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WNBA Playoffs 2021 First Round Preview: (8) New York Liberty at (5) Phoenix Mercury

The WNBA Playoffs 2021 presented by Google tips off today with a pair of single-elimination first-round matchups. Following the Sky-Wings matchup, the No. 5 seed Phoenix Mercury host the No. 7 seed New York Liberty at Grand Canyon University Arena at 10:00pm/ET on ESPN2 to close out the opening round.

 

The Liberty (12-20) are marking their first playoff appearance since 2017, while the Mercury (19-13) are making their ninth straight postseason appearance – the second-longest active streak in the WNBA, trailing only the Minnesota Lynx (11). The Mercury are also well experienced with the single-elimination playoff format that was introduced in 2016 as Phoenix is 7-2 in single-elimination playoff rounds, compared to 0-2 for the Liberty.

 

Season Series (PHX won 2-1)

  • June 13: NYL 85, PHX 83
  • Aug 25: PHX 106, NYL 79
  • Aug 27: PHX 80, NYL 64

 

The Liberty won the first meeting between these teams on June 13 behind Betnijah Laney’s double-double (23 points, 10 assists), despite the Mercury getting a combined 54 points from Brittney Griner (29) and Skylar Diggins-Smith (25). Both teams had a key player out – Diana Taurasi for Phoenix and Natasha Howard for New York.

 

The final two meetings were held over a three-day span in late August right in the middle of Phoenix’s 10-game win streak coming out of the Olympic break. Phoenix won each game handily, even without Griner in the final game as she rested an injury.

 

In the two games, she did play against New York, Griner averaged 27.5 points and 11.5 rebounds while shooting 63.6% from the field. Diggins-Smith played in all three games and averaged 26.3 points (her highest average against any opponent) as well as 5.7 assists and 2.7 3-pointers per game. In two games, Taurasi averaged 20 points, 6.0 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 5.0 3-pointers made. Beyond the Big Three, Brianna Turner also averaged a double-double (10.3 ppg. 10.0 rpg) and shot 77.8% from the field.

 

Laney led the Liberty offense against the Mercury, averaging 19.0 points, 7.0 assists, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 3-pointers made in a team-high 37.3 minutes per game. Howard appeared in only two games and was held to 12.5 points per game and 35.7% shooting from the field – her lowest percentage against any opponent this season. Ionescu appeared in two of the three games and was held to 11.0 points on 29% shooting from the field and 10.5% (2-19) shooting from beyond the arc. She did average 8.0 assists, 7.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks, but the Liberty will need her scoring as well as her playmaking against the Mercury.

 

Three Storylines to Watch

 

  1. What is the status of Diana Taurasi’s ankle?

 

There is no player you want on the court more in a single-elimination game than Diana Taurasi. The WNBA’s all-time leading scorer missed the final three games of the season (all Mercury losses to tough competition – Connecticut, Seattle, and Las Vegas) after suffering an ankle injury against Indiana on Sept. 6 as Phoenix was riding a 10-game win streak.

 

Taurasi was limited to 16 games in her 17th WNBA season, averaging 15.2 points and a league-leading 2.6 3-pointers made per game. Most importantly, the Mercury went 12-4 with Taurasi on the court this season, including all 10 games of Phoenix’s streak coming out of the Olympic break after Taurasi won her fifth gold medal.

 

  1. How do the Liberty contain Brittney Griner?

 

The Liberty have only one player on their roster over 6-foot-2 — second-year forward Kylee Shook, who has averaged just 10 minutes per game since the Olympic break. New York does have 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Natasha Howard, but at 6-foot-2 exactly she’s giving up a lot of size to Griner and must avoid foul trouble as she is also the Liberty’s second-leading scorer on the season (16.2 ppg).

 

As mentioned above, Griner averaged 27.5 points on 63.6% shooting in two games against the Liberty this season – her top scoring average and second-best shooting percentage against any opponent this season.

 

  1. A win-win situation for the Liberty

 

The Liberty snapped a four-year playoff drought by claiming the No. 8 seed on Sunday night after losses by both Washington and Los Angeles gave New York the tiebreaker among the three 12-20 teams.

 

The Liberty have one of the youngest rosters in the league – with two rookies (ROY favorite Michaela Onyenwere and DiDi Richards) as well as five second-year players led by last year’s top pick Sabrina Ionescu. Making the playoffs and getting this experience is a win in itself. If they can follow that up and pull off the upset over a Phoenix squad loaded with playoff experience, that’s an even greater win. Either way, they really have nothing to lose and if they play with that mentality, it will offer freedom to their play that could lead to a great game.

 

One Stat to Watch

 

New York’s 3-point shooting. The Liberty led the WNBA in 3-pointers made (10.0 per game) and attempted (27.7 per game) and ranked third in 3-point percentage (36.2%) as they broke the WNBA record for most 3-pointers made by a team over the course of a season with 321 in 32 games – besting the mark of 316 over 34 games by the 2019 Washington Mystics.

 

This season there were 30 games in which a team attempted at least 30 3-pointers – the Liberty accounted for 11 of those 30 games, second only to Washington’s 12 such games. If the Liberty have a hot shooting night from beyond the arc, could that be enough to pull off the upset?

 

The Clutch Factor

 

During the regular season, the Liberty won the only close game between the two teams, while Phoenix’s wins both came by double-digits. Both teams have plenty of experience in close games this season as New York went 9-8 (0.529) and Phoenix went 9-10 (0.474) in games featuring clutch time – score within five points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime. The Liberty also went 5-3 in games decided by three points or less, while the Mercury went 4-2 in such games.

 

Sabrina Ionescu (41 PTS, 12-29 FG, 7-19 3P, 10-11 FT, 14 AST) and Betnijah Laney (37 PTS, 9-27 FG, 1-8 3P, 18-20 FT) finished the regular season ranked seventh and eighth in clutch scoring this season to lead the Liberty during close games.

 

The Mercury were led by Skylar Diggins-Smith with 34 clutch points (8-17 FG, 1-5 3P, 17-19 FT) and seven clutch assists – ranking 10th and tied for seventh in the league in those respective categories. Her 17 clutch free throws made her ranked fourth in the league. Brittney Griner finished 15th in clutch scoring with 28 points but tied for first in blocks with seven rejections in 55 clutch minutes.