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WNBA Playoffs 2018 Semifinal Preview: (1) Seattle Storm vs. (5) Phoenix Mercury

The Seattle Storm began the 2018 season with four straight games against the Phoenix Mercury – two exhibition preseason games and their first two games of the regular season. Now they will open their playoff run with at least three and up to five more games with Phoenix as the two meet in the best-of-five semifinals with a spot in the WNBA Finals on the line. Game 1 is set to tip off in Seattle on Sunday.

Series Schedule

– Game 1: Sunday, Aug. 26, Phoenix at Seattle, 5 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
– Game 2: Tuesday, Aug. 28, Phoenix at Seattle, 10 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
– Game 3: Friday, Aug. 31, Seattle at Phoenix, 10 p.m. ET (ESPNews/NBA TV)
– Game 4*: Sunday, Sept. 2, Seattle at Phoenix, Time TBD (ESPN2)
– Game 5*: Tuesday, Sept. 4, Phoenix at Seattle, Time TBD (ESPNews)
*if necessary

This will be the fifth meeting between the teams in the postseason. The first three came during the old East-West format in 2007, 2010 and 2011. In 2007, the Mercury swept the Storm 2-0 in the Conference Semifinals en route to their first WNBA title. In 2010, the Storm returned the favor, sweeping the Mercury 2-0 in the Conference Finals en route to their second WNBA title.

Playoff History
– 2007: Phoenix def Seattle 2-0 in Conf Semis, went on to win title (vs. Detroit)
– 2010: Seattle def Phoenix 2-0 in West Finals, went on to win title (vs. Atlanta)
– 2011: Phoenix def Seattle 2-1 in Conf Semis, lost in Conf Finals (vs. Minnesota)
– 2017: Phoenix def Seattle 1-0 in First Round, lost in Semifinals (vs. Los Angeles)

That was the only playoff series that the Storm would win over the Mercury as Phoenix earned first-round wins over the Storm in 2011 and 2017, but were subsequently eliminated before reaching the Finals. Overall, Phoenix holds a 3-1 advantage in playoff series and a 5-3 advantage in playoff games.

After meeting in a single-elimination game in the first round of last year’s playoffs, the Storm and Mercury now have a five-game series to determine the Western Conference representative in this year’s Finals. While the new playoff format has ditched conference affiliations and set up the bracket strictly by record, with the way the first two rounds played out, we are guaranteed a West vs. East matchup with Atlanta and Washington meeting in the second Semifinal series.

The Storm have home-court advantage in the 2-2-1 format in this series by virtue of being the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs as they finished the season 26-8, compared to 20-14 for the fifth-seed Mercury.

While the Storm enjoyed the double-bye to the Semifinals, the Mercury had to survive and advance through two single-elimination playoff rounds to set up this matchup. Of course, the Mercury are masters of the single-elimination game as they are a perfect 6-0 in the first two rounds of the playoffs since the playoff format changed in 2016. However, they have yet to win a game in the Semifinal round as they were swept by Minnesota and Los Angeles the past two years.

Season Series (Seattle 2, Phoenix 1)

May 20 at Seattle
Mercury 87, Storm 82

While the Storm finished with their second-best record in franchise history (26-8), they opened the 2018 season with a loss at home to the Mercury. Behind 29 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three blocks from Brittney Griner, the Mercury held off the Storm for an 87-82 win to improve to 2-0. Briann January finished with 15 points, while Diana Taurasi and DeWanna Bonner each scored 12 for Phoenix. Breanna Stewart led the way for the Storm as she finished with 22 points, 15 rebounds, three blocks and two steals and was one of five Storm players to score in double figures.

May 23 at Phoenix
Storm 87, Mercury 71

After losing their first game at home to Phoenix, the Storm flipped the script on the Mercury three days later by handing Phoenix its first home loss of the season. Jewell Loyd led the way for the Storm with 29 points on 9-of-14 shooting from the field and 10-of-10 from the free throw line. Alysha Clark added 16 points, while Breanna Stewart had a season-low nine points but contributed 11 rebounds and three assists as the Storm overcame a quick start from the Mercury (13-2 to open the game) to win by 16 points. Diana Taurasi led the Mercury with 23 points (including four 3-pointers), while Brittney Griner added 18 points as both shot 8-15 from the field.

July 31 at Phoenix
Storm 102, Mercury 91

After two meetings in the season’s opening week, the Storm and Mercury would not meet for another two months. But when they did, Jewell Loyd picked up right where she left off as she dropped another 29-point gem to lead the Storm to victory in Phoenix. Loyd shot 11-20 from the field and 5-of-7 from beyond the arc as the Storm put up 102 points on the Mercury. It was Seattle’s fifth game of the season breaking the 100-point threshold and their third-highest scoring game of the season. Brittney Griner (25 points, six rebounds, seven assists, three blocks) had a strong game for Phoenix, but the Mercury still lost for the seventh time in an eight game span, including their fourth straight at home.

Stats Spotlight

Scoring

This is a matchup of two of the WNBA’s top offenses as the Storm (87.2) and Mercury (85.8) rank second and fourth, respectively, in points per game. They hold the same ranks in efficiency ratings, which accounts for pace. With each team having multiple All-Stars and scoring options, it makes sense that both also rank very high in assists, with Seattle leading the way (21.2 per game, tied for the WNBA lead) and Phoenix just behind them (20.6 per game, 3rd in WNBA). In their first two playoff games, the Mercury have averaged 24.5 assists, with Diana Taurasi second among all players at 8.5 per game. During the regular season, Sue Bird ranked second in the WNBA in assists (career-best 7.1 per game), while Taurasi was fourth (5.3 per game).

Shooting

You can’t rack up assists if you don’t make shots and these two teams get plenty of buckets. When examining effective field goal percentage – which accounts for the added value of 3-point shots – the Storm (53.4%) and Mercury (52.2%) finished the regular season ranked 1-2. These are the two most prolific 3-point shooting teams in the league as the Storm average a league-high 9.0 3-pointers per game, with the Mercury right behind them at 8.5 per game. Taurasi led all players during the regular season at 3.2 per game, while Seattle had three of the top 10 3-point leaders – Jewell Loyd (2.0), Sue Bird (1.9) and Breanna Stewart (1.8). The Storm shot a league-best 37.6% from beyond the arc during the regular season, while Phoenix finished fourth at 36.0% – a mark they have improved upon in their first two playoff games (41.1%).

Pace/Fast Breaks

While both teams play at nearly the same overall pace – Phoenix (80.3) is just slightly ahead of Seattle (80.1) – there are differences when breaking it down between offense and defense. The Storm play at a much faster pace on offense (82.8) than they do on defense (77.5), while the Mercury are nearly the same on both sides of the ball (80.5 offense, 80.2 defense). Much of the discrepancy for the Storm comes with the fact that they push the ball in transition in search of fast break points as they led the league at 11.6 fast break points per game, while the Mercury finished 11th at just 6.9 per game. Many of Seattle’s fast break opportunities are a byproduct of forcing live-ball turnovers to ignite their fast break. Seattle ranked sixth in points off turnovers (15.2), while the Mercury were last at 12.3.

Matchups To Watch

Diana Taurasi vs. Sue Bird

How about the WNBA’s all-time scoring leader (Taurasi at 8,549 career points) taking on the WNBA’s all-time leader in assists (Bird at 2,831 dimes)? That’s intriguing enough even before we add the fact that they were teammates in college, overseas and internationally with USA Basketball and are long-time friends. Entering the semifinals, Taurasi needs just eight points to pass Tamika Catchings (1,141) as the WNBA’s all-time leading playoff scorer to add to her regular season crown. Meanwhile, Bird currently sits in fifth place on the all-time playoff assists list, but can move all the way up to second if she dishes 21 more during this postseason run.

Breanna Stewart vs. Brittney Griner

How about MVP favorite Breanna Stewart – the second leading scorer in the WNBA in each of the past two seasons – going up against two-time Defensive Player of the Year and six-time blocks leader Brittney Griner? It was Griner that won the scoring title last year as her 21.9 points per game average topped Stewart’s 19.9 average in her second WNBA season. This season, Stewart increased her scoring to 21.8 points per game, but fell just shy of her first scoring to Dallas’ Liz Cambage (23.0). Griner finished sixth at 20.5 points per game. This will be an interesting matchup to watch as Stewart’s ability to score from all over the floor could pull Griner away from the basket and open up lanes for her Storm teammates.

DeWanna Bonner vs. Natasha Howard

Neither of these two players were part of last year’s playoff meeting between these teams. Howard was a member of the Minnesota Lynx, who came to Seattle in an offseason trade for a 2018 second round pick and the right to pick swap in the 2019 first round. Since Seattle finished with the top record in the league and the lowest first round pick, that swap will not happen, making this trade an even biggest steal for the Storm. Bonner missed the entire 2017 season after giving birth to twins last July. Her bounce back from childbirth to playing in the All-Star Game in the span of one year and one day is remarkable. The addition of Bonner to Taurasi and Griner gives Phoenix the highest-scoring trio in the WNBA with a combined 58.5 points per game between them. In their second-round win over Connecticut, the trio combined for 77 of Phoenix’s 96 points.

Jewell Loyd vs. Briann January

After a 10-point outing in their first meeting, Jewell Loyd torched the Mercury with consecutive 29-point efforts in their final two games of the season. Overall she averaged 22.7 points on 51.1 percent shooting from the field and 60 percent from beyond the arc. January came to Phoenix as part of a three-team trade with Indiana and Minnesota. She is a six-time All-Defensive Team selection (four First Team, two Second Team) that will have her hands full against either Loyd or Sue Bird depending on which guard she gets matched up with while she’s on the court.

Dan Hughes vs. Sandy Brondello

Sandy Brondello served as an assistant coach as part of Dan Hughes’ staff in San Antonio from 2005 to 2009 before taking over as the team’s head coach in 2010 with Hughes as the team’s general manager. Brondello’s tenure in San Antonio lasted only one season (14-20) as she was fired and replaced by Hughes as he returned to the sidelines for another six seasons. Brondello would join the L.A. Sparks staff as an assistant from 2011 to 2013 before taking over as head coach of the Mercury in 2014, leading the team to the championship in her first season.

After taking a season away from coaching, Hughes returned to the WNBA this year and led the Storm to the top seed in the playoffs in his first season with the team. In addition to their three regular season meetings, Hughes and Brondello were on opposing sides as coaches during the 2018 All-Star Game with Brondello helping Team Parker defeat Hughes and Team Delle Donne. While Brondello has a 2-1 regular season lead and a 1-0 All-Star lead over Hughes, can she defeat Hughes in the Playoffs and get the Mercury back to the Finals?