Liberty

2023 WNBA Playoffs: A Semifinal Showdown Has Commenced

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Playoff basketball is different.

We hear this all the time, but what makes it so different? As the overall talent level of the teams increases into the playoffs, risky defensive strategies like pressing and trapping become less advantageous. Crashing the boards at a high rate or thriving on getting to the free throw line has not proven to be sustainable late into the season.

Extreme styles of play do not have the same amount of postseason success as opponents have more time and resources to combat them.

So far, the 2023 WNBA Playoffs have confirmed many of those trends.

WNBA Playoffs: Four Factors

Because defenses play with a more solid base and are relatively more conservative than in the regular season, the turnover percentage has gone down significantly from 16.6% in the regular season to 15.2% in the playoffs.

The free-throw rate has fallen considerably as teams have more time to scout opponents and devise schemes to protect themselves from allowing easy baskets. Fouls are down from 17.9 fouls per game to 14.8 as the physicality is typically allowed to pick up in the postseason as well.

In the regular season, teams attempted 20 or more free throws in a game 40% of the time; in the playoffs, only 15% of teams have attempted 20 or more.

Teams are forced to take more jump shots, and the number of three-point attempts has increased from 22.1 to 23.5 per game. The spacing from these dynamic offensive units, who are shooting a higher percentage from the three-point line despite shooting even more threes, creates larger gaps to close in rebounding. As a result, the offensive rebounding percentage has jumped over three percentage points since the regular season.

To win in the postseason, teams need to have a more dynamic style of play that can shape-shift depending on the opposing team’s strengths and weaknesses. Can they play big and small? Can they play at different paces? Can they score from the paint and on the perimeter? Do they have proven adjustments that they can seamlessly turn to within the course of a game?

WNBA Playoffs Recap

The first round of the WNBA playoffs came and went with little drama. Dallas overpowered Atlanta in two games in the best of three opening round. Chicago never threatened Las Vegas who also won in two games.

Minnesota was able to steal a game at Connecticut to force a Game 3 at home, but a dominant Sun performance allowed them to advance to the semifinals. Washington made things difficult for New York as they had all season, but the Game 2 overtime thriller went the way of the Liberty.

The semifinals consist of the top four teams and two intriguing matchups.

As both semifinals turn to Game 3 of a best-of-five series, the defending-champion Las Vegas Aces are one game away from making their third championship appearance in the last four seasons. Dallas can beat the Aces as they’ve proven earlier this season, but the Wings do not appear to have enough answers and versatility to do it three straight times.

New York, meanwhile, was upset in Game 1 against Connecticut but managed to tie the series in Game 2.

How can the Liberty punch their ticket to the Finals? Do the Sun have enough offense to continue their Cinderella run?

No. 2 New York vs. No. 3 Connecticut Sun (Tied 1-1)

How New York Will Beat Connecticut

Since the August 24th match-up, New York has seemed to figure out how to neutralize Alyssa Thomas.

 

In the last three games against New York, Thomas has shot 24.2% from the field (8-33 FG). She has only averaged 8.7 PPG in those three games. Without her, Connecticut’s offense falls flat.

New York has found a formula defensively with MVP Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones impacting the game. The Liberty’s shift to playing more zone has also caused Connecticut fits. It eliminates Thomas from taking advantage of 1-on-1 opportunities. She is a non-threat on the perimeter. She hasn’t made a three since 2014.

For New York’s offense, it simply comes down to dominating the paint. Doing so will open up easy catch-and-shoot threes.

New York’s X-Factor

Jonquel Jones is the one player that Connecticut simply cannot matchup with. Playing for the Liberty after six seasons in a Connecticut Sun uniform, the 2021 WNBA MVP is too big and strong for the Sun.

The Sun did have an answer at one point this season. An unfortunate Achilles injury ended Brionna Jones’s season in June. The Sun have done an admirable job of adapting. Thomas stepped up with one of the most incredible individual seasons in WNBA history.

But Jonquel Jones can be a nightmare to defend when she’s mixing it up inside. She’s had double-digit rebounds in 18 games this year, including all four games of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, her inconsistency on the offensive end has plagued her all season. In the first round against Washington, Jones attempted 16 free throws. In the two games in the semifinals, she’s only attempted 5.

On August 24th at Connecticut, the Liberty won a 95-90 overtime thriller. Jonquel Jones played 33 minutes, had 21 points on 8-16 shooting and 5-5 from free throw. She added 14 rebounds and two blocks.

If she can come close to those numbers, the Sun won’t be able to find an answer.

The Liberty have so many weapons on both ends. They are the most versatile team in the league.

That’s what wins games in the postseason.

How Connecticut Will Beat New York

Game 1 was a perfect storm for Connecticut defensively. They held New York’s sharp-shooting offense to 39.7% eFG%, the Liberty’s lowest since the first game of the season. The Sun also forced 14 turnovers and only allowed 12 free-throw attempts for the entire game.

Stewart was 3-13 from the field, Sabrina Ionescu was 1-6 from three, and Jonquel Jones was 5-12 with only one free-throw attempt.

To rely solely on their defense to beat the Liberty three times is going to be nearly impossible for the Sun. They’re going to have to find more answers offensively.

If the Liberty are going to continue playing zone, the Sun will have to hit shots from outside. In the six games this season against New York, Connecticut has shot under their season average of 35.9% from three.

They’re also going to have to emphasize crashing the boards, which should be easier against the Liberty’s zone. In Game 1, the Sun had 12 offensive rebounds (40.0% OREB%). In Game 2, they only had 6.

Connecticut’s X-Factor

The x-factor for the Sun is Tiffany Hayes. She’s been the most consistent Sun in the six games against the Liberty. This includes Game 2 of the playoffs, where she played over 36 minutes and scored a season-high 30 points on 12-19 shooting from the field. As the Liberty continue to focus on neutralizing Thomas and DeWanna Bonner, Coach of the Year Stephanie White is going to have to keep Hayes on the floor for her offensive firepower.

The Sun are going to have to take some calculated risks to knock off the Liberty, but stealing Game 1 at New York provides them with a little leverage heading back home for Game 3.

About Kenyon Wingenbach

High school girls' basketball head coach and educator at West Fargo Public Schools (North Dakota).

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