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WNBA playoff preview: Storm vs. Mercury, Lynx vs. Sky

September 25, 2021, 4:00 PM ● Renee Ticzon, Charmie Lising

The action continues in the 2021 WNBA Playoffs with the Seattle Storm-Phoenix Mercury and Minnesota Lynx-Chicago Sky second-round matchups.

Fresh off their first postseason wins, the Phoenix Mercury and Chicago Sky will have to survive another do-or-die game on Monday (PHT). 

The No. 4 Seattle Storm will host the Mercury (3:00 AM), while the No. 3 Minnesota Lynx will host the Sky (5:00 AM) in the second round of the WNBA playoffs. The No. 1 Connecticut Sun and No. 2 Las Vegas Aces await the winners of these matchups. 

Seattle Storm vs. Phoenix Mercury

After narrowly escaping the New York Liberty in the first round, the Phoenix Mercury are now plotting their revenge on the Seattle Storm. Just a week ago, the Storm won their final regular-season game against the Mercury, relegating Phoenix to the first round of the playoffs.

The Storm, who finished at No. 4, automatically advanced to the second round, an incentive that comes with home court advantage and nine days of rest. The Mercury, on the other hand, won’t be as rested but they do have momentum on their side. 

Both teams are run by longtime veterans, so there’s a certain level of postseason familiarity. However, Diana Taurasi (ankle) and Breanna Stewart (foot) are both questionable to play for the Mercury and the Storm, respectively.

Even if these two superstars don’t suit up, the Storm-Mercury matchup should still be exciting. Both teams still have enough firepower – Skylar Diggins-Smith and Brittney Griner leading on one side, and Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd on the other – to make this really competitive.

It would be iconic, however, to see another Bird-Taurasi faceoff, and Stewart’s presence would undeniably be missed, so hopefully one or both of them could still be cleared to play.

Keep an eye on

The Storm are on a mission to replicate what the Los Angeles Sparks did in 2001 and 2002—grab back-to-back championships. Though the defending champions failed to finish in the top two after the regular season, they are always battle-ready in the postseason and it won’t be surprising if they still make it all the way. 

With an intact core from last year’s title run, the Storm’s current seed shouldn’t fool you into thinking that they’re anything less than WNBA Finals material. Their championship experience is something that the Mercury should watch out for.

The Storm have a pressing concern: Sophie Cunningham’s hot shooting. The Mercury’s nail-biting one-point victory over the Liberty in the first round was a spectacular display of playoff basketball, and Cunningham’s 3-point explosion was a huge part of it.

In the first few minutes of the game, it felt like the young Liberty were going to take down the Mercury, who struggled to land their shots. That quickly changed when Cunningham’s number was called and she went ballistic from downtown. She hit three 3s in the third quarter, making 10 straight points, and finished up with a career-high 21 points on 6-for-7 shooting from deep. Diggins-Smith described her as the perfect spark plug, bringing energy and scoring when they needed it the most.

X-Factor

Jewell Loyd will be at the center of the Mercury’s defensive scheme. Loyd had an off night against the Sparks early last week, when she only tallied five points in almost 24 minutes on the floor. How did Loyd respond to the poor performance? Well, she dropped a career-high 37 points to wrap up the regular season.

That explosive performance could be the perfect boost that Loyd needs to continue leading the team, whether or not Stewart plays. Loyd will have to shoulder most of the offensive load, which she’s proven time and again that she’s capable of.

How the Mercury work together to get Brittney Griner going in the paint could be the difference-maker. In their first-round game win, Griner struggled early against the double teams that the undersized Liberty employed. She still finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists, but it was evident that she needed more touches to dominate. 

Brianna Turner complements Griner’s inside presence as she can help distract the defense. In case the defense decides to over-focus on Griner, Turner should be ready to make the opponents pay as she works her way near the basket.

Winning blueprint

The Mercury have a good chance to upset the Storm, especially with Stewart out or not completely healthy. They are also coming off a stellar make-or-break victory. The lack of rest could be a disadvantage at times, but on the flip side, the momentum from that exhilarating win could help them as they hope to dethrone the reigning champs.

With that said, the Storm will need Bird’s leadership and playmaking to have a successful run against Phoenix. Without Stewart, Bird needs to do everything in her power to hold everything down. She has the responsibility of getting everyone involved and making sure that her teammates get their shots. Aside from that, Bird will have to use her veteran playoff experience, making sure that the team remains composed as they try to follow their game plan to the tee.

RELATED: Everything you need to know about the WNBA playoffs

Minnesota Lynx vs Chicago Sky

In contrast to Mercury’s first-round win that was not decided until the final buzzer, the Chicago Sky were able to break away from the Dallas Wings’ upset attempt midway through the fourth quarter to take a comfortable 81-64 win. Kahleah Copper and Candace Parker were at the forefront, and they will once again be crucial as they hit the road to face the Minnesota Lynx.

The two teams split their regular-season meeting – Chicago won in June, while Minnesota came out on top two months later. Both ended up as high-scoring games, with Parker sitting out the second due to an injury.

Napheesa Collier and Sylvia Fowles, who averaged 16 points each in the regular season, will be the go-to players for the Lynx as they work towards clinching a semifinal berth. 

The Lynx were 13-3 in Minneapolis this season, with the three losses happening early in the season when they were not yet the same fearsome team that they are now. The first two home losses took place when Collier was still unavailable due to overseas commitments, and the other one was coincidentally against the Sky. The Lynx would want to continue protecting their home court so they can move forward in their quest for the title. 

Keep an eye on

When two of the best players in league history go up against each other, it’s always must-watch basketball. Parker and Fowles, both still capable of wreaking havoc on the court at 35 years old, will take the lead for their respective teams. While they play different positions, they will cause each other trouble in the paint, either scoring, rebounding, or defending opposing bigs.

Speaking of causing trouble in the paint, both teams rely on their inside game so we can expect to see a lot of great action in the shaded lane. The Sky are second-best in terms of points in the paint with 38.9 per game, but the Lynx are not far behind at third with 37.3. What the Lynx got going for them is their defense. They limited opponents to just 32.8 inside points per game (4th in the league), while the Sky allowed 37.9 (second to last).

X-Factor

Knowing that the Lynx are a great defensive team, the ability of guards Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley – along with Copper, of course – to break down defenses will be critical. They should also dictate the tempo and ensure that their team gets to play their usual fast-paced game. 

The last time the Sky faced the Lynx, the “VanderQuigs” combined for 54 points on 20-for-30 shooting including 10 threes, plus they dished a total of 11 assists. How they get to the basket or assist their teammates could spell the difference in this matchup. Sixty-five percent of their 2-point field goals are assisted (highest in the league), and Vandersloot is mostly responsible as she hands out 8.6 assists per game.

Aerial Powers just had her best game, tying her career-high of 27 points in the Lynx’s final regular-season win against the Washington Mystics. Powers did not play for two months as she underwent thumb surgery, but she has since made up for lost time when she returned in late August. She has been a reliable force for the Lynx, and her consistent play will be necessary for them to advance further into the playoffs.

Winning blueprint

Chicago’s league-best playmaking (No. 1 in assists rate and total assists) will be put to the test against Minnesota’s solid defense. With the Sky guards having a field day against them in the regular season, Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve will surely find ways to adjust and improve their defensive schemes.

In the end, it will all boil down to how the Lynx’s defense holds up. They need to slow down the Sky and prevent them from getting too many transition and turnover points. They allowed the Sky to score an average of 100 points in their regular-season meetings, which they can no longer afford to do. They have to take care of the basketball and prevent their opponents from outrunning and outgunning them.