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2021 WNBA Playoff Preview: Mercury heavy favorites against Liberty

At 10 p.m. ET on ESPN2, the No. 5 Phoenix Mercury host the No. 8 New York Liberty in the second of two first-round, single-elimination playoff games. The major factors in this matchup all favor the Mercury. Do the Liberty have a chance for the upset?

Phoenix Mercury v New York Liberty
Skylar Diggins-Smith, who averaged more than 26 points and almost six assists per game in three games against the Liberty this season, powers past Betnijah Laney.
Photo by Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

Last weekend, the basketball gods smiled on the New York Liberty. Despite going 2-9 over the second half of the season with a net rating of -13.0, the Liberty made the playoffs for the first time since 2017.

After defeating the Washington Mystics last Friday, New York got the luck they needed on Sunday, when the Mystics and Los Angeles Sparks both lost, thereby leaving the eighth seed to the Liberty.

To advance past the first round of the playoffs, New York again will need fate in its favor.

Thursday night at 10 p.m. ET (ESPN2), the No. 8 seed Liberty meet the No. 5 seed Phoenix Mercury in a do-or-die contest. Phoenix is a matchup nightmare New York, as the Mercury are in position to exploit a number of the Liberty’s weaknesses.

During the regular season, New York did steal a game in Phoenix in mid-June, when the shorthanded Liberty, missing Natasha Howard and Sabrina Ionescu, edged a Diana Taurasi-less Mercury team 85-83 behind a fourth-quarter explosion from Jazmine Jones and a clutch bucket from Betnijah Laney.

In late August, the two teams met for a two-game set in Brooklyn, with Phoenix winning both games with ease, even as Brittney Griner missed the second game due to an ankle tweak.

In the first of these games, a 106-79 win for the Mercury, Phoenix maximized their biggest advantage. For the season, the Liberty relinquished a league-worst 38.4 points per game in the paint. The Mercury, who averaged 35.6 points per game this season, registered an astounding 54 points in the paint, with 10 each from Skylar Diggins-Smith and Brianna Turner and 18, including a transition slam, from Brittney Griner.

In her two games against the Liberty, Griner averaged 27.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and three assists, all of which exceeded her season averages. In single coverage, BG puts the ball in the basket unbothered. When New York sends doubles, as they often will be forced to do, she can and will dime up her teammates for uncontested layups and open jumpers.

In the second game, an 80-64 Mercury victory, New York did little to help themselves take advantage of Griner’s absence, turning the ball over 17 times. The Liberty also again failed to contain Diggins-Smith, who might have been motivated by a bit of social media spice to show out in New York.

Sky-Digg did not disappoint, with a pair of 27-point performances in NYC. In the second game, she used her expert foul-drawing ability to spur her scoring, going 11-of-11 from the free throw line.

If Griner and Diggins-Smith generate easy scoring opportunities for themselves and others, Phoenix should be well positioned for the win. Add in a signature single-elimination game from Diana Taurasi, who is expected to play after missing four games with an ankle injury, and the Mercury could run away from Liberty and turn this into a rout.

However, if the basketball gods again intervene in favor of the Liberty, New York certainly could secure the upset.

This season, New York turned in the most prolific 3-point shooting season in WNBA history, netting a record 321 triples. Per game, they led all teams with 27.7 attempts and 10 makes. Considering this volume, their team-wide percentage of 36.2 percent is impressive.

They also have the league’s most dangerous quick-trigger 3-point sniper in Sami Whitcomb. Even though she fired off 179 total 3-pointers, she ranked third in the league in 3-point percentage at 47.3 percent, giving her a total of 76 triples on the season, the second-most in the WNBA. She also swished five or more treys five times this season.

If New York can combine a super-charged Whitcomb performance with multiple threes from the likes of Rebecca Allen, Michaela Onyenwere and Sabrina Ionescu, the tough shotmaking of Betnijah Laney and above-average ball security, it might be just enough for the Liberty to outscore Phoenix.

Yet, this confluence of factors seems a bit far-fetched.

In short, the Mercury should advance for a date with the defending-champion and No. 4 seed Seattle Storm on Sunday.

Game information

No. 5 seed Phoenix Mercury vs. No. 8 seed New York Liberty

When: Thursday, Sept. 23 at 10 p.m. ET

Where: Grand Canyon University Arena in Phoenix, AZ

How to watch: ESPN2, SN1 or NBA TV Canada

Key to the matchup: In addition to the social media drama adding a bit extra to an otherwise somewhat lopsided-looking matchup, there also is some revenge game potential. Four members of the Mercury — Kia Vaughn, Bria Hartley, Kia Nurse and Megan Walker — once suited up for the Liberty. Because Walker is unlikely to play significant minutes, if at all, and Vaughn simply serves as a steady presence, Nurse seems most likely to torture her former team with a revenge performance. A streaky shooter, Nurse certainly could find the bottom of the net enough times to bury the Liberty. However, Hartley popping off might be the best story. Having recently returned from the knee injury that cut short the career year she was compiling in 2020, Hartley has played only limited minutes. But she has had her jump shot working, including from deep. If head coach Sandy Brondello finds herself in need of a spark, Hartley could swing the momentum to the Mercury by draining a couple of timely threes.

Mercury injury report: Diana Taurasi (questionable; left ankle)

Liberty injury report: Jocelyn Willoughby (out for season; left Achilles)