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Inside the W with Michelle Smith: WNBA Playoffs Second Round Preview

Another single-elimination round. More questions. Let’s get to them.

What does a narrow win over New York say about Phoenix’s chances of defeating Seattle?

Needing a Brianna Turner free throw to survive a home game against a 12-20 Liberty team might indicate that the Mercury are more vulnerable than not, especially without Diana Taurasi on the floor. It’s still not clear whether Taurasi, who has missed five games with an ankle injury, will play Sunday against the Storm, but it will likely make a huge difference to the Mercury’s prospects if they do, especially with the Storm’s win over Phoenix against a Taurasi-less lineup in the regular-season finale is any indication. New York managed to limit Brittney Griner into just eight shots Thursday night, even with a smaller lineup because they had one less thing to do in focusing on defending Taurasi. Skylar Diggins-Smith was great, as she has been all season, with 22 points, and Sophie Cunningham helped out with a career-high 21 points. On the other side, Seattle, the defending champs, have more recent postseason success and are more balanced offensively, even at less than full strength. Which brings us to…

Without Breanna Stewart, is Seattle’s title defense in trouble on Sunday?

Stewart has not played since September 7 with a left foot injury, and the Storm are 1-4 this season without Stewart on the floor. On paper, this spells trouble for the Storm, who were 5-6 after the Olympic break and dropped from first to fourth, putting them in this position for a single-elimination challenge against a Phoenix team that is better at winning single-elimination games than any team in the league. Jewell Loyd has picked up the scoring slack in Stewart’s absence, putting up 37 points against the Mercury in the regular-season finale. And Sue Bird has only so many postseason games left to add to her Hall of Fame career. Going from a championship season to dropping out in a single-elimination second-round game didn’t seem possible for the Storm a couple of months ago, but without Stewie tomorrow, they are going to need some productive minutes from players like Jordin Canada, Epiphany Prince, and Mercedes Russell inside against Griner.

Can Minnesota slow the Chicago offense?

The Sky have averaged 100 points in their two meetings against the Lynx already this season, both the 105 and 95 points they’ve scored are season-highs against Minnesota. No one knows this better than Cheryl Reeve, who knows that in order to get to the semifinal round against a balanced, potent Sky team, her team will need to step it up defensively. In addition to protecting the paint against Kahleah Copper and Candace Parker, and the perimeter against Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot, Minnesota needs to minimize turnovers to keep the Sky from getting out on the run. Layshia Clarendon’s poise at the point is going to be huge in this game, as is the play of Sylvia Fowles, whose game on the defensive end is going to be make-or-break it for the Lynx.

Where is the momentum between Minnesota and Chicago?

The Lynx come into this game having lost just three games since the middle of June (with wins in 9 of their last 10), easily erasing the memory of an 0-4 start to the season. Chicago’s win over Dallas in the first round indicates that they may be ready to leave their up-and-down runs of the regular season – including four losses in their final six regular-season games – behind them. The Sky have one of the most complete perimeter groups in Vandersloot, Quigley, and Copper, while Minnesota has one of the WNBA’s most dominant centers of all time in Fowles. Who wins this game? Maybe it’s someone like Napheesa Collier, who put up 27 points against Chicago earlier in the season and led the Lynx to a 13-1 home record when she’s on the floor. Maybe it’s a big day by someone like Chicago’s Diamond DeShields, whose 30-point, seven-rebound, six-assist game against Indiana in the regular-season finale definitely sent a message. The Sky, however, can’t afford a repeat of Thursday when they saw a 21-point lead evaporate against Dallas, and they will need to have a good answer for Fowles.

Who are the players on each team who could be the difference between a win and a loss?

Aerial Powers, Minnesota. Since coming back into the lineup from an injury, Powers has averaged 18.8 points in the last six games, giving Minnesota some added offensive punch at the best possible time.

Ezi Magbegor, Seattle. Without Stewart, Magbegor gets a spot in the starting lineup and a critical role for the Storm. Last week against the Mercury, the second-year post finished with 15 points, six rebounds, four assists, and two steals.

Sophie Cunningham, Phoenix. Without Taurasi on Thursday, someone needed to replace the scoring and the swag. Enter Cunningham, who put up a career-high 21 points with six 3-pointers in 22 minutes, stretching the defense and moving them away from Brittney Griner inside.

Candace Parker, Chicago. What seems like an obvious choice is obvious for a reason. Parker is the Sky’s emotional center, as much of a facilitator as Vandersloot and she doesn’t even need to score in bunches to make all the difference. Need proof? How about her line against Dallas: 11 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists, and three steals? All hail the Ace.

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.