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First Round Playoff Preview: (5) Phoenix Mercury vs. (8) Seattle Storm

Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird.

They have won championships together at UConn and in Russia and have won gold medals together as part of Team USA. But in the WNBA, they have been opponents as the franchise stars for the Phoenix Mercury and Seattle Storm, respectively.

They have five WNBA titles between them – two for Bird (2004 and 2010) and three for Taurasi (2007, 2009 and 2014) – as they have established themselves as two of the best players in the history of the league.

Speaking of history, they each made their share this season. In June, Taurasi passed Tina Thompson to becomes the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer. She finished the season with 7,858 career points and will set the bar much higher for future scorers to chase. Last week, Bird passed Ticha Penicheiro as the WNBA’s all-time leader in assists as she surpassed the 2,600-assist mark, further cementing her case as the league’s greatest point guard.

While they have faced each other countless times over the past 13 years, Wednesday’s first round playoff matchup (10 ET, ESPN2) will be just the fourth time that they have squared off in the postseason. Taurasi has the edge as her Mercury defeated the Storm in the first round in both 2007 and 2011, while Bird had to go through Taurasi and the Mercury in the Western Conference Finals en route to the 2010 championship.

It has been six years since the two last meet in the playoffs. At that time, Brittney Griner was set to enter her junior year at Baylor, while Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart were both still in high school. The only other player involved in that previous meeting is Camille Little, who was a member of the Storm then, but now suits up for the Mercury.

As intriguing as it is to see Bird and Taurasi competing on the playoff stage once again, this single-elimination series will also feature some of the brightest up and coming talent in the league. Griner, Stewart and Loyd represent three of the last five No. 1 overall picks in the WNBA Draft with Loyd and Stewart winning Rookie of the Year honors in their debut seasons and Griner winning a pair of Defensive Player of the Year awards.

This year, Griner won her first scoring title by averaging a career-best 21.9 points per game. The runner-up was Stewart with a career-high 19.9 scoring average. In all, this series features four of the top nine scorers in the league this season with Taurasi (8th at 17.9 ppg) and Loyd (9th at 17.7 ppg) rounding out the elite offensive firepower that will be on display on Wednesday.

How They Got Here

The Mercury closed out the regular season with three straight wins to earn the No. 5 seed and the right to host the No. 8 seed in the single-elimination first round matchup. However, the game will be played at Wells Fargo Arena on the campus of Arizona State University as opposed to the Mercury’s normal home of Talking Stick Resort Arena. Considering the Mercury posted the same 9-8 record at home as they did on the road, the venue change should not pose much of an issue for them.

The Storm, on the other hand, closed out the season by losing three of their final four games as they finished the year at 15-19 and enter the postseason as the eighth and final seed. That means they will not hold home-court advantage in any series during their playoff run. That’s not a good sign for a team that went just 5-12 on the road this season, compared to 10-7 at home.

However, home-court has been anything but an advantage between these teams this season as the road team won each of their three meetings.

Regular Season Series

Each game was decided by single digits, with an average margin of victory of just 5.3 points. While the Mercury won the season series, 2-1, including the most recent matchup on Aug. 27, its the Storm that holds a slight edge in composite score (251-249).

June 23 at Seattle

  • Phoenix 85, Seattle 82
  • Mercury leaders: Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner – 25 points each
  • Storm leaders: Breanna Stewart – 21 points, Jewell Loyd 18 points, 6 assists

Aug. 12 at Phoenix

  • Seattle 98, Phoenix 89
  • Mercury leaders: Diana Taurasi – 20 points, Brittney Griner – 19 points
  • Storm leaders: Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd: 20 points each

Aug. 27 at Seattle

  • Phoenix 75, Seattle 71
  • Mercury leaders: Brittney Griner – 29 points, 8 rebounds, 5 blocks
  • Storm leaders: Jewell Loyd – career-high 33 points

 

Stats Spotlight

3-point shooting

In each of their two meetings in August – a Seattle win on the 12th and a Phoenix win on the 27th – the team that shot better from the 3-point line won the game. In Seattle’s win they shot 10-20 from downtown en route to 98 points – their fourth-highest scoring output of the season. In the last meeting between these teams, the Mercury knocked down three of their seven 3-pointers in the final 1:38 of the game to seal the victory.

The Storm led the WNBA in 3-pointers made this season at 7.3 per game and did so while shooting the fourth-best 3-point percentage at 36.2 percent. Phoenix, on the other hand, averaged 6.5 3-pointers per game (5th) and shot 33.9 percent from beyond the arc (6th). Seattle’s success from three has pushed them to the top of the rankings in both effective field goal percentage (53.0) and true shooting percentage (57.4) – marks that top Phoenix by four and three percentage points, respectively.

Scoring breakdown

When we look at the season as a whole, these two teams have a similar scoring distribution. Both rank in the bottom third in scoring on 2-point shots (Seattle 9th at 55.4% of its points coming from 2s and Phoenix 10th at 54.0%). Similarly, both rank in the top third in scoring from beyond the arc, with Seattle leading the way with more than a quarter of their points (26.4%) coming from threes, compared to 23.8% for Phoenix. Where there is the biggest separation is at the free throw line as Phoenix ranks second with 22.2% of its points coming from the charity stripe compare to 18.2 for Seattle.

Free throw attempts

The Mercury ranked second in the WNBA in free throw rate – the ratio of free throws attempted per field goal attempted – at .354 on the season. By comparison, the Storm ranked fifth with a .292 free throw rate. However, in the three games against one another, it is Seattle that was more effective at getting to the free throw line (.377 FTA Rate) than the Mercury (.312 FTA Rate). Seattle’s ability to defend Phoenix without fouling will be a key to watch on Wednesday as it would take away a key piece of Phoenix’s offensive output.

Scoring differential

How evenly matched are these two teams? Consider this incredibly odd stat. Both teams finished with a season-long scoring differential of zero points. Both teams scored the same amount of points as they allowed over 34 games this season. For one team to have a season-long scoring differential of zero is rare, for two teams its bizarre and for those two teams to be matched up in the playoffs is simply remarkable.

Not only did they play each other close in their three meetings with a composite score separated by just two points, but they played the entire league evenly as well.

Team Points Scored Points Allowed Point Differential
Atlanta Dream 2683 2811 -128
Chicago Sky 2792 2966 -174
Connecticut Sun 2924 2774 150
Dallas Wings 2929 3019 -90
Indiana Fever 2552 2865 -313
Los Angeles Sparks 2840 2557 283
Minnesota Lynx 2902 2524 378
New York Liberty 2710 2604 106
Phoenix Mercury 2784 2784 0
San Antonio Stars 2529 2766 -237
Seattle Storm 2808 2808 0
Washington Mystics 2779 2754 25

 

Matchups To Watch

Brittney Griner vs Crystal Langhorne/Carolyn Swords

Not only did Brittney Griner lead the WNBA in scoring at 21.9 points per game, but she was even better in her three games against the Seattle Storm. The Mercury center averaged 24.3 points against Seattle – the third-highest scoring average the Storm allowed this season. She shot 60.4 percent from the field, an improvement over her already third-ranked 57.7 percent shooting for the entire season.

Standing 6-foot-2, Storm starting center Crystal Langhorne faces an enormous height disadvantage against the 6-9 Griner. The Storm do have 6-6 Carolyn Swords coming off the bench, but she has averaged just 10 minutes per game against the Mercury this season. The Storm will need to work by committee and offer help to attempt to slow down Griner.

Jewell Loyd vs Yvonne Turner/Danielle Robinson/Monique Currie

No player has a higher scoring average against the Mercury this year than Seattle’s Jewell Loyd. The third-year guard averaged 23.7 points on 52.1 percent (25-48) shooting from the field, 54.5 percent (6-11) from beyond the arc and 88.2 percent (15-17) from the free throw line. She coupled that efficient shooting with 4.7 assists as she was able to set up her teammates as well as get her own points.

In their most recent matchup on Aug. 27, Loyd exploded for a career-best 33 points as no Mercury defender was able to shut her down. The league’s ninth leading scorer at 17.7 points per game, Loyd can splash threes from beyond the arc (38.6 3P% ranks 12th in the WNBA), beat defenders off the dribble and either knock down a pull up jumper, get all the way to the basket or find a teammate for a better shot.

Keys to Victory for Mercury

The Mercury featured the scoring leader of the season (Griner) and of all-time (Taurasi) and the inside-out game between those two players will be crucial for Phoenix to find success. As Griner gets more touches and draws more attention and more defenders her way, that will leave shooters on the perimeter open and ready to strike.

Taurasi has knocked down 13 3-pointers against the Storm this season, the most of any opponent she’s faced all year. Having a dominant presence on both the inside and outside make the Mercury extremely difficult to guard. The Mercury should try to establish Griner early and force the Seattle defense to adjust. That will give Taurasi and the rest of the squad easier looks at the basket.

Keys to Victory for Storm

Getting another big game from Loyd would be a huge boost for the Storm as the guard gets set for her second career playoff game. Outside of that, the Storm need to stick to what they have done throughout the season in terms of ball movement and shot creation. Seattle ranks third in the WNBA in both assists per game (20.2) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.41) as they use great ball movement to create great shots. They lead the league with 67.1 percent of their field goals being assisted. They lead the league in 3-pointers made per game (7.3) and no team has a greater effective field goal percentage (53.0%).

The Storm can also look to slow the game down, which they have done throughout the season. In their three matchups this season, the games were played at a 75.8 pace, which is the slowest of any Mercury opponent this season. While the Storm need to look to push the ball in fast breaks when they present themselves for easy buckets (78.0 pace on the season), they should avoid getting into a track meet with the Mercury (79.2 pace).