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Previews: Minnesota Lynx, Las Vegas Aces meet in playoff test

The Minnesota Lynx (18-9), winners of five-straight games, are in Las Vegas with eyes on sweeping the season series with the Aces (20-8). The Phoenix Mercury (18-10), riding a nine-game winning streak, head to Atlanta to face the Dream (7-20), who are looking for a second win in a row after an 11-game losing streak.

Minnesota Lynx v Las Vegas Aces
Could the play of Kelsey Plum, seen driving on Napheesa Collier, swing the third and final contest between the Aces and Lynx?
Photo by David Becker/NBAE via Getty Images

As things currently stand, the Las Vegas Aces (20-8) and Minnesota Lynx (18-9) could meet in a best-of-three series the third round of the WNBA playoffs. While the Aces have a somewhat comfortable hold on the second seed, the Lynx having been bouncing back and forth between the third and fourth seeds with the Seattle Storm. They currently sit in the fourth seed.

The Aces, who dropped both of the previous games in this series, host the Lynx at the House at 9 p.m. ET on Wednesday night (ESPN 2).

Even if both teams appear unlikely to be at full strength, with Liz Cambage (health and safety protocols) out for the Aces and Layshia Clarendon (leg) doubtful for the Lynx, expect both teams to be primed for the playoff-caliber challenge.

While the matchup between premier post presences A’ja Wilson, the reigning MVP, and Sylvia Fowles, a leading contender for Defensive Player of the Year, takes top billing, these squads’ respective off-the-bench spark plugs could swing this contest.

For the Aces, it’s Kelsey Plum. For the Lynx, it’s Aerial Powers.

With back-to-back Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby recovering from an ankle injury, Plum, who is challenging her teammate for this season’s Sixth Woman crown, will again need to step up. Of late, she willingly has assumed a greater offensive burden for the depleted Aces, aggressively looking to generate self-created scoring opportunities, which is a necessity for an offense that has the tendency to stall out for stretches.

Over the last three games, when the Aces have gone 2-1, Plum has averaged 19.3 points on 14.3 shot attempts, including 5.7 trey attempts, per game. She also has totaled an average of 6.7 free throw attempts, 3.7 assists and 2.7 steals per game. All of these numbers are superior to her season-long averages.

If the physical Clarendon is out of the lineup, look for Plum to try to feast on the Lynx’s subpar perimeter defenders, whether the undersized Crystal Dangerfield or the slower-footed Rachel Banham.

For the Lynx, Aerial Powers will be ready to match Plum’s fire play with her own brand of bravado. Finally recovered from the nagging injuries that have short-circuited her first season in Minnesota, Powers is rounding into form, with her re-entry into the rotation coinciding with the Lynx’s current five-game win streak.

On Saturday, she dropped a season-high 20 points on her former team, the Washington Mystics. It was also the third-straight game that she got to the line for at least six free throw attempts, an indicator of her aggressive mindset and growing comfort with her role in the Lynx offense.

With Clarendon again expected to be out, Powers’ eagerness to attack the paint adds a needed element to a Lynx offense that can lean too heavily toward Kayla McBride jumpers or Sylvia Fowles post ups. Her all-round, off-the-bench energy also can provide the Lynx with an extra edge.

On Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET (NBA TV), the Atlanta Dream (7-20) and Phoenix Mercury (18-10) are in action.

Relieved to have ended their 11-game losing streak, the Dream are rewarded with a visit from the Mercury, winners of nine games in a row.

For Atlanta, just as encouraging as its victory was the play of Tiffany Hayes. For the first time since her return from a MCL injury, Hayes looked like herself, scoring 22 points on 50 percent shooting in 36 minutes of play in the Dream’s streak-busting win on Sunday over the Dallas Wings. Her eight rebounds and three steals are further indication that she has shaken off any post-injury rust.

For Phoenix, Bria Hartley is still working through the post-injury adjustment period.

Having missed most of the season after suffering a serious knee injury in the wubble, Hartley returned to the court for the first time on Saturday, draining a 3-pointer in a little more than eight minutes of playing time in the Mercury’s blowout win over the Indiana Fever. On Monday night, Hartley did not see any time, as Phoenix coughed up a big lead in the fourth quarter of a second-straight matchup with Indiana. If Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello has her way, her squad will gain, and maintain, a comfortable margin against another overmatched opponent, thus allowing her to allocate playing time to Hartley.

Game information

Atlanta Dream (7-20) vs. Phoenix Mercury (18-10)

When: Wednesday, Sept. 8 at 7 p.m. ET

Where: Gateway Center Arena @ College Park in Atlanta, GA

How to watch: NBA TV or SN360

Key to the matchup: As has been the case for most of the WNBA’s 2021 rookies, it has been an up and down season for Aari McDonald. However, she has done enough to show that she belongs in the WNBA. Since the Olympic break, McDonald’s numbers do not pop off the page, with 7.6 points, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals in almost 17 minutes per game. Yet, her plus-minus of plus-4.1 is the highest mark on the Dream over the last eight games, suggesting she is making a positive impact more often than not. In the second of Atlanta’s two previous losses to Phoenix, McDonald scored 13 points in 19 minutes, draining three 3-pointers as she also accumulated a pair of assists and a trio of steals. If the Dream want to hang with the red-hot Mercury, they will be hoping for a similar level of production from McDonald.

Dream injury report: Tianna Hawkins (out; right foot), Crystal Bradford (out for season; left foot), Chennedy Carter (out indefinitely; suspension), Cheyenne Parker (out for season; personal), Candice Dupree (probable; back)

Mercury injury report: Diana Taurasi (doubtful; left ankle), Alanna Smith (out indefinitely; health and safety protocols), Brittney Griner (NWT; personal)

Highlight: Aari McDonald flashes her speed and skill

Las Vegas Aces (20-8) vs. Minnesota Lynx (18-9)

When: Wednesday, Sept. 8 at 9 p.m. ET

Where: Michelob ULTRA Arean in Las Vegas, NV

How to watch: ESPN2 or TSN2

Key to the matchup: Will A or Phee spill the tea? It’s the third and final matchup between the podcast partners. In the June 25th overtime thriller that the Lynx won by one point, both players had superb games. Wilson posted a double-double of 28 points and 14 rebounds; she also added four steals for good measure. Collier countered with a double-double of her own, scoring 23 points and grabbing 10 boards as she also had eight assists, two blocks and two steals. In the Lynx’s 10-point win on July 9, the two struggled, with both shooting less than 30 percent from the field. Phee totaled only seven points and four rebounds while A had 13 points and six boards. In short, it seems the podcasting pair has great chemistry, as their performances almost perfectly align. Will it be an excellent or underwhelming night for the duo?

Aces injury report: Dearica Hamby (probable; left ankle sprain), Angel McCoughtry (out; right knee), Liz Cambage (out; health and safety protocols)

Lynx injury report: Layshia Clarendon (doubtful; right fibula), Damiris Dantas (out for season; right foot), Rennia Davis (out for season; left foot stress fracture)

Interview: A’ja discusses her debut as weatherwoman on “Tea with A & Phee”