WNBA playoffs: Aces hold onto No. 1 seed; Liberty could be on first-round upset watch

Mystics guard Brittney Sykes' last-second bucket beats Liberty in regular-season finale as the teams meet again in first-round playoff series

It was a strong vertical by Washington Mystics guard Brittney Sykes that ultimately decided the race for the No. 1 seed between the Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty.

With a half-second left on the clock in a tie game, Sykes elevated in the paint to receive the inbound from Natasha Cloud and hit the winning bucket over Breanna Stewart for a 90-88 victory in the regular-season finale at Barclays Center. The Liberty needed a win to keep their hopes of a tie atop the standings alive.

Instead, the Aces held onto the No. 1 seed even without their 100-85 season-closing victory against the Phoenix Mercury. It was their 11th game hitting the century mark.

Most teams were locked into their seeds heading into the final day of the 2023 regular season, which featured all 12 teams in action at either 1 or 3 p.m. ET. The Atlanta Dream held onto the No. 5 seed despite their loss to the Dallas Wings since the Minnesota Lynx also lost to the Indiana Fever in the early window.

It means two first-round series will be rematches of games played Sunday. The No. 2 Liberty and No. 7 Mystics, who snapped New York’s eight-game winning streak, will tip off their series on Friday as will the No. 4 Wings and No. 5 Dream.

The eight-team playoffs begin Wednesday with No. 6 Minnesota at No. 3 Connecticut followed by No. 8 Chicago at No. 1 Las Vegas, the reigning champions with their starting five from the 2022 Finals intact.

The first round is a best-of-three series with the first two games at the higher seed and a Game 3, if needed, heading to the lower seed’s home court. The WNBA changed its postseason format ahead of last year to avoid a single-elimination game in the opening round and extended time off for the two top seeds.

Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum drives against Phoenix Mercury guard Moriah Jefferson during their game on Sept. 10, 2023 in Las Vegas. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Here are the takeaways from the end of the regular season and the TV schedule.

2023 WNBA playoff seeds, matchups and schedule

No. 1 Las Vegas Aces (34-6) vs. No. 8 Chicago Sky (17-22)
No. 2 New York Liberty (32-8) vs. No. 7 Washington Mystics (19-21)
No. 3 Connecticut Sun (27-13) vs. No. 6 Minnesota Lynx (19-21)
No. 4 Dallas Wings (22-18) vs. No. 5 Atlanta Dream (19-21)

Wednesday (Game 1)

No. 6 Minnesota at No. 3 Connecticut, 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2
No. 8 Chicago at No. 1 Las Vegas, 10 p.m. ET on ESPN

Friday (Game 1)

No. 7 Washington at No. 2 New York, 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2
No. 5 Atlanta at No. 4 Dallas, 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2

Sunday (Game 2)

No. 6 Minnesota at No. 3 Connecticut, 1 p.m. ET on ESPN
No. 8 Chicago at No. 1 Las Vegas, 3 p.m. ET on ABC

Tuesday, Sept. 19 (Game 2)

No. 7 Washington at No. 2 New York, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN
No. 5 Atlanta at No. 4 Dallas, 9 p.m. ET on ESPN

Wednesday, Sept. 20 (Game 3, if necessary)

No. 3 Connecticut at No. 6 Minnesota, TBD on ESPN
No. 1 Las Vegas at No. 8 Chicago, TBD on ESPN

Friday, Sept. 22 (Game 3, if necessary)

No. 2 New York at No. 7 Washington, TBD on ESPN2
No. 4 Dallas at No. 5 Atlanta, TBD on ESPN2

Las Vegas holds onto No. 1 seed

The Aces came into the season as overwhelming favorites to win a second consecutive title, which would make them the first team to go back-to-back since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001 and ’02. That held throughout much of the first half of the season as they eclipsed historic win marks and their “super-team” counterpart, the Liberty, attempted to build quick chemistry.

New York eventually did and split the regular-season series against the Aces, 2-2, as well as defeated the Aces on their home court in August to win the Commissioner’s Cup trophy. It was the first championship the New York franchise has won and the team lifted a banner at Barclays on Sunday. Since the Liberty won their final matchup, they have been chasing a tie atop the standings that would be broken by a tiebreaker. But the Aces always held the upper hand by ending their season with two games against the struggling Mercury.

Las Vegas will host Chicago, which won five of its final six. The Sky’s one loss was to New York and they closed with a 102-91 overtime win against the Sun. Courtney Williams posted a 23-point, 16-rebound, 13-assist triple-double and Connecticut gave heavy minutes to its bench.

Are Liberty on upset alert early?

New York fell behind by 12 points against the Mystics and battled its way back to a tie game with under 30 seconds to play. This is nothing new for New York, which seems to toy with its fans’ heart rates on a game-by-game basis. Stewart scored the game-tying bucket off a sequence of good ball movement by New York and blocked Elena Delle Donne on the other end. It appeared to be going to overtime until referees added three-tenths of a second to the 0.2 clock and Sykes won the game.

The season series is tied, 2-2. New York opened and closed its season with losses to Washington. In the middle are two wins. The first was by one point, 89-88, in overtime in June that featured a double-digit Liberty comeback, and the next by nine, 96-87, in July.

Breanna Stewart and the New York Liberty celebrate after a basket against the Washington Mystics on Sept. 10, 2023, at Barclays Center in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Breanna Stewart and the New York Liberty celebrate after a basket against the Washington Mystics on Sept. 10, 2023, at Barclays Center in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The Mystics plummeted to the No. 7 seed due to a two-month string of injuries that kept three of their five starters out of the lineup. Delle Donne and Ariel Atkins have returned, but Shakira Austin is again out with a hip injury and veteran reserve Kristi Toliver sustained a torn ACL last week.

It’s not the first-round series Liberty fans would prefer. The franchise sold most of its lower-bowl tickets for the first two games at Barclays and would likely open the upper bowl as it has for games against the Aces. If it goes to a Game 3, the decider will be played at the Mystics’ Entertainment and Sports Arena in D.C. It’s not only a problem for home-court advantage reasons. The arena seats only 4,200.

Topsy-turvy final weeks for middle of standings

The 2023 regular season was defined by a clear upper tier while the rest moved up and down the line graph in the standings. The Aces, Liberty and Sun pulled away from the rest, and that remains true heading into the postseason.

The Wings are heading in off double-digit wins against the Storm (106-91) Dream (94-77). But since the start of August, Dallas has matched its winning streaks with losing streaks. The Wings lost three, then won three. Lost two, won two, lost two more and now won two more. The No. 6 seed Lynx have done much of the same and are on a two-game losing skid. They head into the first round off a 15-point loss to the Fever while playing their starters most of the game.

The Dream, a No. 5 seed with a losing record, are 4-8 over their last 12 games with losses to three of the four lottery teams.

Single-season record holders

Multiple single-season records fell Sunday because of the extended 40-game season, up from a previous high of 36.

POINTS: Diana Taurasi held the record with 860 points scored in 2006. It’s now held by Storm guard Jewell Loyd, who scored 939 this season. She edged Stewart (919 points) and A’ja Wilson (876) as they all beat out Taurasi over the final weeks of the season. Arike Ogunbowale scored 32 points in the finale, but fell 11 points short of Taurasi.

Loyd was close to overcoming Taurasi’s 25.294 points per game record all season and finished just shy at 24.711. She needed 51 points in the finale to break it and scored 17 in the first quarter against the Sparks. Loyd, who signed a two-year extension on Saturday, finished with 28 points in the 91-89 loss. Stewart’s 22.975 ppg in 2023 ranks 10th all time and Wilson’s 22.8 ranks 11th.

Seattle Storm guard Jewell Loyd scored a single-season record 939 points in 2023. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Seattle Storm guard Jewell Loyd scored a single-season record 939 points in 2023. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

REBOUNDS: Sylvia Fowles still holds the record with 404 in 2018. Sun forward Alyssa Thomas finished with 394, 10 short of Fowles and good for fourth place all time behind Jonquel Jones (403, 2017) and Tina Charles (398, 2010). Thomas played only 16 minutes in the Sun’s meaningless game against the Sky on Sunday. Charles is also fifth (374, 2011) and now trailed immediately by Wilson (372) and Stewart (371).

ASSISTS: Thomas dished out 316 assists this season to edge Courtney Vandersloot’s 314. Each had four assists on Sunday. Vandersloot held the record with 300 in 2019. Aces point guard Chelsea Gray (291) finished fourth after eight assists on Sunday. Sky guard Courtney Williams (251) and Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud (229) are both top 10 with their 2023 totals.

Brittney Griner’s first season after detainment

The season tipped with all eyes in Los Angeles where Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner made her return to the WNBA court after her wrongful detainment in Russia. She came back to the United States in a prisoner exchange in December.

Griner said Friday after a loss to the Aces she wasn’t happy with her performance overall this season “no matter what happened or what I went through.” Griner averaged 17.4 points (ranking 13th) on 55.1% shooting. She added 6.4 rebounds (19th, near a career low), 2.2 assists and 1.6 blocks (third) per game.

“Next year I will definitely say will be different,” Griner, 32, said. “I’m in a unique situation now where I no longer go overseas now, so I actually get to take a chance to actually really work on my game and not have to worry [about] what my team overseas needs from me. I can worry about what the Mercury need from me for the next season and seasons to come.”

The Mercury ended on an 11-game losing skid and a packed injured list that included Diana Taurasi, who eclipsed 10,000 career points last month but hasn’t played since Aug. 29 with a toe injury. Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith (maternity leave) are both unrestricted free agents this offseason.

The Aces' A'ja Wilson and the Mercury's Brittney Griner hug on the court after the teams' regular-season finale on Sept. 10, 2023, in Las Vegas. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
The Aces' A'ja Wilson and the Mercury's Brittney Griner hug on the court after the teams' regular-season finale on Sept. 10, 2023, in Las Vegas. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Look ahead to 2024: Lottery odds favor the Fever

The Los Angeles Sparks, Indiana Fever, Seattle Storm and Phoenix Mercury were eliminated from the postseason ahead of their Sunday finales. Only the Fever were in the 2022 lottery and because of their two-year record (18-58) they have the best odds (44.2%) at receiving the No. 1 overall pick in the draft lottery usually held in December.

They’re followed by the Mercury (24-52, 27.6% odds at first pick), Sparks (30-46, 17.8%) and Storm (33-43, 10.4%). It is the final year collegiate players can opt to take a fifth season under the NCAA COVID-19 policy. The 2024 draft could include Caitlin Clark, Paige Bueckers, Cameron Brink, Angel Reese and Hailey Van Lith.