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Inside The W with Michelle Smith: What Do The Mystics, Mercury Need To Do?

The top two seeds in the WNBA playoffs held serve in Game 1 of their semifinals series on Tuesday night with action picking back up on ESPN (8PM ET) on Thursday.

Minnesota had little trouble overwhelming Washington behind a season-best effort from veteran guard Seimone Augustus. Los Angeles, meanwhile, fought off a tough, experienced Phoenix team, trailing for much of the first half before finishing strong to nail down a Game 1 win over the Mercury in Los Angeles.

The Mystics and the Mercury already had a tough task when it came to taking down the league’s two top teams — the Sparks and Lynx have seemingly been on a collision course for a Finals rematch for months — but now, down 0-1 and heading into a crucial game in the best-of-5 series, the time is now to turn the tide.

Can Washington or Phoenix pull it off? Let’s take a closer look.

What does Washington need to do to win?

Defend. Now that Lindsay Whalen is back on the floor and Seimone Augustus is breaking out into postseason scoring form, the Mystics’ defensive work has gotten that much harder.

Finding an answer for experienced postseason players like Whalen, Augustus, Maya Moore and, you know, MVP front-runner Sylvia Fowles is no easy tough task.

Hit threes. Kristi Toliver’s epic, record-setting 3-point shooting performance got the Mystics to the semifinals in the first place. But Washington is going to need more of where that came from to keep pace with one of the WNBA’s best offensive teams. Emma Meesseman (3-for-12 from beyond the arc in the past 3 games) and Ivory Latta need to heat up. And, of course, Toliver. Toliver’s scoreless drought over the final 35 minutes of Game 1, in no small part as a result of the Lynx’s defensive attention, just isn’t going to get it done.

Find the answer for Fowles. Double teams couldn’t stop Fowles in the first half of Game 1. And it’s tough for Washington to bring much more into the defensive game plan, because Minnesota will then hurt you someplace else. Fowles looks destined to dominate this series.

Get Delle Donne loose. Elena Delle Donne is one of the best players in the world. She can be a difference maker in this series. But Moore’s defense, size, athleticism and commitment to defending makes life difficult for Delle Donne. She is one of the few players who can truly make Delle Donne uncomfortable. And if she can’t find a way to get open, the Mystics’ uphill climb gets even steeper.

The bottom line. Washington is a team on the rise and reaching the semifinal round of the WNBA playoffs makes for a very satisfying ending to the season. But Minnesota, who came off a nine-day hiatus looking fresh and rested, just has too many weapons, too many postseason games to draw experience from and the Mystics are going to have a hard time keeping up offensively, particularly without Tayler Hill on the floor to take pressure off Toliver and Delle Donne.

What does Phoenix need to do to win?

Find the energy. The Mercury admitted they were road-weary after traveling from Connecticut to play in Los Angeles the day before Game 1 tipped off. They should have some time to rejuvenate before Game 2. Phoenix had a lead for much of the first half and were tied at halftime before losing steam in the second half (scoring 24 points over the final two quarters), thanks in large part to L.A.’s lockdown defense. But it’s tough to beat a team like Los Angeles, who had eight days off before making their postseason debut, on tired legs.

Follow Taurasi. Big games, big moments are Diana Taurasi’s best stage. After struggling in Game 1 (2-for-10, 6 points) – her playoff career-low – it’s hard to imagine that kind of performance would happen again. Taurasi’s will has always taken the Mercury a long way and it can certainly take them back to drawing even in this series. But Taurasi is going to have to work hard to break free of the WNBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, Alana Beard, to do it.

Feed the big. When healthy, Brittney Griner was one of the two most dominant players in the league this year. She has playoff experience under her belt, her game is as mature and complete as it has ever been and she goes through stretches where she is borderline unstoppable – as she was in the first half of Game 1 with 14 points. She needs to do two things to keep Phoenix in this series: score on the block and stay out of foul trouble. Griner fouled out with almost five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.

Limit Candace Parker. Parker is playing on an ankle injury sustained during pregame shootaround before Game 1. How effective she will be able to be in time for Game 2 is still a question mark. In what will surely be a physically bruising series, finding a way to take advantage of her limitations would go a long way toward being able to pull off an upset here.

Find an X-Factor. Leilani Mitchell scored a career-high 19 in Game 1. Mitchell and Danielle Robinson can be players who can take advantage of defensive attention going elsewhere to carve out big moments.

The bottom line. Unlike the Minnesota-Washington series, the ending here doesn’t look quite so easy to predict. Game 1 was a stop-start, foul-filled affair, but Parker’s injury is a wild card and Phoenix, who is 0-4 against L.A. this season, is very capable of busting out offensively behind Taurasi and Griner.

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.