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Second Round Playoff Preview: (3) Washington Mystics vs. (6) L.A. Sparks

The Sparks dispatched their arch rivals and the defending champion Minnesota Lynx in the single-elimination first round on Tuesday to set up another win-or-go-home game on Thursday (6:30 PM ET, ESPN2). After hosting the first round game against the Lynx, the Sparks must now travel to Washington D.C., where they will face the No. 3 seed Mystics with the winner advancing to the semifinals to meet either No. 1 Seattle or No. 2 Atlanta.

During the regular season, Candace Parker had four games where she scored in single digits. The Sparks lost all four of those games. In her Playoff career, she had been held to single digits only three times. The Sparks lost all three of those games. On Tuesday in L.A., however, Parker scored a career-playoff-low two points, but the Sparks found a way to win thanks to the outstanding efforts of Chelsea Gray, Riquna Williams and Nneka Ogwumike.

Gray posted game-highs in points (26) and assists (6) as she shot 9-of-17 from the field and 4-of-8 from beyond the arc. Williams added 17 points on 6-of-12 shooting, including 3-of-6 from three, in her fourth consecutive start. Ogwumike returned to the lineup – she has been battling mono for the past few weeks – and delivered with 19 points on 6-of-10 shooting to go with five rebounds in just under 37 minutes on the court.

Tuesday’s game was L.A.’s first taste of the single-elimination opening two rounds of the WNBA Playoffs after they earned double-byes to the semifinals in the first two years of the new format, advancing to the Finals both times. To take the next step, the Sparks will have to face a well-rested Mystics squad that earned the No. 3 seed, a first-round bye and a home game in the second round.

The Mystics will open the postseason riding a hot streak as they have won eight of their last nine games, with their only loss of August coming on the final day of the regular season. Included in this run is last Friday’s matchup with the Sparks in DC, when Natasha Cloud knocked down a contested step-back jumper with 0.2 seconds left to give the Mystics the 69-67 win, helping secure the No. 3 seed for Washington and send L.A. down the standings.

Season Series

June 15 at Washington
Sparks 97, Mystics 86

Candace Parker (23 points, career-best 11 assists, seven rebounds) led a balanced Sparks offense that saw all five starters score in double figures in a 97-86 road win in the first meeting of the season between the Sparks and Mystics. After trailing by as many as 20 points, the Mystics rallied to tie the game, but the Sparks were able to prevail in the end.

July 7 at Los Angeles
Mystics 83, Sparks 74

With their win over the Sparks on July 7, Mystics head coach Mike Thibault become the first WNBA coach to reach 300 regular season wins. Kristi Toliver led the way with 18 points, while LaToya Sanders added 14 points and eight rebounds, and Elena Delle Donne and rookie Ariel Atkins each added 11 points. For the Sparks, this loss came in the middle of a rough patch as the team lost five of six games. Gray paced the Sparks with 23 points, while Nneka Ogwumike recorded one of her seven double-doubles on the season with 22 points, 13 boards and five assists in the loss.

August 17 at Washington
Mystics 69, Sparks 67

The Mystics and Sparks met in DC less than a week ago as Washington picked up a 69-67 win over L.A. thanks to a clutch shot from Natasha Cloud, who knocked down a fade-away jumper against the reigning Defensive Player of the Year Alana Beard just before the buzzer. This was the only game in the season series that the home team won, which the Mystics will try to do again on Friday when they host the win-or-go-home, second-round matchup. Washington is 12-5 at Capitol One Arena, while L.A. is just 8-9 outside of the Staples Center.

Stats Spotlight

Individual Scoring

The Mystics have the top scorer in this matchup as Elena Delle Donne finished fifth in the WNBA this season at 20.7 points per game. The Sparks, however, have the next three leading scorers – Candace Parker (17.9 ppg, 11th in WNBA), Nneka Ogwumike (15.5, 17th) and Chelsea Gray (14.9, 19th) – before Kristi Toliver (13.9, 23rd) rounds out the five All-Stars that will be featured in this game.

Team Scoring

The Mystics finished fifth in the WNBA in scoring this season at 84.5 points per game, compared to 78.9 for the 10th-ranked Sparks. However, L.A. allows the fewest points of any team this season (77.0), while the Mystics ranked fifth at 81.4 points per game allowed. The Sparks allowed just 68 points in their opening round win against Minnesota – nine points below their season average. Can their defense put together a similar effort against the Mystics?

3-Point Shooting

As a team, the Mystics average 8.4 3-pointers made per game (3rd most in WNBA) and shoot from distance at 35.8 percent accuracy (5th best in WNBA) with 29.5 percent of their offense coming from beyond the arc. But no team defends the 3-point line better than the Sparks, allowing just 5.5 3-pointers per game on 31.4 percent shooting – the best marks in the league. In their three regular season matchups, the Mystics shot just 16-of-63 (25.4%) from beyond the arc, including a 1-of-16 performance in their second meeting of the season – a game Washington was still able to win despite their ice-cold shooting.

Matchups To Watch

Chelsea Gray vs. Kristi Toliver

Chelsea Gray had her breakthrough during the Sparks postseason run to the 2016 championship as she made big plays while coming off the bench behind starting point guard Kristi Toliver. During that offseason, Toliver headed to Washington as the DMV native wanted to play closer to home. That elevated Gray to the starting point guard and has led to back-to-back All-Star appearances for the fourth-year guard. Now Gray and Toliver get to face off against one another in the playoffs.

Gray is a huge reason why this matchup is happening. The Sparks trailed by 11 to the Lynx during Tuesday’s first-round game, which led head coach Brian Agler and Candace Parker to implore Gray to take the game over. Even on a team with two MVPs in Parker and Ogwumike, they knew it was Gray that Minnesota had no answer for and jumped on her back to lead the Sparks to the second round. Now it’s Toliver’s turn to try to slow down Gray, who averaged 15.3 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists in their three regular season meetings. Meanwhile, Toliver averages 12.7 points, 5.0 assists and 2.3 rebounds against her former team.

Elena Delle Donne vs. Candace Parker

If you went into a lab and created the ideal modern basketball player, the end result would look a lot like Elena Delle Donne or Candace Parker (MVP favorite Breanna Stewart is another that fits in this unicorn category). They are long (Delle Donne 6-5, Parker 6-4), athletic, multi-skilled players that affect every facet of the game. They can both score inside or out, can grab rebounds and immediately get out in transition, they can find open teammates when the double-teams inevitably get thrown their way and they can defend multiple positions due to their combination of length and quickness.

Getting to watch one of these players on the court in a given game is a treat, but to see two squaring off with one another makes for appointment viewing. Can Parker bounce back from her sub-par game in the first round? She averaged 14.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 7.3 assists in three games against the Mystics this season. Meanwhile, Delle Donne is averaging 15.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.7 steals against the Sparks as her Mystics won the season series 2-1.

Nneka Ogwumike vs Mono

How important is it for Nneka Ogwumike to be on the floor for the Sparks? Including their first round win over the Lynx, the Sparks are 18-10 in games that Ogwumike plays and just 2-5 when she is out. What was initially described as a mystery illness that was causing extreme fatigue for the 2016 MVP has now being diagnosed as Mononucleosis. After missing three games around the All-Star break as well as the All-Star Game, Ogwumike returned to the Sparks lineup on Aug. 2. But she missed the regular season finale as the illness once again forced her to rest. Ogwumike looked good against the Lynx on Tuesday as she finished with 19 points, five rebounds and two steals in 37 minutes on the court. But the Sparks have little time to rest as there is just one off day between the first and second rounds and the team must use that day to travel cross country from L.A. to DC. The Sparks need a healthy Ogwumike if they hope to get past the Mystics and keep pushing for a third straight trip to the Finals.

Mike Thibault vs. Brian Agler

Thursday’s game isn’t just a matchup of All-Star players, but the two winningest coaches in the history of the WNBA. Earlier this season in a game against L.A., Mystics head coach Mike Thibault became the first WNBA coach to reach 300 wins. His total now stands at 310 after the Mystics finished the season with the WNBA’s third-best record at 22-12. Thibault is also the only coach to earn three Coach of the Year awards (2006, 2008, 2013). Sparks coach Brian Agler ranks second to Thibault in all-time wins with 269 following the Sparks’ 19-15 season. He trails Thibault in Coach of the Year awards 3-1, but has the ultimate edge in championships, 2-0, as Agler led the 2010 Storm and 2016 Sparks to the title.