The Phoenix Mercury survived a major scare from the No. 8 seed New York Liberty on Thursday night to advance to the second round. Things won't get any easier for them at this point, as they'll now travel to the Pacific Northwest for a matchup with the Seattle Storm. This game will also be single-elimination and is set for Sunday afternoon.
After a 10-game winning streak coming out of the Olympic break, the Mercury lost their last three games of the season to miss out on a top-four seed. One of the most crucial defeats in that stretch came against the Storm, and now they'll be out for revenge. But even with Breanna Stewart out, the defending champions won't go down without a fight.
Ahead of Sunday, here's a closer look at this matchup:
(4) Seattle Storm vs. (5) Phoenix Mercury
- Date: Sunday, Sept. 26 | Time: 3 p.m. ET
- Location: Angel of the Winds Arena -- Everett, Washington
- TV: ESPN 2 | Live stream: WatchESPN
Players to watch
Storm: Jewell Loyd
There's really only one answer here, and that's Loyd. She's one of their most important players under normal circumstances, but with Stewart out she'll have to take on an even bigger role. Simply put, the Storm will not win this game if Loyd doesn't play well. They're going to need her to put up a lot of points, just like she did against the Mercury at the end of the regular season when she dropped 37.
Mercury: Brittney Griner
Just as she was in the first round, Griner is the player to watch here for the Mercury. Not only is she key to their success on both ends of the floor, but how the Storm choose to defend her will dictate how the Mercury have to play. The Liberty forced the ball out of her hands, which made other players step up and hit open shots. If the Storm do the same, can the likes of Sophie Cunningham deliver again? And if the Storm play more of a straight-up style, can Griner put up her usual high-scoring game?
Three keys that will decide the game
Both teams are dealing with injuries to key players heading into this game. Reigning Finals MVP Breanna Stewart hasn't played since Sept. 7 due to a foot injury, while Diana Taurasi has been sidelined since Sept. 6 because of an ankle problem.
Taurasi, who sat out of the Mercury's first-round win over the Liberty, seems the more likely of the two to suit up. She was initially listed as questionable, which suggests she isn't far from returning. A few more days off could be just the extra rest she needs. As we saw on Thursday night, the Mercury desperately missed her presence when she isn't on the court. Her shooting and playmaking give them so many more options and takes a lot of pressure and attention off of Griner. Plus, her leadership cannot be replicated.
As for Stewart, she is officially out. When she went down a few weeks ago, the team said only that it was a foot injury, and it's still not clear exactly what she's dealing with. Whatever it is, it hasn't healed enough for her to be able to play. To date, she has not even practiced with the team. As one of the best players in the league, the key to the Storm's success on both ends of the floor, this is a massive loss.
How do the Storm defend Griner?
Griner entered the league as a defensive force but at this point of her career, she's a more impactful offensive player. Not only because of her ability to finish around the basket, which helped her rank second in the league in scoring, but because her size forces teams to adapt their game plan to counter her.
As we saw in the first round, the Liberty decided that they were going to do everything they could to force the ball out of her hands. There were multiple defenders shadowing her at all times, and when she did get the ball there were times when she was triple-teamed. For most of the game, that strategy worked. Griner was limited to just eight shots, and the Mercury's supporting cast couldn't hit a shot. That eventually changed, as we know, and the Mercury won thanks in large part to Sophie Cunningham having the best game of her career.
Now the question becomes, how do the Storm try to defend Griner? Will they copy the Liberty's strategy and force the likes of Cunningham, Shey Peddy and Kia Nurse to hit shots? If Taurasi is out again, that seems like the wise move. At the same time, in Mercedes Russell and Ezi Magbegor, the Storm have more options to throw at Griner. Perhaps they split the difference and don't quite get so aggressive about trying to make Griner pass.
It's going to be interesting to see what the Storm do and how the Mercury react.
Can the Storm find enough offense without Stewart?
Breanna Stewart will not play on Sunday, so the major question for the Storm is whether or not they can find enough offense in her absence. She's an important part of their defense as well, of course, but they won't miss her quite as much on that end.
After all of their departures this offseason, the Storm remained an elite offensive side largely because of Stewart's scoring and versatility. Even in a somewhat down year for her in terms of efficiency, she still put up 20.3 points and 2.7 assists per game, and the Storm's offensive rating was a staggering 15.9 points per 100 possessions better with her on the floor (107.3) than when she sat (91.4). Over the course of the whole season, that's the difference between being the best offensive team in the league with Stewart, and the worst in the league without her.
So how do they find enough scoring to win in the playoffs without their best player? First and foremost, they'll need a strong performance from Jewell Loyd. She finished second on the team in scoring this season at 17.9 points per game, and is capable of taking over games by herself -- as we saw just a week ago when she put up 37 points against the Mercury in the regular season finale.
It goes without saying that the Storm will also need someone from the supporting cast to step up, whether that's Mercedes Russell, Katie Lou Samuelson or Epiphanny Prince. Finally, the Storm will have to hit 3s. They were the best shooting team in the league this season, hitting 37.9 percent, and it's a big part of their offense. It won't be quite as easy without Stewart's passing and the attention she draws, but they will have to hit shots from outside in order to keep up with the Mercury.
This one is difficult to call, but with Stewart out, we'll take the Mercury. They didn't look great against the Liberty, but they're going to have a much easier time finding consistent offense, and that should be the difference.