Opening night of the 2023 WNBA playoffs went like an all-chalk start to the NCAA tournament: The favorites dominated, and the stars were ready for the spotlight.
Wednesday opened with the No. 3 seed Connecticut Sun feasting on miscues from the No. 6 Minnesota Lynx in a 90-60 victory at Mohegan Sun Arena. In the second game, the top-seeded and defending champion Las Vegas Aces beat the No. 8 Chicago Sky 87-59.
It was just the second day in WNBA postseason history in which two teams won by 20 or more points. The other time? Last year, when the Aces won by 37 over the Phoenix Mercury, and the Sky beat the New York Liberty by 38.
The Sun’s performance Wednesday was one of their best all season. And the Aces, who led the WNBA in scoring this season behind MVP candidate A’ja Wilson, looked very good in that respect Wednesday. But Las Vegas’ defense was even better: The Sky’s 59 points are the fewest the Aces have allowed this season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Aces held the Sky to just 21% shooting (9-of-43) on contested field goals.
“When we get stops, and we can play out of that,” Wilson said, “that’s beautiful basketball by the Aces.”
We look at why the Aces and Sun were so sharp, and what the Sky and Lynx must do in Game 2 of the best-of-three series. The first round continues Friday (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App).
Sun cruise to Game 1 victory over Lynx
The Sun get hot from the 3-point line as they ease to a 90-60 win over the Lynx.
What was most impressive about the Sun’s demolishment of the Lynx?
Philippou: Everything. That was as complete a performance as we’ve seen from Connecticut all season. Don’t take my word for it. “I think it’s as close as we’ve been all season to 40 consistent minutes,” Sun coach Stephanie White said after the game.
The Sun’s pressure defense fueled it all, making the Lynx uncomfortable offensively most of the night and forcing 19 turnovers. Connecticut scored 30 points off them, often in transition.
Five players scored in double figures. The Sun got huge contributions from their role players (Tiffany Hayes, Rebecca Allen) and bench (Tyasha Harris, DiJonai Carrington).They shared the ball beautifully, assisting 28 of 33 field goals, while hitting 16 3-pointers, a franchise record for treys in a playoff game and tying the second-best mark for most 3s in a playoff game in WNBA history.
After readjusting midsummer following the season-ending injury to Brionna Jones, the Sun have talked about peaking at the right time; this was textbook of what that would look like, and it led to their largest playoff win in franchise history. The Lynx will no doubt adjust, but Connecticut couldn’t ask for a better kickoff to the postseason.
“It’s an awesome way to start, and it’s now just let this one go and do it again,” Allen said.
How did the Aces look as they started their title defense?
Voepel: Really confident. The chemistry we’ve seen from this group for much of two years now was on display from the tip to the final buzzer. Five players scored in double figures led by 20 points from point guard Chelsea Gray.
A pass from Gray to a cutting Jackie Young about midway through the fourth quarter was a microcosm of what makes the Aces great. They understand so well what each other is going to do. Gray’s court vision is second to none, and the same is true about how well Young moves without the basketball. The defense might think it has the Aces stalled, and suddenly Young gets herself wide open for a layup.
“When she’s cutting off the ball, she’s making reads,” Gray said of Young. “And on the other end, a lot of times she has the assignment of their best guard. A great two-way player.”
The Las Vegas Aces opened the WNBA playoffs with a 28-point win over Chicago in Game 1 of their 1st Round series Wednesday.
The Aces now has 7 wins (reg. season & playoffs combined) by at least 25 points this season, 1 shy of the record of 8 set by the 2019 Washington Mystics. pic.twitter.com/E13LLdrC05
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 14, 2023
The Aces had 29 points in transition, which ties for their second-most this season, with 19 coming in the first half. That set the tone for how difficult a night it was going to be for Chicago.
“It’s nice to get some easy ones,” Aces coach Becky Hammon said. “Our defense is really what allows that to happen for us. We have too good of offensive players if they get out in space. It’s hard on the [opposing] defense.”
Hammon talked before the game about her confidence in the Aces’ depth even though Candace Parker is out injured. Hammon was able to give Wilson in particular some rest even down the stretch of the season because the Aces had so many comfortable leads. The same thing happened in this playoff opener, as Wilson played 28 minutes.
What must Minnesota do differently to avoid a sweep?
Philippou: You can’t turn over the ball 19 times and expect to win most playoff games. “That was awful, just awful,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said.
In the first half, when the Sun established their lead, the Lynx struggled with Connecticut’s traps, didn’t always get back on defense and allowed too many open 3-pointers. Reeve and Kayla McBride spoke postgame about the offense lacking conviction and confidence, as if players were uncertain about what they wanted to do.
The good news, per Reeve, is her team’s problems were more of an execution breakdown than anything. “We didn’t see anything that we didn’t think we were going to see,” she said. “We just didn’t handle it. … For some reason our execution, really at both ends, was not where it needs to be to win a playoff game, especially against these guys.”
McBride had a decent night for Minnesota (16 points, 14 in the first half), but franchise players Napheesa Collier and Diamond Miller had a combined five points on 1-for-8 shooting at halftime, before Collier finished with 14 points and Miller with five points and five fouls. Those two must step up, especially Collier, who said postgame she was disappointed in herself.
Reeve knows one thing about Collier and the rest of her group, though.
“We’ve had hard times before, we’ve gotten smacked before. We were 0-6,” she said. “This team always gets up. We’re not going to not get up.”
Voepel: The Lynx on Wednesday looked more like the team that started this season 0-6 than the one that battled back for a playoff spot. If there’s a positive in Collier’s off night, it’s that she rarely has two games in a row like that. Expect her to be all over the boards and very aggressive in Game 2.
Collier averaged 21.5 points in the regular season, and 25.0 in her four games before the playoffs started. Since the All-Star break, she shot worse than Wednesday’s 41.7% only three times. All credit to the Sun’s defense, but Game 1 was an aberration for Collier.
Can Chicago turn things around to send the series to Game 3?
Voepel: It’s going to take a very different kind of game from the Sky, because Wednesday was a mismatch.
“I don’t think we were disciplined in our offense,” said guard Kahleah Copper, the only Sky player who scored in double digits with 15 points. “We let them disrupt us and kind of rattle us a little bit. I need to wait for screens, demand some screens and make plays for my teammates, because that will also open things up for me.
“We have to approach next game not thinking about the last one. Letting this one go. We don’t want to come out and make the same mistakes.”