Everything you need to know to get ready for the WNBA playoffs

Tuesday night marks the beginning of the WNBA playoffs. Twelve teams entered the so-called “wubble” at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla, and eight teams remain. By week’s end, that number will be cut to four. Here’s everything you need to know.

Seattle, Las Vegas earn double-byes into semis; 2 Canadians remain in contention

Las Vegas Aces' A'ja Wilson, centre, is defended by Seattle Storm's Alysha Clark, left, and Natasha Howard during an August game. Both clubs earned byes to the WNBA semifinals as the top two teams during the regular season. (Mike Carlson/The Associated Press)

Tuesday night marks the beginning of the WNBA playoffs.

Twelve teams entered the so-called "wubble" at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and eight teams remain. By week's end, that number will be cut to four.

Here's everything you need to know:

Playoff format

Adopted in 2016, these playoffs are unique among professional sports. The top two seeds — the No. 1 Las Vegas Aces and No. 2 Seattle Storm — receive byes straight to the semifinals. Meanwhile, the fifth-seeded Phoenix Mercury play the No. 8 Washington Mystics, while the No. 6 Chicago Sky take on the No. 7 Connecticut Sun in a single-game elimination first round. Those games are on Tuesday night.

The winner of those two games move on to face either the third-seeded Los Angeles Sparks or fourth-seeded Minnesota Lynx on Thursday in one-game, winner-takes-all scenarios. From there, the lowest-ranked team plays the Aces in one best-of-five semifinal, while the higher-ranked squad squares off against the Storm in the other. The WNBA Finals — scheduled to begin Oct. 2 — is also best of five.

There were no pandemic-induced changes to the playoffs, besides the lack of homecourt advantage. The regular season featured 22 games instead of the usual 36. 

Key storylines

Washington's title defence. The Mystics ran off four straight wins to end the regular season and sneak into the playoffs by one game over the Dallas Wings. But Washington's championship follow-up is more Toronto Raptors than Golden State Warriors — four starters from last year's team didn't return, including Finals MVP Elena Della Donne who opted out of the season due to chronic Lyme disease.

Chicago's Vandersloot-Quigley connection. Point guard Courtney Vandersloot set the single-game assists record with 18 earlier this season. The record-breaking 17th dime? A pass to her wife Allie Quigley, who nailed a three-pointer.

The Sky's season has gone downhill since then, though, with key players Azura Stevens and Diamond DeShields both exiting the bubble. That leaves Vandersloot, who was also the first player to record 300 assists in a season last year, and Quigley, Chicago's top scorer at 15.4 points per game, to handle the load against a Sun team that's been tough to beat following its 0-5 start.

WATCH | Vandersloot establishes WNBA single-game assists record:

Courtney Vandersloot sets WNBA record for most assists in a game with 18

1 year ago
Duration 1:04
Courtney Vandersloot of the Chicago Sky set a new WNBA record with 18 assists in a single game. 1:04

Will homecourt advantage be missed? In the NBA's Raptors-Celtics series, a matchup of two fairly even teams, we saw the "road" team win each of the seven games. In the WNBA regular season, most teams sported fairly even "home" and "road" splits. In a one-game elimination, that lost advantage could prove to be the difference. Since 2016, a top-two seed has won every WNBA title, and only once has a lower-ranked team even reached the Finals. An upset could be in the cards somewhere, though the Aces and Storm at 18-4 were both a step ahead, finishing three games ahead of the third-place Sparks.

Canadian content

Four Canadians competed in the WNBA this season, and two will continue in the playoffs for Minnesota. A fifth, Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe of the New York Liberty, opted out pre-pandemic to focus on the national team ahead of the scheduled 2020 Olympics, and chose not to return for the bubble.

Bridget Carleton, Lynx. The breakout Canadian of the 2020 season, Carleton went from scoring just three points total over eight games and two teams in last year's rookie campaign to starting the final 12 games for Minnesota while averaging 6.6 points per contest this year. The 23-year-old is a jack of all trades: her breakout was a 25-point masterpiece in a blowout win for the Lynx; a few weeks later, she recorded 10 assists but no points (on just one shot) in another easy victory.

Kayla Alexander, Lynx. The only other Canadian in the playoffs, Alexander could be hard-pressed to find playing time. The 29-year-old hasn't seen significant minutes for Minnesota since its 12th game, despite starting forward Sylvia Fowles missing a majority of the season to injury.

Kia Nurse, New York Liberty. The most famous Canadian had a rough go of it this season. Forced into a starring role due to top pick Sabrina Ionescu's season-ending injury, Nurse struggled and shot just 27 per cent, compared to 39 per cent in 2019. The Liberty won only two games in what was a rebuilding year, and Nurse briefly lost her starting job before regaining it at the end of the season.

Natalie Achonwa, Indiana Fever. A steady veteran who impacts winning as a role player, the 27-year-old Guelph native played practically to her career per-game averages after a slow start in 2020.

WATCH | Carleton racks up 25 points in Lynx victory:

Canadian Bridget Carleton powers Lynx to win over Liberty

1 year ago
Duration 4:24
Canadian Bridget Carleton made the most of her first WNBA start. The Chatham, Ont. native had a career-high 25 points in the Minnesota Lynx 92-66 rout of the New York Liberty. 4:24

Playoff stars

A'Ja Wilson, Aces. Wilson is a favourite to win her first MVP award after leading the Aces to the top of the standings. The third-year forward boasts an old-school post game and didn't attempt a single three-pointer over 22 games, instead relying on back-to-the-basket scoring. That style is perhaps reflective of Las Vegas head coach Bill Laimbeer, the famed centre of the 1980s Bad Boy Detroit Pistons.

Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart, Storm. Bird was the first overall pick in the 2002 draft, and she's spent her entire career with the Storm. The 39-year-old played 11 games in Florida, where she still averaged nearly 10 points and five assists. Stewart, 26, represents the next generation of Storm players and could challenge Wilson in MVP voting in her fourth season. Bird and Stewart won the title together in 2018 before each missed the 2019 season with injuries. They also both missed the final two games of the season, but the double-bye should benefit both, and another championship run could follow.

Fallen stars

Sabrina Ionescu, Liberty. The former Oregon star came to the Liberty as one of the most hyped WNBA prospects in recent memory. In her first game, she shot just four of 17. In her second game, she exploded with 33 points on 55 per cent shooting, plus seven rebounds and seven assists. In her third game, she played 12 minutes before suffering an ankle sprain that abruptly ended her season. The rest of New York's season was spent building a solid foundation to drop Ionescu into for her sophomore campaign.

Arike Ogunbowale, Wings. Another rising star, the 23-year-old Ogunbowale led the W in scoring in just her second season at 22.8 points per game. Unfortunately for the Notre Dame product, Dallas missed the playoffs on the final day of the season by just one game. But there's no doubt Ogunbowale is a rising star and a potential future MVP.

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