The New York Liberty snuck into the WNBA Playoffs on Sunday, earning a backdoor berth as both the Washington Mystics and Los Angeles Sparks lost their final games of the regular season. But the Liberty face a long road to a potential WNBA Championship thanks to the league’s punishing postseason system that puts lower-seeded teams at a heavy disadvantage.

WNBA Playoffs Finals odds
The Connecticut Sun and Las Vegas Aces will enjoy byes to the semifinals in the 2021 WNBA Playoffs. (Image: Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

New York, Los Angeles, and Washington all finished with identical 12-20 records. The Liberty held the best head-to-head mark between the three teams this season, earning the No. 8 seed.

How the WNBA Playoffs work

That puts New York at the bottom of the WNBA Playoffs pyramid, so to speak. The Liberty will have to win two rounds of single-elimination matchups in order to reach the semifinals, where the playoffs turn into a more traditional series-based affair.

The following graphic illustrates the structure of the WNBA Playoffs.

WNBA Playoffs Bracket
Image: WNBA/Twitter

Here’s how they work: the WNBA Playoffs begin on Thursday with the first round, in which the bottom four seeds face off in single-elimination games. The No. 5 Phoenix Mercury will host the No. 8 Liberty, while the No. 6 Chicago Sky will host the No. 7 Dallas Wings.

The two winners move on to the second round on Sept. 26. There, the No. 3 Minnesota Lynx will host the lowest remaining seed, while the No. 4 Seattle Storm host the higher-ranked team that advanced from the first round. These are, once again, single-elimination games: lose, and your season is over.

The second-round winners will then advance to the semifinal round. The top-seeded Connecticut Sun will get to play the lower-seeded survivor, while the No. 2 Las Vegas Aces play the remaining team. Each semifinal series is a best-of-five matchup beginning on Sept. 28. Connecticut and Las Vegas will host three of the potential five games in each semifinal.

The playoffs then wrap up with the WNBA Finals, beginning on Oct. 10. Once again, this is a best-of-five series, with the higher-seeded team hosting three of the five games.

Lower seeds face uphill postseason climb

It’s clear that the higher seeds have a massive structural advantage to go along with the fact that they are generally better teams. Since the WNBA Playoffs implemented this structure in 2016, all five champions have been seeded No. 1 or No. 2, and no team that’s played in the first round has reached the WNBA Finals.

WNBA Championship Odds (via FanDuel Sportsbook)
Connecticut Sun: +200
Las Vegas Aces: +220
Seattle Storm: +400
Minnesota Lynx: +750
Phoenix Mercury: +900
Chicago Sky: +2000
Dallas Wings: +10000
New York Liberty: +15000

Sportsbooks expect that pattern to continue this year. FanDuel Sportsbook lists the Connecticut Sun as the +200 pick to win the WNBA Championship in 2021, just ahead of the Las Vegas Aces (+220). The Seattle Storm (+400) remain a strong contender, as they will attempt to defend their title as the No. 4 seed.