By Patrick Ralph
The 2018 WNBA season opened this past May in Phoenix with a matchup between the Dallas Wings and Phoenix Mercury. Now, fast forward three months, and the playoffs will tip off in the same location featuring the same two teams as on opening night.
Featuring two of the highest-scoring offenses in the league, expect the pace and tempo of the game to resemble that of an electrifying track meet. Here are the six keys to the Wings-Mercury first round playoff matchup on Tuesday night.
No. 8 Dallas Wings (15-19) vs. No. 5 Phoenix Mercury (20-14)
Time: 8:30 p.m. ET
Season series: Mercury won 2-1
Betting line: Mercury -6
Liz Cambage vs. Brittney Griner: Both Cambage and Griner, two of the best centers in the WNBA, rank in the top five in the league in blocks, points, total field goals made, and two-point field goals made. They also rank in the top 10 in the WNBA in rebounds, field-goal percentage, player efficiency rating and win shares. The two All-Star bigs will give the fans a show on Tuesday night and will be instrumental in determining which team advances to the second round.
6 Keys to the Game
Great defense for Phoenix: One of the X-factors to Phoenix’s two wins over Dallas this season was great defense. Phoenix’s defense, which held opponents to the second-lowest field-goal percentage in the league this season, held the Wings to an average of 36 percent from the field in its two wins. In comparison, Dallas shot over 44 percent from the field during the season. In addition, the Mercury held the Wings to an average of 23 percent from three-point land in their two wins. However, in Dallas’ lone win over Phoenix this season, the Wings shot 51 percent from the field and 39 percent from three. Furthermore, it will be key for Phoenix to generate steals against a turnover-happy Dallas team. If Phoenix plays well defensively, the Mercury can make a deep run in the playoffs. But if the Wings can put pressure on Phoenix’s defense early by hitting shots and getting wide-open looks, we could see an upset in the desert on Tuesday night.
Mercury three-pointers: One of the keys to Phoenix’s offense this year has been its ability to make three-pointers. In fact, the Mercury shot and made the second-most threes in the league this season. They also finished in the top four in the WNBA in three-point percentage. In its two wins over Dallas this year, the Mercury shot an average of 41 percent from beyond the arc. However, in the lone game this season that Dallas beat Phoenix, the Mercury shot a cool 31 percent from deep. If the Mercury are consistently hitting threes, they can be one of the most unstoppable offenses in the league. But when Phoenix is off from deep, that’s typically not a good sign for its offense. Look for the Mercury to establish the deep ball early and often.
Dallas’ ability to defend the three: Despite the fact that the Wings’ defense has allowed some of the fewest three-point attempts in the league this year, Dallas’ perimeter defense is far from spectacular. When opponents do take threes against the Wings, they often do not miss. As a result, the Wings’ defense has the highest three-point shooting percentage in the league and ranks in the top four in three-pointers made. Therefore, Dallas’ defense has to limit and take away the three-point shooting opportunities for Phoenix. The Wings have to run them off the three-point line and force the Mercury to take contested shots that they do not want rather than allow them to establish the three-ball early.
Phoenix’s ability to get to the free throw line: During the year, the Mercury were one of the better teams in the league at drawing contact and getting to the free throw line. On the other hand, Dallas was one of the worst teams in the league at allowing opponents to get to the charity stripe. In their two wins over Dallas, the Mercury got to the free throw over 20 times in both games to take almost 50 free throws in total. However, in its lone loss to the Wings, Phoenix took only 14 free throws. It is imperative for Dallas to defend well and not give Phoenix ample opportunities to rack up points from the free-throw line. The Mercury will come out aggressive offensively, so it will be on the Wings to respond on the defensive end.
If the Big 3 plays well, the Mercury play well: It’s no secret to anyone who has watched Phoenix this season that the Mercury have arguably the best trio of All-Stars in the league in Brittney Griner, Diana Taurasi and DeWanna Bonner, all of whom averaged double figures in points this season. When its Big 3 plays well, Phoenix typically plays well, too. Phoenix does not have a deep team and is very top heavy, but the Mercury’s ability to have three stars who can go off and take over a game at any time can make a difference in the playoffs. The Mercury Big 3 combined to score 108 points in their two wins over Dallas this season. However, when the Wings blew out the Mercury, Phoenix only got 46 points from its trio. Why was that? Taurasi only played five minutes in the game due to an illness. The Mercury were without their most prolific scorer for the majority of the game. Therefore, something as simple as having the greatest scorer in WNBA history on the floor can make all the difference. As Taurasi goes, so go the Mercury.
Controlling the paint: Simply put, the team that controls the paint will win this game. While both teams are in the bottom half of the league in two-point field goals attempted and made, the Wings and Mercury are two of the most efficient teams in the WNBA at scoring at or around the rim when they elect to do so. In addition, the Wings and Mercury are two of the top three teams in the league in blocks this season. That is in large part due to both teams’ dominant centers, Cambage and Griner. But an area that Dallas has a significant advantage over Phoenix in is rebounding, where the Wings rank second and the Mercury rank 10th in the league. Therefore, Dallas will need to continue their dominance on the glass by limiting second-chance opportunities for Phoenix on the defensive end and creating additional chances for themselves on the offensive end.