After a regular season that saw a coaching change and unexpected injuries to Brittney Griner and Penny Taylor, the Phoenix Mercury (19-15) is healthy and ready to take on the Los Angeles Sparks (24-10) in the first round of the Western Conference Semifinals.
Game One: At Los Angeles, 7 p.m. Thursday, ESPN2
Game Two: At Phoenix, 7 p.m. Saturday, NBATV
Game Three (if necessary): At Los Angeles, 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 23, ESPN2
This will be the third time in which the WNBA’s original franchises have met in the playoffs, with the Sparks sweeping the 2000 first round series and the Mercury winning the 2009 Western Conference Finals in three games that proved to be the conclusion of Lisa Leslie’s career.
The teams split the four games over the regular season, with Phoenix winning at home, 97-81, June 14 and on the road, 90-84, July 18. The Sparks won, 88-76, July 14 at US Airways Center and 89-55 in the finale at Staples Center Sunday, of which most of the starters were rested, but Candace Parker still scored 16 points in 16 minutes.
Mercury guard Diana Taurasi finished second in the WNBA in scoring and assists at 20.3 and 6.2 per game, while up front, forwards Candice Dupree (15.2 ppg and 6.4 rpg) and DeWanna Bonner (14.5 ppg and 5.8 rpg) surround the rookie Griner (12.6 ppg and 6.3 rpg), who led the league with 81 blocks.
The Sparks had the WNBA’s best perimeter defense (29.1 percent), and Parker had MVP numbers of 17.9 ppg and 8.7 rpg. Nneka Ogwumike also averaged 14.6 and 7.6, All-Star guard Kristi Toliver scored 14.1 ppg, and Linsdsey Harding had 10.9 ppg and 5.2 assists.
“I’m very excited,” Mercury center Krystal Thomas said. “It’s a much shorter plane ride than having to play Minnesota, I know that, but I think it will be a great matchup for us. Right now we’re 11 strong, and it will be really good to see all 11 of us out there playing better. Come playoff time, it’s all up in the air, we need all 11. It could be two minutes, it could be 20 minutes (in response to her playing time), we’ll just have to see, but no matter what it is, if it’s two minutes, I’m going to go out there and go hard for those two minutes.”
After being waived by the Sparks after training camp, Mercury guard Briana Gilbreath started all but the first three games of the season in Taylor’s position.
“I think it’s going to be a good opportunity for us to show everything we’ve been working towards this season,” Gilbreath said. “We just want to prove to people that we are who everybody said we were, it’s going to be a very exciting matchup for us. At this point in the season, I don’t have any hard feelings, I’m excited to be in the playoffs, excited to be on the team I’m on, I love my teammates, my coaching staff, so it’s just another big game for me, and I’m excited to be in it.”
MINNESOTA (26-8) VS SEATTLE (17-17)
Having conquered the West the previous two playoffs, the Lynx will try to reclaim its 2011 WNBA title against the 2010 champions, who played the entire season without franchise cornerstones Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird. A loss for the Storm will end the career of leading scorer and rebounder Tina Thompson (14.1 and 5.8), retiring after 17 years. Maya Moore led the talent-rich Lynx in scoring this season (18.5 ppg), followed by Seimone Augustus (16.3), Lindsay Whalen (14.9 and 5.8 apg), and Rebekkah Brunson (10.6 and 8.9 rpg). The Lynx won all four games this season by double digits, with three coming since Aug. 31.
CHICAGO (24-10) VS INDIANA (16-18)
The defending champion Fever won the three most recent of the four games with Chicago this year and boasted the league’s top defense with 70.4 points allowed per game. Tamika Catchings had a WNBA-high 2.83 steals per game to complement her 17.7 points and 7.1 rebounds and Shavonte Zellous was a first-time All-Star (14.7 ppg). As Chicago makes its first ever postseason appearance sine its 2006 inception, the talk of the league has been rookie Elena Delle Donne (18.1 ppg), but Sylvia Fowles (16.3 ppg) led the WNBA in rebounds (11.5 rpg) and field goal percentage, Epihanny Prince added 15.0 ppg, and Swin Cash (9.3 ppg) has loads of title-winning experience with Detroit, Seattle, UConn, and the national team.
ATLANTA (17-17) VS WASHINGTON (17-17)
Returning to the playoffs after a dismal 2012 season, the Mystics and Ivory Latta (13.9 ppg) will try to contain the league’s leading scorer Angel McCoughtry (21.5 ppg) and third-leading rebounder Erika de Souza (10 rpg). The Dream, which was 9-1 to start the season and 3-8 to finish it, won the first three games versus the Mystics and dropped the recent two.