WNBA playoffs 2020: Sun, Lynx embrace underdog role in WNBA semifinals

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Bonner fired up after and-1 layup (0:30)

Alyssa Thomas threads the needle with a pinpoint bounce pass to DeWanna Bonner, who finishes with an and-1 layup and lets out a roar of excitement. (0:30)

On one side of the WNBA's 2020 semifinal bracket are two teams -- No. 1 seed Las Vegas and No. 7 Connecticut -- that haven't won a league title. On the other side, No. 2 Seattle and No. 4 Minnesota have combined to win seven championships, including six in the past decade.

When the semifinals start Sunday -- the Aces face the Sun at 1 p.m. ET (ESPN/ESPN App), followed by Lynx-Storm at 3 p.m. ET (ABC/ESPN App) -- the top two seeds are considered clear favorites. Las Vegas and Seattle -- which have had a week's rest -- both finished the regular season at 18-4, and they swept their semifinal opponents during the regular season.

So the Sun and the Lynx will fully embrace the underdog role. Here's how the two series shape up.

Connecticut-Las Vegas: Good execution on both ends

In style of play, the Aces and the Sun do what they do very well, and they have some key similarities. Neither team is known for the long ball, and both are strong defensively. During the regular season, Las Vegas ranked last in 3-pointers per game (4.2); Connecticut was tied for next to last (5.9). That said, the Sun made nine 3-pointers as they trounced No. 3 seed Los Angeles 73-59 in Thursday's second round.

Also in the regular season, the Aces were second in the league in defensive rating (97.2) and the Sun were fourth (99.5).

Las Vegas won both previous meetings with Connecticut this season: 99-78 on Aug. 20 and 93-78 on Sept. 3. Aces guard Kayla McBride had one of her best games of the season in the first victory, with 25 points, and A'ja Wilson -- named the league MVP on Thursday after averaging 20.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in the regular season -- had 24 points in the second meeting.

That second matchup showed off another big Las Vegas strength: its bench, which is the best in the league. Jackie Young and Dearica Hamby -- both starter-level talents whom coach Bill Laimbeer prefers to use as reserves who each average over 25 minutes per game -- had 20 points apiece in the latter win against Connecticut.

The Sun stick to the tried-and-true formula of complaining about being underestimated while actually thriving in the underdog role. They rode that train all the way to the last game of the WNBA Finals last season, and they're on it again this year.

"We are absolutely excited that no one is going to pick us," coach Curt Miller said. "Even if it's not happening, we're going to use the disrespect card."

The Sun not being picked to win has nothing to do with "disrespect" and everything to do with them being the lower seed by a lot in the matchups with Los Angeles and Las Vegas. But whatever motivation works is understandably used, and in the end, the Sun totally outplayed Chicago and Los Angeles. Connecticut started 0-5 this season, but that is a distant memory.

Connecticut has back just two starters -- forward Alyssa Thomas and guard/forward Jasmine Thomas -- from last year's WNBA runner-up team. But guard/forward DeWanna Bonner brought the same skill and motor she had for 10 seasons in Phoenix to Connecticut, and veteran guard Briann January has been a good addition as well. Forward Brionna Jones also has made the most of a bigger role in the post after Jonquel Jones opted out of this season.

The Sun came to Connecticut from Orlando in 2003, and they've been to the WNBA Finals three times. The Aces are in just their third season in Las Vegas. The franchise itself dates to the start of the WNBA in 1997, when it was the Utah Starzz. The team moved to San Antonio in 2003.

In the final years in San Antonio, the franchise was left to die on the vine, very different treatment from what it has had from much more enthusiastic ownership in Las Vegas. But like the Golden Knights in the NHL, the Aces have had pretty rapid success in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas is missing center Liz Cambage (medical exemption) and guard Kelsey Plum (Achilles injury) this season. But Cambage's absence in the middle has given Wilson more space inside to maneuver. And Carolyn Swords -- who quickly came out of retirement earlier this year to fill in at center again -- knows her role and plays it well. Although Plum's absence hurt the Aces from 3-point range, they've adapted. The addition of free-agent veteran Angel McCoughtry (14.4 PPG, 5.1 RPG) has been a huge lift to the team.

Seattle-Minnesota: Two former champs looking for another title run

Seattle came into the season as the league favorite to win the championship and finished tied for the best record. But with both forward Breanna Stewart and point guard Sue Bird sitting out the final regular-season game -- a loss to Las Vegas -- to try to get healthier for the playoff run, the Storm dropped to the No. 2 seed. That might not be a bad thing as they pursue the franchise's fourth WNBA title.

It's not that the Storm haven't handled the front-runners role well, because they have. But maybe they will thrive with a little less spotlight on them and a little more pressure on the Aces. And Stewart -- the 2018 MVP who was the primary competitor with Wilson for that honor this year -- is likely to embrace the "OK, watch me now" role in the postseason. She averaged 19.7 points and 8.3 rebounds in the regular season and didn't miss a beat coming back after being out last season with a torn Achilles.

The Storm have other big weapons, led by guard Jewell Loyd (15.5 PPG), who at any time is capable of going off as a scorer. And they have a deep group of players who are very steady but also can have breakout offensive games, including forwards Alysha Clark and Natasha Howard and guards Jordin Canada and Sami Whitcomb. Orchestrating all of it, the Storm hope, will be Bird, who has been limited to 11 games because of knee issues.

When Bird is on the court, never mind that she's 39. She is still the consummate expert at directing the offense, and her presence gives more confidence to everyone else for Seattle.

The Storm have said all along in 2020 that this isn't just a repeat of their 2018 season, when they won the franchise's third championship, even though so much of the personnel is the same. Coach Dan Hughes is working remotely because of health concerns, so Gary Kloppenburg has been head coach in the bubble but with Hughes still very involved from afar.

The Storm's depth should work in their favor, and they won the regular-season matchups with Minnesota pretty handily: 90-66 way back on July 28, then 103-88 on Sept. 6. But they also know the Lynx didn't get this far without serious aspirations of a title.

Sure, the Lynx seem a little more like the scrappy bunch that just keeps finding a way. Cheryl Reeve, named Coach of the Year on Thursday, has continued to push the right buttons despite injuries. She has coached when the Lynx were the best team in the league -- they won four titles between 2011 and 2017 -- and she has adjusted to a team that has mostly remade itself since its last title.

Star center Sylvia Fowles (calf injury) is one holdover, but the Lynx didn't have her for about two-thirds of this season. She returned in their 80-79 playoff win over Phoenix on Thursday, playing 18 minutes with six points and four rebounds. But she's not playing at her normal dominant level right now.

On Thursday, the Lynx got a terrific game inside from Damiris Dantas (22 points, eight rebounds) and all-around strong perimeter play. Guards Crystal Dangerfield, the WNBA Rookie of the Year, Odyssey Sims and Rachel Banham combined for 42 points against the Mercury.

The Lynx were right in the middle of the pack (sixth) in scoring this regular season at 84.4 PPG. The Storm were second at 87.5. The net rating is more of a concern for Minnesota. The Storm, with both the top offensive rating and defensive rating, also have the league's best net rating at 15.0. The Lynx are fourth in net rating at 5.1.

The bottom line: From a perimeter standpoint, the Lynx have to play similar to the way they did in beating Phoenix. But Minnesota must get much more inside, including from forward Napheesa Collier. She didn't have many touches in the win against Phoenix -- going 2-of-6 from the field -- and the Lynx need to have her more involved if they hope to take the series from the Storm.