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Outsports’ WNBA playoff guide: Out LGBTQ stars are leading the way

The road to a WNBA championship is paved in rainbow.

WNBA Finals - Game Three
In 2020 Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird held up the WNBA championship trophy. In 2021, they start a title defense from the fourth seed
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

As we head into the opening round of the 2021 WNBA Playoffs, we find 24 publicly out players across seven of the eight qualifying teams.

The league’s 25th postseason could be one of most fiercely competitive due, in part, to a contingent that the WNBA often downplayed at best or disavow at worst in its earlier years. The league’s LGBTQ players have always represented inclusion. Yet, many of those faces are also examples of excellence on it as well.

Of this group, seven won Olympic gold in Tokyo as member of the USA women’s 3x3 or 5x5 basketball teams. Eleven of them were in the top 10 for at least one statistical category during the regular season.

In the single elimination opening round, the Phoenix Mercury hope to have a healthier Diana Taurasi ready to go against the New York Liberty. The 39-year-old cornerstone at guard missed 15 games this year due to injury. When she’s on the floor, she’s considered one of the greatest players in league history.

Phoenix Mercury v New York Liberty
Natasha Howard (in white) helped push the Liberty to the playoffs, but they face a challenge in a do-or-die first round against Brittney Griner and the Mercury
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The New York Liberty scrambled their way into the last playoff spot in a furious final week, thanks to three-point ace Sami Whitcomb outside, and center Natasha Howard inside. Howard was Eastern Conference Player of the Week for her 24 point, 10-rebound effort in a win over the Washington Mystics to clinch the final playoff spot.

Her reward? A do-or-die date with Mercury center Brittney Griner, who is second in the league in scoring (20.5 points per game) and leads the league in blocked shots.

Chicago Sky v Washington Mystics
The Vanderquigs take aim on the Dallas Wings in the playoff opening round
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

In the other first-round game, the Dallas Wings take on the Chicago Sky. The Sky are paced in part by “The Vanderquigs:” the league’s leader in assists Courtney Vandersloot, and her spouse Allie Quigley. She connected from three-point range 45.4% of the time this season. That was good for second-best in the league.

The lowest-seeded survivor will meet the resurgent Minnesota Lynx in the second round. Much of the attention has been on Sylvia Fowles, who picked up defensive player of the year honors from the Associated Press this week. An emerging story has been a three-headed hydra at the guard spot between Layshia Clarendon, Crystal Dangerfield, and Aerial Powers.

Minnesota Lynx v Washington Mystics
Aerial Powers’ September surge helped earn the Lynx a pass into the second round
Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

Since coming to the Lynx after being released by the New York Liberty in May, Clarendon has been a spark plug, averaging nearly 11 points per game. A nagging leg injury has kept them shelved since August 31. Dangerfield, once a starter, has embraced a new role coming off the bench, but she has also been slowed by injury.

Powers came on in September, averaging 18 points per game, including a 27-point barrage against the Mystics that clinched a second-round spot for the Lynx.

The defending champion Seattle Storm await the higher-seeded survivor of the first round. The fourth seed is an unusual place to find one of the league’s most decorated teams, but with their trio of Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd, the women in green are a threat.

Stewart was her usual self his season, averaging 20.3 points per game (third in the league) and was fifth-best in rebounds per game. Loyd is putting up 17.9 points per game and nearly four assists per game.

WNBA Finals - Game Three
Sue Bird’s final playoff run could be one for the record books. She seeks a WNBA-record fifth championship for Seattle Storm
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Bird has the most to play for. She is among the league leaders in assists, and she’s second-best in number of three-point field goals made this season.

But the most important stat for her is a career goal. At 40 years old, Bird has her eyes set winning a record fifth WNBA championship for the only team she’s ever played for.

The road to the title will go through the two teams at the top. For the second-seeded Las Vegas Aces, the memories of being swept in last year’s WNBA final are still fresh, and losing perennial all-star Angel McCoughtry to a preseason ACL tear dampened prospects further. In response, the rest of the team expanded and continued to shine.

Two examples are backcourt veterans who have found their stride. Chelsea Gray is fourth-best in the league in assists averaging six per game, and has continued to improve since her stint on the U.S. Olympic team. While eight-year veteran Riquna Williams hasn’t been a consistent starter since 2015, she’s started every game for the Aces this season and became a three-point threat, shooting 41.7% from the arc in 2021.

Las Vegas Aces v Connecticut Sun
Chelsea Gray (in black) wants redemption for the 2020 WNBA Final, but to may have to go through the Connecticut Sun to earn it
Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images

At the top seed are the surging, surprising Connecticut Sun, who are on a 14-game winning streak. They also lead in the number of publicly out LGBTQ players in this postseason with six.

Two of that six, Natisha Hiedeman and emerging assists ace Jasmine Thomas, recently announced their engagement to each other. Veteran DeWanna Bonner has her eye on a third WNBA championship ring.

Connecticut Sun v Dallas Wings
Jonquel Jones is on a lot of short-list for WNBA MVP honors
Photo by Cooper Neill/NBAE via Getty Images

MVP candidate Jonquel Jones is also one of Connecticut’s out players. The fourth-year forward sat out last season due to COVID concerns, but had a torrid 2021 season with 19.4 points per game, fourth-best in the league. She also leads the WNBA in rebounds (11.2 per game), double doubles (18), and in plus-minus (12.4).

With Jones leading the way, and with the return of last year’s postseason standout Alyssa Thomas, this could be Connecticut’s year to finally win the WNBA championship.

A title would also add an important phrase to Head Coach Curt Miller’s bio: The first out gay male head coach in major professional sport to win a league championship.