Chicago vs. Indiana
Indiana will hope to change their recent fate against the Sky, with the conference semi-final matchup between the East's two middle seeds featuring a rematch of last year's Eastern Conference Finals. The Fever were unable to exact revenge against Chicago during the regular season; the Sky swept Indiana during the season, with an average margin of almost 20 points.
Indiana will have their work cut out for them. With Chicago as the second seed, home field advantage belongs to the Sky. The Fever stealing a win in Chicago in the first game of the series will make advancing to the conference finals that much easier.
The Sky haven't lost two games in a row since July, and Indiana will have to quickly find a consistent rhythm in order to survive the first round after a generally streaky second half of the season.
Though Chicago has not had too much trouble dispatching Indiana recently, it will certainly help to be at full strength. Cappie Pondexter's concussion sustained on August 29th in Chicago's game against Atlanta has kept her out of the team's last five games, and her status is unsure for the opening playoff series.
Pondexter's absence could cause problems with the Chicago offense, which revolved around contributions from Pondexter, Courtney Vandersloot, and MVP candidate Elena Delle Donne.
Delle Donne's offensive game will be on display whether Pondexter is available or not. Her 28-point game in Chicago's loss to the Sun in the last game of the season helped her lock up the WNBA scoring title, with 23.4 points per game. But per usual, it will be the defensive side of the game that will determine Chicago's success levels.
The Sky ended the season giving up the second-most points per game in the league. Chicago has only held opponents under 70 points four times since the All-Star break, despite bolstering their frontcourt with Erika de Souza at the trade deadline.
Frontcourt defense will be tantamount to success for Chicago. The Fever will likely lean on veteran forward Tameka Catchings to anchor their offensive game plan. With retirement looming on the horizon after the 2016 Summer Olympics, Catchings has more than enough motivation to get back to the WNBA Finals.
However, it will take more than that for the Fever to finally best the Sky. Though their records might indicate a close matchup, Chicago has had Indiana's number all season, and the Fever will have to prove that they've learned from previous matchups in order to advance.
Washington vs. New York
The Liberty have been arguably the best team all season long, a stark contrast from the East's fourth-seeded Mystics. After starting the season 11-6, Washington limped into the playoffs with a 7-10 record since the beginning of August. Meanwhile, New York has dominated all season with both the league's stingiest defense and the most dominating rebound numbers on average.
Washington's struggles have stemmed all season from a lack of a true go-to option on offense. Their ability to find the open player on the court for the best shot possible has helped them achieve some monster offensive team performances, but as also at times left them wanting for a go-to scorer.
On the other hand, their ability to share the ball as a team has led to an impressive distribution of scoring between their top players, including their starting frontcourt of Emma Meesseman and Stefanie Dolson.
The Liberty's answer to any inside threat will be Tina Charles, who, along with Kiah Stokes, comprise of one of the top interior defenses in the league. The frontcourt matchup between the tandem of Stokes and Charles against the duo of Dolson and Meesseman should be exciting to watch, and the results of those battles in the paint could have heavy influence over the rest of the series.
Despite the Mystics' inconsistency, they still boast the league's second-best defense in terms of points allowed per game. That defense proved extremely effective the last time these two teams played, with Washington holding New York to 55 points.
In fact, surprisingly, New York has only beaten Washington once in their four matchups this season, and that victory took a surge in overtime to put the game away. Though it seemed all season like WNBA fans were heading for a Minnesota-New York Finals matchup, the Liberty have to prove that they can play consistently against the Mystics first.
The story of the series will be defense. If Washington can continue holding the Liberty to the 60-point range, they might have enough on offense to pull off a staggering upset. New York will be looking to use their home-court advantage to find an early groove, and take any thoughts of an upset out of the Mystics' minds.