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WNBA Playoffs: Western Conference Preview

We just released our 2015 WNBA Eastern Conference Playoff Preview, and now it’s time for the Western Conference Playoff Preview. The West features plenty of star power and should give us two exciting series.

#1 Minnesota Lynx (22-12) vs #4 Los Angeles Sparks (14-20)

Season series: Lynx win 3-1

Out of all the first-round matchups in this year’s WNBA postseason, there are several reasons why this one might be the most intriguing. For one, regular-season records don’t say much here. Yes, the Minnesota Lynx were one of the best teams in the league for the entire season, but the health of their starting backcourt remains a question mark. Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus, while both still excellent players, are also on the wrong side of 30 and have been dealing with nagging injuries for a good portion of the second half of the season. Will they be good to go by Friday?

Meanwhile, the Sparks were the worst team in the WNBA early on, struggling to overcome their temporary roster deficiencies: starting guard Kristi Toliver was overseas on a commitment to the Slovakian National Team, while incumbent all-world player Candace Parker was taking the first half of the season off to rest.

Since Parker’s return, however, the Sparks have been a completely different beast. From July 29th to Sept. 6 (not coincidentally, the games in which Parker has played), the Sparks owned a league-best efficiency differential of +8. The passing between Parker and fellow frontcourt mates Nneka Ogwumike and Jantel Lavender creates layup after layup (incredibly, Parker led the league in AST% this season), and defensively there’s just too much size, length and activity to not disrupt opponents.

Of course, Maya Moore will be Maya Moore. There’s little doubt about that. The Lynx superstar bears perhaps the biggest offensive load of any player in the league (the WNBA’s only player to record a USG% over 30 percent while still assisting on at least 20 percent of her teammates’ baskets), and is also a significant enough contributor on defense to change the momentum of a game in a matter of seconds. Simply put, it’s her teammates who will need to step up to the challenge: prized midseason acquisition Sylvia Fowles will need to play the best defense of her life against the Sparks’ well-oiled frontcourt machine, and Whalen and Augustus must prove that the guard matchup in this series is as big of a mismatch on the court as it is on paper.

Make no mistake about it, this series has the most star power of any first-round matchup, and will be all about the big names. Both Brian Agler and Cheryl Reeve can be reluctant to go deep into their benches, too. There are a couple of reserve players who may make an impact for each side, though.

In particular, Serbian guard Ana Dabovic has turned out to be quite the find for Agler, scoring in double figures in nine of the team’s final 10 games. She’ll be leaned on as their instant offense when Toliver needs a breather. On the other end, veteran Ashja Jones will need to show that she still has something left in the tank when she inevitably matches up against one of LA’s trio of towers, and second-year wing Tricia Liston’s shooting ability (second in the WNBA in 3P%) could be big for Minnesota’s floor spacing versus such a large opponent.

Still, the playoffs are when the starts shine their brightest, and there will be no bigger display of Olympian-level talent than in this series matchup. Don’t let the regular-season records fool you; this is anyone’s series. Just expect plenty of high-level play from some of the WNBA’s biggest names.

#2 Phoenix Mercury (20-14) vs #3 Tulsa Shock (18-16)

Season series: Mercury win 3-2

In this series, we have something akin to a relentless force matched up against an immovable wall. The Shock, while not bearing a very efficient offense (as a team, their effective field goal percentage was second-to-last this season), attempted a league-high 785 free throws this season, grabbed a league-high 393 offensive rebounds and attempted 38 percent of their field goals at the rim…which, you guessed it, led the league. This is a team that, even without superstar point guard Skylar Diggins, comes at its opponents hard and fast, combining an explosive backcourt and a physically imposing frontcourt to wear out its opponents.

The immovable wall they’re up against, of course, is Phoenix center Brittney Griner. At 6’8” and with a massive wingspan, she looks to be headed for her second straight Defensive Player of the Year award, and it won’t be undeserved: Griner blocked 10.2 percent of all two-point shots while she was on the floor this season, and you can bet that she’s the biggest reason why the Mercury allowed just 1.05 points per opponent shot in the restricted area (a close second to New York’s 1.04). There may not be a player in the league who means more to her team on the defensive end of the floor.

This, of course, is not a new challenge for Tulsa, who was on the receiving end of Griner’s historic 11-block performance last June. The ideal solution, then, is to get Griner in foul trouble, but that’s easier said than done. Look for the Shock to try pulling Griner out of the paint on occasion with centers Theresa Plaisance and Amanda Zahui B. Both are big bodies who will not hesitate to pull the trigger on the three-point shot. If they can prove to be respectable from distance in this series, Tulsa’s guards will have a much easier time doing what they do best: getting into the paint and wreaking havoc.

There’s more to this Mercury team than just Griner, though. DeWanna Bonner remains one of the most versatile players in the league. Her sheer length makes her a pain defensively, and her ball skills at 6’4” give the Mercury a player who can create off the dribble and get to the free throw line with the best of them (.483 FTr). Bonner and the ever-steady Candice Dupree (fresh off her third consecutive season shooting 50 percent or better from the field) are more than capable of carrying this Mercury team to the second round if Tulsa lets them have their way.

This will be the first (and unfortunately the last) time that the Shock have made the playoffs since moving to Tulsa. Don’t think that will be lost on them. The Mercury, even though they’re the defending champions, are still out to prove they can succeed without superstars Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor. With both teams eager to prove that they’re championship caliber, expect a fast-paced and exciting series.

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