Caissa Casarez

WNBA Playoffs Preview: Anyone's Game

With the condensed regular season in the rear-view mirror, the focus now turns to the WNBA Playoffs. And if it's anything like the slate of games that just ended over the weekend, fans new and old will be in for a treat.

The Seattle Storm and the Atlanta Dream clinched the first and second seeds, respectively, giving them the coveted double-bye into the semifinals starting Sunday, August 26. The Washington Mystics (#3) and the Connecticut Sun (#4) get some time off before their first games as well; their single-bye means they won't play until the second round on Thursday, August 23.

The postseason action officially starts Tuesday, August 21, with a first round that not many saw coming at the beginning of the season. The eight-seed Dallas Wings (who clinched after beating Las Vegas on Friday) travel to Phoenix to take on the #5 Mercury in the first game (8:30 PM Eastern). And the defending champion Minnesota Lynx (#7) will take on their arch-rival Los Angeles Sparks (#6) in the nightcap (10:30 PM Eastern).

Yes, you read right. The teams that have met in the past two WNBA finals will meet again, this time in the single-elimination first round. If that doesn't explain how strong this league is, I don't know what will.

For this week, I am going to preview each title contender and predict how far they'll get in the playoffs. With the postseason format the way it is, the brackets will look completely different by the end of the weekend.

And that's the way I like it.

Here we go! In order of regular-season finish...

Seattle Storm

Record: 26-8 (1st overall)

I wrote a few weeks back about how the Storm would have to prioritize some things in the last weeks of the regular season, and it seems they did just that to their advantage. Seattle clinched the top seed in the league, and in the playoffs, but the Storm are showing no signs of backing down anytime soon. They have a likely MVP candidate (if not winner) in Breanna Stewart, a likely Coach of the Year nominee in Dan Hughes, a great starting five (Natasha Howard for Most Improved, anyone?) and supporting bench, and some of the best fans in sports. Something tells me that the Storm are going to use their days off and home-court advantage to their benefit.

Predicted Finish: WNBA Champions

Atlanta Dream

Record: 23-11 (2nd overall, 1st in the Eastern Conference)

Another example of how strong the WNBA is this year can be seen in the playoff standings. The Eastern Conference has three of the top four seeds, led by the resurging Atlanta Dream, who officially clinched the second seed in a come-from-behind win at Las Vegas on Sunday. They too have prioritized the right things, even with All-Star Angel McCoughtry out for the year. Atlanta is returning to the playoffs after just one season away, and they've made a splash in the postseason before it's even begun. The team made some key off-season moves including bringing in first-year head coach Nicki Collen, who's won two of the three Coach of the Month awards this season. I think the rest before the semifinals will do the Dream good as well; I just hope people in the Atlanta area turn out to see them since they have home-court advantage in the semis.

Predicted Finish: WNBA Finals appearance, runners-up

Washington Mystics

Record: 22-12 (3rd overall)

The Mystics overcame a so-so start to the 2018 campaign to finish second in the East, and third overall. Washington peaked at the right time in the regular season, going a perfect 4-0 at home in August (along with Atlanta and Connecticut). All-Star captain Elena Delle Donne, who just won a Player of the Month award for August, is leading a Mystics squad who looks to make some noise after improving their finish from last year. Rookies and veterans alike are also stepping up for the team, which should make their run entertaining no matter what happens.

Predicted Finish: A narrow loss in the semifinals

Connecticut Sun

Record: 21-13 (4th overall)

The Sun also finished in fourth place last season after a peak of their own at the end of 2017. They then lost to then-No. 5 seed Phoenix in their only game of the playoffs. I don't expect that to happen this year. Curt Miller and his team got a taste of the postseason that many didn't expect last year and they want more. Despite a tough stretch in the middle of the year, this Sun squad is eager to show off how they've improved since 2017. One big example of that is the return of All-Star Chiney Ogwumike, who missed last season while recovering from an Achilles injury. Other players have improved as well, including Player of the Week award winner Jonquel Jones.

Predicted Finish: A narrow loss in the semifinals

Phoenix Mercury

Record: 20-14 (5th overall)

Phoenix spent a good amount of time near the top of the league standings during the first part of the season. The Mercury went on to finish fifth, going to the playoffs without a bye for the second straight year. Despite that, don't count this team out just yet. Phoenix rode a four-game winning streak into the end of the regular season thanks in part to some team staples and some new favorites. The Mercury also had two players take home league-wide awards this week; Diana Taurasi was named a WNBA Player of the Month for August while DeWanna Bonner won a Player of the Week accolade. The latter has especially had a great season after missing 2017 due to having twins, but the entire team is just getting hot. (No pun intended.)

Predicted Finish: Second-round loss (but they'll be back)

Los Angeles Sparks

Record: 19-15 (6th overall)

While much of the talk this year about dominant teams not doing so well has revolved around the Lynx, the same could easily be said for the Sparks. Many are shocked –- but not surprised –- to see the two powerhouses playing each other in the first round instead of the Finals. (Again, the league is strong.) Los Angeles could be without Nneka Ogwumike for Tuesday night's game, as she is listed as questionable with an illness. The Sparks also ended the regular season with two straight losses. Despite that and the teams' finishes lower in the standings, it should still be an action-filled game just the same. There is a reason why the Sparks have had such big success in the postseason, after all. It will be interesting, however, to see if Los Angeles can bring a home-court advantage for just one game.

Predicted Finish: Narrow loss in the first round

Minnesota Lynx

Record: 18-16 (7th overall)

The defending champions clinched their league-best eighth consecutive playoff berth earlier this month. While there's no single or double-bye to go with it, this Lynx squad should not be ruled out in the postseason, even with their regular-season struggles this year. Despite those struggles, Minnesota has had some bright spots this year. Reigning MVP Sylvia Fowles won the league's Peak Performer award with a single-season rebounds record of 404, Maya Moore continues to be Maya, and the younger players are starting to find themselves too. Likely future starting guard Danielle Robinson is out indefinitely, but we could see Rebekkah Brunson back in action in Tuesday's game (upgraded to questionable). While Lynx head coach/general manager Cheryl Reeve and co. have some big off-season tasks in the winter -- including trying to replace some little-known player named Lindsay –- the current squad will look to enjoy the ride as long as they can.

Predicted Finish: Loss in the second round
(Minnesota fans please remember it's an even year they'll be fine)

Dallas Wings

Record: 15-19 (8th overall)

Dallas had a positive end to what could have been a bad season. After a nine-game losing streak and the firing of their head coach, the Wings secured the final playoff spot in a close win over Las Vegas on Friday. Despite the team's losing record in the regular season, many are making the push for Liz Cambage to be named MVP, and with good reason. She's set record after record in her first WNBA season since 2013, the biggest being scoring a league-best 53 points in Dallas' win over New York (July 17). Cambage averaged a league-best 23.0 points per game this year, giving her the WNBA's Peak Performer Award for scoring. The Wings have had their own share of injury troubles, but they were able to sign former Atlanta guard Maggie Lucas after getting a medical hardship roster exemption. The offseason looks tough for Dallas as well, as the team will look for a permanent head coach and push to keep Cambage stateside. But something tells me the Wings will make the most of their playoff run no matter what.

Predicted Finish: Loss in the first round

Both of Tuesday night's games, and many of the following contests, can be seen on ESPN2. Buckle up!

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