WNBA Playoffs 2018: Phoenix Mercury at Connecticut Sun

A preview of the single-elimination game between the Mercury and the Sun in the second round of the 2018 WNBA playoffs.

Thursday, August 23
8:30 pm ET
ESPN2

The second round of the 2018 WNBA playoffs is upon us. For those not familiar with the current WNBA playoff format, it goes as follows:

The first two rounds are single-game elimination rounds. The two winners of the first round (this year, it was the Phoenix Mercury and the Los Angeles Sparks) proceed to play the #3 (Washington Mystics) and #4 (Connecticut Sun) overall seeds in the second round. The losers (Dallas Wings and Minnesota Lynx) went home and their seasons are officially over -- and, in the case of the Lynx, the end of a dynasty. 

The two winners of the second round (also single-elimination games) move on to play the #1 (Seattle Storm) and #2 (Atlanta Dream) overall seeds in a best-of-five semifinals series.

The winners of the semifinals duke it out in another best-of-five series for the championship.

Fun fact: winning teams are re-seeded after each of the first two rounds.

This year, the second of the second-round games is between the #5 Phoenix Mercury and the #4 Connecticut Sun. Here’s how they’ll match up. Remember: it’s win or go home for these teams.

General Preview

Once again, we have youth (Connecticut Sun) versus experience (Phoenix Mercury), and experience trumped twice during the regular season. But in both of those Phoenix wins, Connecticut was without both Alyssa Thomas and, at one point, Courtney Williams.

In the final regular-season matchup for these teams, the Sun won by virtue of both the return of Thomas (her second post-injury game) and Williams and the beginning of the Mercury’s grim post-Sancho Lyttle reality (she tore her ACL on June 30 and was ruled out for the season).

Relax, Relate, Release

The Sun, as the #4 overall seed, won a single-bye, which meant that they’ve had an extra few days to rest and they’re playing this game at home. The Mercury had to travel from Arizona after blowing out the Dallas Wings in the first round, just two days ago.  Fatigue may be a factor that gives the already youthful Sun the edge in this game.

Over the Rainbow

It’s no secret that Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi is the reigning queen of the three-point shot, whether it's the regular season or the playoffs.

DeWanna Bonner, Briann January, and Leilani Mitchell are also dangerous beyond the arc for the Mercury. Connecticut is equally stacked with Shekinna Stricklen, Jonquel Jones, Courtney Williams, Morgan Tuck, and Rachel Banham all able to take and make threes. This is going to be another key factor because when a team can’t find any openings on defense, it can just shoot from three-point range. That’s part of how the Mercury have managed to survive without Lyttle.

Watch Out for the Big Girls

Phoenix’s Brittney Griner is a challenge for any team that faces the Mercury, and this game will be no exception.

Connecticut managed to get it done in their sole win over Phoenix in the regular season due to keeping the ball out of Griner’s hands and double-teaming her in the post. Griner has gotten used to double-teams, as that seemed to be the go-to method of attempted containment by every team except perhaps the Dallas Wings (because: Liz Cambage) or the Minnesota Lynx (because: Sylvia Fowles).

The X-factor for the Sun will be Jonquel Jones, especially if Chiney Ogwumike is still dealing with the knee soreness that kept her out of the final two games of the regular season.

Unlike Griner, Jones has the aforementioned three-point range, which will help; if she heats up, Phoenix will have major problems.

Both Jones and Griner will have to stay out of foul trouble if either of their respective teams hopes to make it to the semifinals.

Another big to keep an eye on is Stricklen. She has proven that she can take the clutch shot and the three-point shot (sometimes they’re the same thing, as she proved against the New York Liberty), which gives Connecticut more weapons against a still-formidable Phoenix team.

Small But Mighty

Connecticut is a smaller team, but that gives them a speed advantage that may be extremely beneficial against a road team -- and it’s how they beat Phoenix in their final matchup on July 13.

Phoenix can go with a smaller lineup but they have traditionally relied on their size to dominate opponents; with Lyttle out, the physical dominance ploy doesn’t work as well.

Courtney Williams is one of the fastest guards in the league, and she has a range of both offensive and defensive skills. She has taken over games before for Connecticut, so stepping up will not be a problem. The Sun will also have the services of Layshia Clarendon, who is another respected guard acquired in a midseason trade from the Atlanta Dream. She can run the point and give Jasmine Thomas a spell, and her on-court veteran leadership is crucial in the postseason. And she can score. 

Mob(b) Deep

Connecticut has a much stronger and deeper bench than Phoenix, and that may be the nail in the Mercury’s postseason coffin as Phoenix will continue to rely heavily on its Big Three of Taurasi, Griner, and Bonner, while the Sun can give its key players rest throughout the game.

Prediction

This game could go either way, especially since Taurasi will be expected to put the Mercury on her back in this must-win situation and Jasmine Thomas will do the same for Connecticut. While it’s usually not smart to bet against Taurasi, who is 12-0 in single-elimination games, Connecticut may pull it off.

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