washington Mystics, Los Angeles Sparks, New York Liberty) remain in the running for the final playoff berth.

Ahead of the 2021 WNBA Playoffs – which begin on September 23 – here are a few key storylines to know.

Quick refresher: How will the 2021 WNBA Playoffs work?

The playoff format will be the same in 2021 as recent seasons. The top eight teams at the end of the regular season – regardless of conference – qualify for the WNBA playoffs.

A team’s regular season ranking is important: the top two teams receive a bye to the semifinal round, while the third- and fourth-ranked teams receive a bye to the second round. The first and second rounds are single elimination, while the semifinal and final rounds feature a best-of-five format.

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Since the current WNBA playoff format was adopted in 2016, only once (2018) did the two teams that made the best-of-five finals differ from the two top teams at the end of the regular season. That year, the Washington Mystics (ranked third) defeated the No. 2 Atlanta Dream to qualify for the WNBA Finals. (The Mystics then lost in the Finals 3-0 to the top-ranked Seattle Storm.)

Can the Connecticut Sun win the franchise’s first WNBA title?

The Connecticut Sun franchise – established as the Orlando Miracle in 1999 and rebranded as the Connecticut Sun in 2003 – has never won a WNBA title. The team last made the WNBA Finals in 2019, losing to the Washington Mystics three games to two.

But 2021 could be the Connecticut Sun’s year.

The Sun secured the No. 1 seed in the 2021 WNBA Playoffs with a win on Saturday against the Phoenix Mercury. With a win on Wednesday night against the New York Liberty, the Sun have now won 13 straight games – a franchise record.

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During the 2021 WNBA season, the Sun have been guided by Jonquel Jones, a current MVP frontrunner who opted out of the 2020 WNBA season due to Covid-19 concerns. The 6-6 forward leads the league in rebounds per game (11.3) and is fourth league-wide in points per game (19.5).

Brionna Jones, who was the 8th overall pick in the 2017 WNBA draft, is in the running for Most Improved Player. The 25-year-old is fourth in the league in field throw percentage (57.5%).

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The Connecticut Sun also have multiple reasons to celebrate, both on and off the court.

On Wednesday afternoon, guards Jasmine Thomas and Natisha Hiedeman announced their engagement. Later that night, both Thomas and Hiedeman recorded double digit points in the Sun’s 98-69 win over the Liberty.

Also on Wednesday night, Alyssa Thomas made her season debut for the Sun. Just nine months ago, Thomas tore her Achilles tendon while playing in the Czech Republic for ZVVZ USK Praha. She recorded six points and three rebounds in her season debut.

Will the Las Vegas Aces or Minnesota Lynx get the No. 2 seed for the 2021 WNBA Playoffs?

The Las Vegas Aces need one more victory – or a loss from the third-ranked Minnesota Lynx – to lock in the other bye to the semifinal round.

The Aces have been led by the formidable duo of A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage. (For more on the numbers Cambage and Wilson have put up this season, read this piece by Howard Megdal over on FiveThirtyEight.)

Wilson – the 2020 WNBA MVP who made her Olympic debut earlier this summer – is currently fifth in the league in points per game (18.7).

During the final weekend of regular season games, the Minnesota Lynx will be doing a bit of scoreboard watching. The Lynx can finish as high as second (with two wins, plus two Aces losses) or as low as fifth.

Can the Seattle Storm rebound in the WNBA postseason?

The Seattle Storm are the defending WNBA champions, but have struggled in recent weeks, recording a 5-6 record since the Tokyo Olympics.

Earlier this month, Seattle head coach Noelle Quinn said fatigue could be playing a role. Five Storm players competed in Tokyo (Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird, and Jewell Loyd representing the United States, Ezi Magbegor and Stephanie Talbot playing for Australia). Stewart, the 2020 WNBA Finals MVP, is out of the Storm’s final two regular season games with a foot injury.

The final weekend of regular season games will see the Storm – along with the Lynx and Mercury – battling in a points race for a first-round bye.

Can the Phoenix Mercury use the WNBA Playoffs to build on their post-Olympic momentum?

The Phoenix Mercury had a rough start to the 2021 WNBA season, due in part to Diana Taurasi missing a majority of early games with a hip injury. The Mercury entered the Olympic break with a 9-10 record.

Since resuming play, however, the Mercury have been nearly unstoppable. The team compiled a 10-game win streak, which was snapped earlier this week by the Connecticut Sun.

Brittney Griner, a seven-time WNBA All-Star, has been playing especially well. She’s second in the league in points per game (20.8), fifth in rebounds per game (9.5), and first in blocks per game (2.0), and is also in the conversation for regular season MVP honors.

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC