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WNBA Playoffs: Eastern Conference Preview

The matchups are set and the WNBA Playoffs get underway Thursday night. The Eastern Conference lines up with the top-seeded New York Liberty facing off against the No. 4 seed Washington Mystics. The other side of the bracket features a matchup between the Chicago Sky and MVP Elena Delle Donne against the Indiana Fever and former MVP Tamika Catchings.

#1 New York Liberty (23-11) vs. #4 Washington Mystics (18-16)

Many might consider the New York Liberty as one of the biggest surprises in the WNBA this season. They captured the East’s top seed for the first time since 2010 after going 23-11 this season. That was after dealing away perennial All-Star and leading scorer Cappie Pondexter during the offseason.

They’ll face off in the first round against the Washington Mystics in an interesting matchup of the league’s top two defensive teams. The Liberty led the league in opponent scoring, allowing 71.1 points per game. The Mystics finished right behind them at 71.2. New York again topped the leaderboard in defensive rating while the Mystics checked in at No. 4. With that in mind, points may be at a premium in this series.

Offensively, New York is led by the inside/outside combination of Tina Charles and Epiphanny Prince. Charles is one of the best low-post players in the league and has worked hard to develop a solid face-up game with a mid-range jumper. That spacing helps free up driving lanes for players like Prince and Sugar Rodgers to attack the paint.

While Washington lacks a true go-to player in the sense of the word, they make up for it with an equal opportunity system predicated on their ball movement. They finished third in the league in assists and were next to last in turnovers, so don’t expect them to beat themselves too often.

The frontcourt matchup will be the one to watch in this series as Washington’s Emma Meesseman and Stefanie Dolson try to slow down Charles and Kiah Stokes. Meesseman and Dolson provide a solid one-two punch for the Mystics, and they must hold their own against Charles and company for Washington to have any chance.

The Mystics have been up and down all season and enter the playoffs having lost seven of their last 10 games. However, they did defeat New York in three of the four regular-season meetings. Washington finished just 7-10 on the road this season, but two of those wins came in New York against the Liberty.

New York is the more talented team in this series, but it’d be foolish to overlook Washington, and anything can happen in a short series.

#2 Chicago Sky (21-13) vs. #3 Indiana Fever (20-14)

The Chicago Sky are looking to make a return trip to the Finals, but they first must go through the Indiana Fever, who are playoff tested.

Chicago was a trendy pick to win the championship this season and there’s a lot to like. The obvious starting point is with forward Elena Delle Donne, who won the league scoring title and was named league MVP on Wednesday. The Sky swept the Fever during the regular season, beating them by more than 20 points three times.

However, Chicago does enter the postseason with some concerns. Cappie Pondexter suffered a concussion in a win over the Atlanta Dream on Aug. 29. She sat out the last five games of the regular season, although she’s likely to play in Thursday’s Game 1. Even if Pondexter isn’t 100 percent, the Sky have plenty of backcourt options in Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley. Chicago also bolstered its frontcourt with a midseason trade for center Erika de Souza, who also has a ton of playoff experience while playing in Atlanta.

If the Sky hope to get to the Finals, then they need to pick up their play on the defensive end of the floor. While Chicago led the league in scoring this season at 82.9 points per game, they were next to last in points allowed at 78.8. Part of that can be explained away by playing at a high pace and having big leads, but as things slow down in the playoffs, they must be able to get key stops in half-court situations.

On paper, the Fever appear to be a pretty big underdog in this series, but it’s important not to discount a battle-tested and experienced group. Indiana will need a turn back the clock performance from former MVP Tamika Catchings to help neutralize Delle Donne to have a chance. Again, Game 1 in a short series is pivotal, and a team like Indiana could ramp up the pressure significantly if they can steal a victory.

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