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Second Round Playoff Preview: (4) Connecticut Sun vs. (5) Phoenix Mercury

For the second straight year, the Connecticut Sun and Phoenix Mercury will meet at Mohegan Sun Arena (Thursday, 8:30 PM ET, ESPN2) in a single-elimination second-round Playoff game for the right to advance to the semifinals.

Last year, the fifth-seeded Mercury got a combined 49 points from Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner as they knocked off the third-ranked Sun, 88-83, to bring Connecticut’s Cinderella season to a screeching halt. Phoenix advanced to face Minnesota in the semifinals, where they were swept in three games, while Connecticut’s first postseason appearance in five years lasted just 40 minutes.

This year, the Sun once again finished in the top four and received a first-round bye, while the Mercury once again finished fifth and faced a win-or-go-home game against the Dallas Wings on Tuesday. Since the Playoff format changed in 2016, the Mercury are a perfect 5-0 in single-elimination games in the opening two rounds of the playoffs.

Phoenix dispatched Dallas behind brilliant performances from Diana Taurasi (26 points, a playoff career-high 12 assists and zero turnovers) and DeWanna Bonner (playoff career-high 29 points, including four 3-pointers, three of which came from 30+ feet and two banked in off the glass). After leading by four at the half, the Mercury dominated the second half en route to an 18-point win and a date with the Sun on Thursday.

Not only did the Mercury keep their single-elimination game win streak alive, Diana Taurasi maintained her unbeaten 12-0 record in winner-take-all games (single-elimination games, Game 3s in a three-game series, Game 5s in a five-game series). Taurasi will look to extend that streak to 13 straight in familiar territory as she starred at the University of Connecticut from 2000 to 2004.

In order to do that, the Mercury will have to knock off a red-hot Sun squad that enters the playoffs having won four straight games and nine of their last 10. Connecticut is a formidable team at home as they matched Seattle and Atlanta for the best home record in the league this season at 13-4. Ironically, Phoenix is the only team in the playoffs that finished the regular season with a better road record (11-6) than home record (9-8).

Just like the Sun, the Mercury closed the regular season on an uptick with four straight wins, though Phoenix had dropped six of its previous seven games before that. Phoenix extended that streak to five straight games by knocking off the Wings and will look to make it six straight and advance to the semifinals for the third straight season – where either Seattle or Atlanta awaits in a five-game series. The Sun, meanwhile, will look to make it to the penultimate round for the first time since 2012, when they lost to Indiana in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Season Series (Mercury Won 2-1)

June 16 at Phoenix
Mercury 89, Sun 72

The Mercury got out of the blocks fast this season with their win over Connecticut on June 16 being their seventh straight victory to improve their record to a franchise-record-tying 9-3. Phoenix used a balanced attack as five players scored in double figures, including Sancho Lyttle, who would miss the final two regular season meetings due to a season-ending injury. Meanwhile, the Sun were shorthanded as they played without Chiney Ogwumike (knee) and Alyssa Thomas (shoulder) and it showed as they lost their third straight game at the time.

July 5 at Phoenix
Mercury 84, Sun 77

Behind a combined 48 points from Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner, the Mercury knocked off the Sun for the second straight time and took sole possession of first place in the WNBA with a 14-5 record. Their winning ways, however, were not sustainable as they lost six of their next seven games to tumble down the crowded standings. While the Sun never led during the game and trailed by as many as 15 points, they did show resolve as they fought back with a 17-3 run in the third quarter to pull within a single point (73-72) before the Mercury pulled away.

July 13 at Connecticut
Sun 91, Mercury 87

In their final meeting of the regular season, Connecticut picked up its first win over Phoenix since Aug. 20, 2017 as the Sun snapped a four-game losing streak to the Mercury between the regular season and playoffs. The Sun got big games from Courtney Williams (25 points, 10 rebounds), Alyssa Thomas (11 points, 10 assists, 8 rebounds) and Chiney Ogwumike (22 points, 10-11 FG) as they held off Diana Taurasi (28 points), Brittney Griner (19 points) and the rest of the Mercury to prevent the season sweep.

Stats Spotlight

Bench Scoring

There is no bigger statistical discrepancy between these two teams than bench scoring. The Sun lead all teams with 31.8 points per game coming from their reserves, while the Mercury rank last with just 13.9 points per game coming from non-starters. Now, it should be noted that the gap between the two teams’ bench scoring is not as drastic when they play each other compared to looking at the full season. In games between the Sun and Mercury, Connecticut’s bench averaged 25.7 points per game (6.1 ppg lower than their season average) and Phoenix’s bench averaged 18.3 points per game (4.4 ppg higher than their regular season average).

Efficiency

The Sun (107.7) and Mercury (106.4) rank second and third, respectively, in offensive efficiency. Meanwhile, the Sun are one of just two teams (along with the league-leading Storm) to rank in the top five in both offensive and defensive (100.5) efficiency.

Shooting

Both teams rank in the top three in effective field goal percentage (which accounts for the added value of the 3-point shot), but the Mercury lead the WNBA in true shooting percentage (which also accounts for free throws along with 2s and 3s). Phoenix’s 57.6 true shooting percentage is the highest mark in the WNBA since the Mercury posted a 57.8 true shooting percentage during the 2010 season.

Rebounding/Second Chance Points

The Sun are the best rebounding team in the WNBA as they collect 53.7% of all available rebounds, including a league-best 31.2% of available offensive rebounds. The Mercury rank ninth in total rebound percentage (48.4%) and 11th in offensive rebound percentage (22.6%).

Similar to Phoenix’s first round opponent from Dallas, Connecticut is masterful at crashing the offensive glass to add extra possessions and shots while also racking up second chance points (14.2 per game, leads WNBA).

Matchups To Watch

Brittney Griner vs. Chiney Ogwumike/Jonquel Jones

Our first matchup concentrates on the frontline with Phoenix’s Brittney Griner versus Connecticut’s Chiney Ogwumike and/or Jonquel Jones. The reason behind the and/or is Ogwumike’s status for Thursday’s contest after she missed the final two games of the regular season with knee soreness. There has been no announcement about her availability and if she does give it a go, there’s no way to predict how many minutes she’ll play and how effective she’ll be against the 6-foot-9 Griner, who averaged 18 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.7 blocks in three games against the Sun this season.

Meanwhile, Ogwumike appeared in two of the three games with the Mercury and averaged 16.5 points and 3.5 rebounds, but played just 23 and 22 minutes, respectively, before fouling out of both games. Hence the inclusion of last year’s Most Improved Player in Jones, who played limited minutes against the Mercury this season. She averaged just 3.0 points on 4-of-17 shooting, 2.7 rebounds and 0.7 blocks in 15 minutes per game.

Ogwumike (if she is able to play) and Jones will be the first line of defense against Griner, with players like Brionna Jones and Morgan Tuck also available for added depth off the bench. It truly does take a village to try to slow down Griner.

Diana Taurasi vs. Jasmine Thomas/Courtney Williams

Taurasi is coming off a tremendous game in Phoenix’s first-round win over Dallas as she racked up 26 points, a playoff career-best 12 assists and zero turnovers to lead the Mercury to the second round. During the three regular season matchups, Taurasi averaged 24.0 points (her second-highest scoring average against an opponent) to go with 5.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 4.0 3-pointers made per game.

For the Sun, Thomas appeared in all three games, averaging 11.7 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.0 steals against the Mercury this season. Meanwhile, Courtney Williams appeared in only two games against the Mercury as she scored 25 points in the final meeting of the regular season back in July. As the Wings learned on Tuesday, trying to slow down Taurasi while she has it going is a tough task, but it is one the Sun must complete in order to advance to the semifinals and give Taurasi her first loss in a winner-take-all game.