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12 takeaways playoff preview: Los Angeles Sparks gear up for surging Phoenix Mercury

The WNBA playoffs are a cruel world for the New York Liberty and Connecticut Sun. After earning the three and four seeds respectively, all they got was one single elimination game. Phoenix Mercury stars Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi walked into Connecticut high off their first-round win against the Seattle Storm and came back from a 17-point deficit to top the Sun:

Then, Elena Delle Donne and Kristi Toliver’s nine 3-pointers took all the air out of Madison Square Garden as Washington blew out the Liberty.

[More from Excelle Sports: Three reasons why the Washington Mystics upset the New York Liberty in the WNBA playoffs]

In some ways, having time off before the second-round might actually be a disadvantage. In a one game scenario, rust can be the difference, and the Mystics and Mercury may have benefitted from having already played. Additionally, in all four winner-take-all games this year, the team with the biggest star won.

But there’s no time to languish over yesterday’s results as the Mystics head to Minnesota on Tuesday and the Mercury head to Los Angeles.

Here are some central questions that could determine who prevails between the Mercury and the Sparks:

1. Can the Phoenix Mercury supporting cast play at a high level for an entire series

This makes two years in a row the Mercury have won two single elimination playoff games to advance to the semifinals. Diana Taurasi improved to 11-0 in winner-take-all playoff games. Brittney Griner has been unstoppable. But now the Mercury enter a best-of-five series against the defending champion Sparks. The Sparks have a star-studded lineup featuring Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, Chelsea Gray, Alana Beard and Odyssey Sims. Although nobody can guard Griner one-on-one, the combination of Parker and Ogwmike, with Jantel Lavendar and Essence Carson off the bench, is the best group to try to contain her. Additionally, Beard has a track record of disrupting even the most talented guards in the league, and should see time on Taurasi.

Thus, can Yvonne Turner, Leilani Mitchell, Camille Little, Monique Currie and the rest of the Mercury bench continue to produce like it did in the first two rounds of the playoffs? Griner and Taurasi are capable of stealing a game with huge performances, but they can’t win three out of five by themselves.

The teams met three times in the regular season with Los Angeles winning all three. Most recently, the Sparks beat the Mercury 82-67, but Phoenix was without Taurasi. On June 18th, the Sparks drilled the Mercury 90-59. June 10th was a closer affair, but the Sparks won 89-87. In that game, the Mercury got 48 points from Griner and Taurasi, and it still wasn’t enough.

Yvonne Turner is someone who could be a difference maker. Her speed could give Sims and Gray some problems attacking downhill. Although Beard could stick with her, the Sparks may elect to have Beard guard Taurasi. Turner’s ability to attack the basket and cut off-ball makes double-teaming Griner more difficult.

Can the Mercury force double-teams on Griner to open up their 3-point game?

The Mercury won Sunday’s game late in the fourth quarter when Mitchell, Taurasi and Currie connected on 3-pointers on three straight possessions. Phoenix’s only chance is to win the 3-point battle. But this requires getting open. The Sparks are second in defensive rating and are too disciplined to leave players wide open consistently. However, they do give up the second highest percentage of their points on 3-pointers, according to WNBA.com

One way for the Mercury to get open is off Griner double-teams. Griner has gotten so much better passing out of the double-teams, and the Mercury are doing a good job of moving the ball and moving players to expose teams that send extra help.

Additionally, Griner’s footwork is so elite, she’s able to anticipate double-teams and make quick moves in the opposite direction of the help. Watch her turn her shoulder away from the double-team and show off a variety of finishes:

Griner is also one of the best at drawing fouls and can change the dynamic of the game by putting the Sparks in foul trouble. Again, the Sparks have such a deep frontcourt that they should be able double off of the Mercury’s weaker 3-point shooters and also play Griner straight up. But this is an area the Mercury could gain an advantage.

Can the Sparks pull Griner away from the rim?

Brittney Griner’s sheer size alters shots at the rim. As good as Parker and Ogwumike are, Griner’s length could be a problem for them. The Mercury were third in the league in block percentage this year as well. It will be interesting to see if Sparks coach Brian Agler tries to draw Griner and Little away from the basket by using Parker and Ogwumike on the perimeter. This would open up driving lanes for Gray and Sims. Phoenix may live with Ogwumike and Parker shooting long two’s, though Ogwumike is effective from the mid-range.

An unorthodox strategy would be having Griner match up with Beard. This would allow Griner to stay under the basket and the Mercury would force Beard to beat them. Beard is capable though, and hit a buzzer-beater in last year’s WNBA Finals. She shot 32 percent on 3-pointers this year, which is solid for a defensive-minded player.

The Sparks versatility and offensive-balance will make it hard for the Mercury to keep Griner in her preferred defensive positioning.

Other Notes:

  • The Mercury led the league in opponent 3-point percentage, running players off the line and forcing them into mid-range shots or contested layups over Griner. However, the Sparks were just ninth in 3-pointers made and attempted this season and don’t rely on them to win.
  • The Sparks are coming into the playoffs on a seven game winning streak, the second longest streak in WNBA history. The New York Liberty set the record this year with 10 straight wins going into the playoffs, but lost to the Mystics in its single elimination game.

Prediction: Sparks in four.

Los Angeles is well-built to defend the Mercury, and Phoenix lacks the offensive depth to beat them three times. The Mercury might take one game as they are playing well and coming in with momentum. The Sparks could be rusty after a nine day layoff, so Game 1 is a candidate for a Mercury upset.

Phoenix will make the Sparks work as they have several gritty perimeter defenders, but Los Angeles is comfortable operating in both the half-court and in transition. Ogwumike and Parker should be able to draw Griner away from the basket on the defensive end. The defending champs have too many offensive options to be vulnerable.

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