The regular season has come to a close, and now the calendar turns to the 2021 WNBA Playoffs. Play will begin on Thursday night with the single-elimination first round, and in the second game of the doubleheader, we'll see the Phoenix Mercury take on the New York Liberty.
After a slow start to the season, the Mercury caught fire coming out of the Olympic break and ripped off a 10-game winning streak that helped them earn the No. 5 seed. As for the Liberty, they are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2017, though it's in an ignominious fashion. At 12-20, their 0.375 winning percentage is the worst of any playoff team in WNBA history.
Ahead of Thursday night's matchup, here's a closer look at this one-game series.
(5) Phoenix Mercury vs. (8) New York Liberty
- Date: Thursday, Sept. 23 | Time: 10 p.m. ET
- Location: GCU Arena -- Phoenix, Arizona
- TV: ESPN 2 | Live stream: WatchESPN
Players to watch
Mercury: Brittney Griner
Griner played a starring role for Team USA in Tokyo and carried that momentum into the WNBA restart. After the Olympic break, she put up 20.5 points, nine rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.8 blocks per game. She should be in for another big night in this game against a Liberty team that doesn't have the size to match up with her.
Liberty: Betnijah Laney
Last season's Most Improved Player, Laney had the Liberty on her back for much of the early part of the season. She's struggled lately, however, and in September averaged just 9.8 points per game on 37.8 percent shooting. The Liberty will not win this game if she continues that trend. They need her to regain her early-season form.
Three keys that will decide the game
How do the Liberty deal with Griner?
There might not be anyone in the league playing better than Brittney Griner right now. As previously noted, she's put up huge numbers since the Olympic break, and finished second in scoring (20.5 points per game), second in field goal percentage (57.5) and first in blocks (1.9 per game).
That's bad news for anyone who has to face the Mercury during the playoffs, but especially the Liberty, who simply don't have the size to match up with Griner. Kylee Shook is the tallest player in the team at 6-foot-4, and no one else is taller than 6-foot-2. Natasha Howard is a terrific defender and a former Defensive Player of the Year, but she is extremely undersized against Griner.
In her two games against the Liberty this season, Griner put up 29 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks on 10-for-16 from the field in June and 26 points, nine rebounds and six assists on 11-for-17 from the field in August. Will the Liberty play her straight up, let her get 25-30 points and focus on the rest of the team? Or will they try to take the ball out of her hands with double teams and force the Mercury's supporting cast to beat them?
Liberty's 3-point shooting
Few teams have embraced the 3-point revolution quite like the Liberty, who led the league this season with 27.7 attempts per game and finished third in the league at 36.2 percent. In addition, they scored 38.4 percent of their points from behind the arc, well more than any other team.
But when you look closer at the numbers, you quickly notice that they were all over the place from game to game, which largely determined the outcomes. When they were shooting well and made at least 10 3s, they went 10-9. When they failed to make 10 3s, they went 2-11.
The Liberty are clearly the worse team here, but all they have to do is win one game, not a series. If they can get hot from 3-point land -- which they have many times this season -- that will give them a fighting chance.
Diana Taurasi's health
Taurasi hasn't played since Sept. 6 due to an ankle injury and, as of now, it's still unclear if she'll be ready to go on Thursday night. This sort of goes without saying, but whether or not one of the best players in WNBA history plays in this game is important.
Though well past her prime, Taurasi is still one of the league's better guards and was the Mercury's third-leading scorer this season at 15.2 points per game. When she's in the lineup, the Mercury are so much more dynamic thanks to her long-range shooting and playmaking.
You also can't ignore Taurasi's presence and leadership. She's one of the most clutch players of all time, and has been through this process time and again. Even now, there are few players in the league you'd rather have with the ball at the end of a close playoff game.
Any team that launches 3s like the Liberty will be in with a shot in a one-game situation, but the Mercury should win this game without too much trouble. Even if Taurasi doesn't play, the Mercury are just much better, and they're at home. Plus, they beat up on bad teams this season, going 13-4 against sub-.500 competition.