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WNBA Playoffs Single-Elimination First-Round Preview: (5) Phoenix Mercury vs. (8) Dallas Wings

The road to the playoffs was a circuitous one for both the Phoenix Mercury and Dallas Wings, who will meet in a single-elimination first-round game on Tuesday night (8:30 ET, ESPN2) at Wells Fargo Arena on the campus of Arizona State University.

The up-and-down season for the Mercury saw them win eight straight games from June 1-17 and also lose nine of 11 from July 8-Aug. 7. The Mercury enter the playoffs on an uptick, as they won their final four games of the regular season to claim the No. 5 seed.

On July 19, the Wings defeated the Mystics to improve to 14-9 on the season. It was their seventh win in an eight-game stretch that had them looking not just like a playoff lock but a title contender thanks to Liz Cambage showcasing how dominant she can be. She racked up a WNBA record for points in a 10-game stretch to end the season, including a record 53 points against New York on July 17.

The Wings went from flying high to a tailspin as they lost nine straight games from July 20-Aug. 14, made a head coaching change and found themselves in a must-win scenario to earn a playoff berth. With their backs against the wall, the Wings delivered as they defeated the Las Vegas Aces 107-102 to secure the eighth and final spot in the playoffs.

Dallas was eliminated in the first round last year, when they faced a similar circumstance as they do this time around as the lower seed facing an elimination game on the road. Phoenix is in the same position is was a year ago – the No. 5 seed – that held home-court advantage in each of the first two rounds of the playoffs.

In an interesting twist, Phoenix is the only team in playoff field with a better road record (11-6) than home record (9-8) this season. Tuesday’s contest will be played at Wells Fargo Arena as opposed to Talking Stick Resort Arena, giving the Mercury a home-away-from-home this postseason.

The Mercury are a perfect 4-0 in single-elimination playoff games under the current playoff format, which went into effect in 2016. While they have advanced to the semifinals each year, the Mercury have met a roadblock as they have yet to win a game in the semifinal round.

Both Dallas and Phoenix have proven this year that they can beat any team as each have a win over the league-leading Storm and two wins over the No. 2 seed Dream. But both also have multiple losses to teams outside the playoffs. Which team will show up on Tuesday with the season coming down to a single game?

Regular Season Series

May 18 at Phoenix
Mercury 86, Wings 78

Not only are the Wings and Mercury meeting to open the 2018 WNBA Playoffs; they also met back in May as the opening game of the 2018 regular season. The Mercury defeated the Wings back in May behind a historic performance from Diana Taurasi. Taurasi scored 20 of her 26 points in the opening half as she became the first WNBA player to make 1,000 3-pointers. She finished 5-8 from beyond the arc, making more 3s by herself than the entire Wings squad (4-20).

June 12 at Dallas
Mercury 75, Wings 72

When the teams met in June, the Mercury were in the middle of their season-high eight-game win streak. Their victory over the Wings was their sixth win in that streak as they got 21 points from Taurasi and 18 from Brittney Griner to upend the Wings in Dallas. For the second straight meeting, the Wings struggled from beyond the arc as they made just 4 of 16 3-pointers.

July 10 at Dallas
Wings 101, Mercury 72

Just as the Mercury defeated the Wings in the middle of their season-long win streak, the Wings did the same to the Mercury in this early July matchup. This was the fourth of five straight wins for the Wings as Skylar Diggins-Smith led a balanced attack with 20 points. The Wings also racked up 14 steals (more than double their season average) against the Mercury, who played much of the game without Taurasi as she left due to illness after just four minutes.

Stats Spotlight

Individual Scoring

This matchup features four of the top 10 scorers in the WNBA this season, led by scoring champ Liz Cambage at 23.0 points per game. However, it is Phoenix’s combo of Tuarasi (20.7 ppg, 3rd in WNBA) and Griner (20.5, 5th) that are the highest scoring duo in the WNBA this season with a combined 41.2 points per game between them. They just edge out the Wings duo of Cambage and Diggins-Smith (17.9, 10th), who combined for 40.9 points.

Scoring Distribution

The Wings (86.7) and Mercury (85.8) rank third and fourth, respectively, in points per game this season. When it comes to scoring those points, both teams rank in the bottom third of the league in percentage of points scored on two-point shots. The Mercury rank last at 49.5% while the Wings are ninth at 54.7% of their points coming on two-pointers.

The Mercury get nearly a third of their points (29.9%) from beyond the arc as they average 8.5 3-pointers per game (2nd in WNBA) and shoot 36.0% from deep (4th in WNBA). Taurasi leads the Mercury 3-point attack as her 3.2 3-pointers per game lead all WNBA players. Meanwhile, the Wings average 6.7 3-pointers per game (6th) but rank last in 3-point percentage at just 30.5% accuracy.

The Wings set themselves apart at the free throw line as they lead all teams in free throws made (18.9 per game) and attempted (23.9) as they get 22.3 percent of their points from the charity stripe. The Mercury went far behind as they get 20.5 percent of their points from the free throw line. While they do not get as many attempts as the Wings, the Mercury are more accurate as they shoot 84.9 percent (2nd in WNBA) compared to 79.1 percent for the the Wings (7th in WNBA).

The four scoring leaders discussed above – Cambage (5.3), Taurasi (5.2), Griner (4.8) and Diggins-Smitih (4.7) – rank all rank in the top five in free throws made per game, trailing only Las Vegas rookie A’ja Wilson (5.8).

Offensive Rebounds

A key stat to watch in this game is rebounding, pzrticlulary on the offensive end as it leads to extra possessions and second-chance points. The Wings rank second in the WNBA in offensive rebounds (10.6 per game), while the Mercury rank last (7.2 per game). The Mercury also allow the second-most offensive rebounds to their opponents (10.1 per game).

The Wings have taken advantage of their extra opportunities by averaging 13.9 second-chance points, which ranks second in the WNBA behind Connecticut. The Mercury rank 11th in the league in second-chance points at just 9.2 per game, ahead of only Los Angeles.

Points In The Paint

With Cambage dominating opponents inside, its no surprise that the Wings lead the WNBA in points in the paint (38.7 per game). Conversely, the Mercury rank ninth at 29.8 points in the paint per game. Griner gets many of her points inside, but the Mercury’s reliance on 3-point shooting takes away from their inside scoring.

Pace

Both teams rank in the top half of the league in pace, with the Wings third at 81.7 possessions per 40 minutes. The key difference comes in Dallas’ ability to score fast break points (11.2 per game, 2nd in WNBA), while the Mercury rank last on fast breaks at just 6.9 points per game.

Matchup To Watch

Liz Cambage vs. Brittney Griner

Two of the most dominant centers in the game will square off with one another as Dallas’ Liz Cambage makes her WNBA playoff debut against two-time Defensive Player of the Year Brittney Griner. These two are giants both in terms of stature – Griner at 6-foot-9, Cambage at 6-foot-8 – but also dominance on both sides of the court.

This is a matchup of the two most recent scoring champions – Griner won her first scoring title in 2017 (21.9 points per game), while Cambage earned her first scoring title this season (23.0). Both players rank in the top five in blocks as Griner led the league for the sixth time in her six seasons in the WNBA at 2.6 rejections per game.

In three games against each other during the regular season, Griner had the edge in scoring (17.3 to 13.7 points per game), while both players averaged 5.0 rebounds per game, well below their season averages (Cambage 9.7, 2nd in WNBA; Griner 7.7, 8th in WNBA). Both players had to deal with foul trouble during the season series as both had five fouls in the season opener and both fouled out of their second meeting.

Head-to-Head Stats
Griner: 17.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.0 apg, 2.3 bpg, 5 pf, 45.5 FG%, 80.0 FG%, 28.7 mpg
Cambage: 13.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.7 apg, 1.3 bpg, 4.7 pf, 44.1 FG%, 66.7 3P%, 69.2 FT%, 27.7 mpg

Both Cambage and Griner have shown the ability to carry their teams to victory on a given night. Cambage has scored more than 30 points in six games this season, with the Wings 4-2 in those games. The Mercury are 2-1 in games when Griner has scored more than 30 and are 12-5 when she scores at least 20 points.

With the season coming down to a single game, can either Cambage or Griner put their teams on their backs and carry them a win and a date in the second round with either Washington or Connecticut.