WNBA Playoffs 2018: Dallas Wings at Phoenix Mercury

A preview of the first-round game in the 2018 WNBA playoffs between the Dallas Wings and the Phoenix Mercury.

2018 WNBA Playoffs, First Round: Dallas Wings vs. Phoenix Mercury

Tuesday, August 21
8:30 pm ET
ESPN2 (televised); Wells Fargo Arena, Arizona State University (local)

Note: this playoff preview is from the perspective of the Phoenix Mercury. To view the Dallas Wings’ perspective, click here.

The first 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 proceed to play the #3 and #4 seeds in the second round. The losers go home and their season is officially over.

The two winners of the second round (also single-elimination games) move on to play the #1 and #2 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 first of the first-round games is between the #8 Dallas Wings and the #5 Phoenix Mercury. Here’s how they’ll match up. Remember: it’s win or go home for these teams.

General Preview

The Phoenix Mercury won two of its three regular-season games against the Dallas Wings, and that was before the Wings went into a tailspin that culminated in the firing of then-head coach Fred Williams. While this isn’t the position the Mercury planned to be in at the beginning of the season, they are finally starting to adapt to the huge loss of defensive stalwart Sancho Lyttle.

Dallas has the youth and the speed, but Phoenix has the savvy and a lot of players who can shoot 3-pointers. The big question will be if the Wings can build upon their scrappy win over the Las Vegas Aces to claim the final playoff spot, or will they be swept out of the first round? Keep in mind that this is Dallas’s second consecutive playoff appearance; it’s Phoenix’s sixth consecutive appearance, 10th in the past 12 seasons, and 13th in overall franchise history. They’re not new to this.

This is where the Mercury will be dangerous; they have the personnel to shut down Dallas in what promises to be a physical game, but also know how to dismantle a team mentally. Dallas has been through so much (head coach blues, injuries, major losing streak, barely making the playoffs) that they may be teetering on the edge and ready for Phoenix to give them a shove.

Battle of the Bigs

Perhaps one of the most anticipated matchups will be between Phoenix’s Brittney Griner and Dallas’ Liz Cambage. Griner is the more seasoned of the two by WNBA standards, having played six seasons in the league. This is Cambage’s second season in the WNBA; she was drafted in 2011 and played her rookie season, then played primarily in her native Australia until former Dallas head coach Fred Williams coaxed her out of Down Under to come back to the WNBA.

Cambage has done what few bigs have been able to do in this league: get inside Griner’s head. Griner, who has always been prone to foul trouble, will have to make sure she stays calm. She shouldn’t have a problem with getting called for flagrant fouls, which tends to happen when she’s guarding someone shorter than her (hi, Stefanie Dolson). Griner and Cambage are the same height, give or take an inch, though Cambage is a bit heavier. Still, this is a more even matchup and will benefit Griner and her long arms.

The Onionskin Chronicles

This game will have both Taurasi and Cambage, who are two of the mouthiest players in the league when it comes to refereeing. Both have racked up some technical fouls this season (for Taurasi, it’s every season); both have been ejected for expressing their feelings too vehemently (Griner mainly gets ejected for physical fouls).

Whichever player can control her emotions better will swing the momentum her team’s way. This Dallas/Phoenix game will be in Arizona (at Arizona State University), so the referees may be a bit more accommodating for the home team, which will probably piss Cambage off. 

Guard Duty

Taurasi, as always, will be steering the Mercury ship, even if she’s on the bench.  Skylar Diggins-Smith will be doing the same for Dallas. In addition to her excellent floor vision, Taurasi is also very adept at getting to the free throw line. She knows the veteran tricks to draw contact and uses them well. Diggins-Smith is a veteran too, but she hasn’t been in the game as long as Taurasi. Plus, the Mercury has Leilani Mitchell as a capable backup for when Taurasi needs a rest of draws one of her infamous technical fouls.

Secure the Perimeter

Phoenix’s defense took a major hit when Lyttle was ruled out for the season with a torn ACL injury. In the final two weeks of the regular season, the Mercury via head coach Sandy Brondello has cobbled together a workable solution that keeps DeWanna Bonner and Yvonne Turner helping out on perimeter defense. They will have to contend with Dallas’ Kayla Thornton and Glory Johnson, who are very good defensively, and they have well-deserved reputations of hustling to get their team the ball -- which is part of why Dallas is in the playoffs in the first place.

Three is the Magic Number

Three-point shooting is going to be a hallmark of this game. Both teams can shoot it, but Phoenix has more players who can do so -- starting with Taurasi, the league’s all-time leader in made 3-point shots.  

It’s a weapon that she employs at will, particularly when her team is falling behind. Diggins-Smith can shoot the three as well, but she’s nowhere near as prolific as Taurasi, who treats it almost like a 2-point shot in terms of ease.

Briann January is dangerous from 3-point range; it’s part of how she won her championship with the Indiana Fever.  Bonner has struggled from beyond the arc lately but will make a 3-point shot more often than not. So can Mitchell. A possible thorn in Phoenix’s side will be that Cambage can also shoot the three, a skill that Griner has not (yet) developed. Theresa Plaisance finally returned to the lineup for the Wings, and both she and bench spark Cayla George are pretty good from 3-point range.  

1-2 Step

Taurasi and Griner are among the winningest duos in WNBA history (and, combined with Bonner, are among the winningest trios).

While Diggins-Smith has developed a pretty good rapport with Cambage, it’s nowhere near the level of Taurasi and Griner, who have had since 2013 (including playing overseas for the same team) to work on their mind meld. Also, since Karima Christmas-Kelly is out for the season due to a  knee injury, Dallas doesn't have a steady third person to help ease the stress. Again, this will be a case of experience over youth, and the scales are tipping in Phoenix's favor.

Wild Cards

  • Bench production is going to be key to the outcome of this game. Phoenix’s bench isn’t that great, although Stephanie Talbot has really stepped up lately, along with Turner. Still, the usual (over)reliance on Taurasi, Griner, and Bonner may be a liability; it only takes one domino to fall before the rest of the team unravels. We saw it during the regular season against Chicago (when Griner was ejected) and against Las Vegas (when Taurasi was ejected), and against other teams when Lyttle went down. In the playoffs, it will need to be all hands on deck.
  • Fouls are going to be another factor in this game. It’ll be like Monopoly: she who makes it to the 4th quarter with the least fouls wins. Both teams will likely try to get opposing key players into foul trouble (especially if they are already prone to foul trouble), so the team with players that have high free-throw shooting percentages will be rewarded.
  • Injuries will take their toll. With the exception of Lyttle and a game or two where January was out with an ankle injury, Phoenix has been relatively healthy (Griner had back spasms right before and during the All-Star break, but she played through them). Dallas, on the other hand, has been pretty banged up, mentally and physically. Dallas signed Maggie Lucas on a medical hardship exception since Karima Christmas-Kelly (knee) and now Kaela Davis (vertigo) are out. From a physical point of view, Dallas is more fragile, and Phoenix can use that to their advantage and play a very aggressive, very physical game.  
  • Turnovers will be something to take into account. While both teams have had their share of turnovers, Dallas is more prone to them due to miscommunication; the ever-tweaked lineups due to injury have played a part in that, and crossed signals may increase as they try to integrate Lucas into the lineup. Phoenix, on the other hand, tends to start the same five people, so they’ve already developed and honed a shorthand for on-court communication. Advantage: Phoenix.
  • Dallas is getting a lot out of its rookie Azurá Stevens; Phoenix, not so much with rookie Marie Gülich, but that’s part of the Mercury’s development process with Gülich as long as Griner is still in her prime and healthy. For the Wings, Stevens got bumped to significant playing time out of necessity (see: injuries) but has thrived. Stevens’ length and speed (she is very good at forcing steals) could be a problem for Phoenix.


David pulled it off, but it’s usually best to put your money on Goliath. Barring a miracle, it’s hard to see Dallas upsetting Phoenix.

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