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Sky have championship blueprint, but it will take a different approach to win back-to-back

Sky coach and general manager James Wade was fired up Tuesday, just over 24 hours before the team’s first playoff game in its bid for back-to-back WNBA championships.

The reason for his discontent: his perception that no one respects the sky, despite their being the no. 2 seed after tying the Aces for the best record in the league at 26-10.

Asked whether the defending champions are fueled by predictions they’ll lose to the seventh-seeded Liberty in the first round, Wade was concise.

“We’re like an electric car,” he said. “We don’t need fuel.”

They also don’t need to win in a sudden-death situation Wednesday. After six years of single-elimination games in the first two rounds of the playoffs, the WNBA has shifted to bracket-style play, with best-of-three series in the first round, followed by best-of-fives in the semifinals and finals

Players were adamant last year that single-elimination games have no place at the pro level, but the new format hasn’t completely satisfied them, either. The first two games of the first round are on the home court of the higher seed, with the third game, if necessary, hosted by the lower seed. Veteran Storm guard Sue Bird was vocal in her opinion that the first round should be home-away-home in favor of the higher seed — a sentiment with which Wade agrees. (Home-court advantage in the semifinals and finals follows a more traditional pattern, going to the higher seed for the first two games, the lower seed for the following two and back to the higher seed for Game 5.)

Although the Sky will benefit from home-court advantage to start, they’ll also be competing with a 10-player roster for the entirety of their playoff run after the Chinese national team pulled center Li Yueru from WNBA competition in preparation for the 2022 World Cup. Wade suspected the decision was related to Li’s lack of minutes. In 16 games for the Sky, she has averaged 1.8 points in five minutes.

“This is the best league in the world, and you have to respect it as such,” Wade said. “We’ve done everything in our power to make sure she was going to be ready and try to incorporate her with the team. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just unfortunate.”

Wade has led the Sky to the playoffs every year since he took over as coach and GM ahead of the 2019 season. The Sky were eliminated in single-elimination games his first two seasons. His third year began with them signing Candace Parker, the biggest free agent in franchise history, and ended with them winning their first title last October.

They enter this postseason with a clear target on their backs — and with a sense of urgency, despite not having the pressure of a single-elimination game.

The series against the Liberty will come down to a couple of keys, beginning with the Sky’s inside game. They led the WNBA with an average of 42.1 points in the paint during the regular season, while the Liberty finished last, averaging 31.2. The Sky also will need to limit point guard Sabrina Ionescu, who averages 17.4 points.

Coach Sandy Brondello took over the Liberty after leading the Mercury to the Finals against the Sky last year. Her husband, former Sky assistant coach Olaf Lange, joined her staff in the spring. The Liberty also signed former Sky center Stef Dolson during free agency last winter.

The Liberty fought for their playoff lives until the last day of the regular season, winning six of their last eight games. The Sky have a 3-1 edge in their regular-season meetings. However, Brondello’s team was without guard/forward Betnijah Laney for all four of those games. Laney returned Aug. 6 after surgery in June to repair a torn meniscus.

Although the Sky have the blueprint for a second championship, Parker is their only player with experience competing for back-to-back titles, having won in 2016 with the Sparks before they lost in the Finals to the Lynx in 2017.

“Regardless of whether you’re going back-to-back or winning a [first] championship, it takes a different mentality each time, and the thought that it’s an entirely different season,” Parker said.

Prediction: The Sky beat the Liberty in two games, top the Sun in four games in the semifinals and defeat the top-seeded Aces in five in the Finals.

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