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Why Dallas and Phoenix are first-round favorites in the WNBA playoffs

Expect Brittney Griner, the WNBA's leading scorer this season, and Diana Taurasi to lead the way for Phoenix. Williams Paul/Icon Sportswire

Last year, the first for the WNBA's new playoff format, Phoenix got a couple of upsets as the No. 8 seed to advance to the semifinals. This year, as a No. 5 seed, the Mercury appear to be the strongest of the four teams that will play in Wednesday's single-elimination first round.

But could the Mercury be upset victims this time? They'll face No. 8 seed Seattle, which went 1-2 against Phoenix this year and lost three of its last four regular-season games. However, the Storm are still a potentially dangerous team with the likes of big scoring threats Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd.

So the Mercury will need to show which team they are: The one that won three games in a row to end the season, or the one that lost three straight just before that?

Wednesday's other matchup pits No. 7 seed Dallas against No. 6 Washington. The Wings are making their first playoff appearance since moving to Dallas from Tulsa for the 2016 season, and just the second in franchise history since leaving Detroit after the 2009 season.

The Mystics, meanwhile, have struggled a lot with injuries and are trying to right the ship after losing four of their past five. The winners Wednesday will play at No. 3 seed New York and No. 4 Connecticut on Sunday, with those winners advancing to the best-of-five semifinals against No. 1 Minnesota and No. 2 Los Angeles. (Teams will be re-seeded after the first and second rounds.)

Here's a closer look at Wednesday's first round:

No. 7 Dallas (16-18) at No. 6 Washington (18-16) ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET

The Mystics are short on postseason success: Their one and only series win came in the 2002 Eastern Conference semifinals against Charlotte, a franchise that no longer exists.

In coach Mike Thibault's four previous seasons in Washington, the Mystics lost three times in the conference semis and didn't make the playoffs last year. Obtaining Elena Delle Donne, the 2015 MVP, and Kristi Toliver, who won a WNBA title with Los Angeles in 2016, brought a lot of excitement to this Mystics team.

But Washington lost guard Tayler Hill to an ACL injury on July 14, and Delle Donne suffered an ankle injury that night, too. She returned from that injury, but then hurt her left (non-shooting) thumb on July 30 and had surgery. Delle Donne came back from that Aug. 25.

"It's painful, but it's something I have to deal with if I wanted to come back this season," Delle Donne said Sunday after the Mystics' loss to Minnesota to end the regular season 18-16. "Luckily, it's my off hand, and I tape it and pad it. I've just found a way to get through it."

Delle Donne is Washington's leading scorer at 19.7 points per game, followed by Emma Meesseman (14.1) and Toliver (11.9).

Dallas went 2-1 against the Mystics this season, the most recent meeting an 83-78 Wings victory in Washington on Aug. 26. Delle Donne and Meesseman combined for 51 points in that game, but the Mystics couldn't get enough from the rest of their roster.

Wings point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith had 20 points and seven assists in that game, and this has been a strong season for her. She leads Dallas in scoring (18.5) and assists (5.8), and has gotten really good support from forward Glory Johnson (14.9 PPG, 9.1 rebounds per game), rookie guard Allisha Gray (13.0 PPG, 3.9 RPG) and veteran guard Karima Christmas-Kelly (10.4 PPG, 4.2 RPG). It also has helped the Wings to have second-year guard Aerial Powers back. She returned in late July after hip surgery and has averaged 10.8 points and 4.2 rebounds in 12 games.

This game could be a lot like the one these teams played Aug. 26, when both teams went to the line a lot; Dallas made 21-of-32 free throws, while Washington hit 19-of-26. But Dallas does that pretty much every game; the Wings averaged a league-high 26.6 free throw attempts, more than three better than the next team (Phoenix, 23.0).

And in the Wings' two victories over the Mystics -- both in Washington -- Dallas rallied from fourth-quarter deficits.

"They're gaining experience -- obviously, Skylar's had a terrific year -- and they're growing up," Thibault said. "And they are physical. You have to be able to match that and rebound. If they get to the foul line as much as they did in the regular season, you're in trouble."

Pick: Dallas. The Wings gave red-hot New York a tough game in Sunday's regular-season finale -- falling 82-81 -- and they've won twice already this season in Washington. The Mystics just haven't had much chance to really jell because of injuries. This should be a close game, but Dallas might do just what Thibault fears and win it by getting to the line a lot.

No. 8 Seattle (15-19) at No. 5 Phoenix (18-16) ESPN2, 10 p.m. ET

Neither team has been as good as it hoped to be this season; the Storm struggled enough that they made a coaching change in August. But if either can get on a little run, maybe one of these teams can salvage 2017.

That's what the Mercury did last year in winning first- and second-round games at Indiana and at New York, before being swept by Minnesota in the semifinals.

This year, the Mercury have relied heavily on center Brittney Griner, who finished the regular season leading the league in scoring (21.9 PPG), the highest average of her five-year career. She missed eight games after suffering an injury July 14, and the Mercury went 4-4 in her absence.

Phoenix also rested guard Diana Taurasi for three games, which was understandable as she looked a little worn down at times this season. But she still averaged 17.9 points. Taurasi hit the dagger -- a 3-pointer with 15.7 seconds left -- to beat the Storm 75-71 on Aug. 27 in Seattle. That gave the Mercury its 2-1 series edge against the Storm.

Three players that Phoenix obtained via trades before or during this season are veterans who could help them in the playoffs: guard Danielle Robinson, guard/forward Monique Currie, and forward Camille Little.

Ultimately, however, this is still the Griner and Taurasi show -- or at least those are the players you expect to lead the way now.

While Griner topped the league in scoring, Seattle's Stewart wasn't far behind in second at 19.9 PPG. She also averaged 8.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.6 blocks. Seattle guard Loyd was ninth in the WNBA in scoring (17.7) and had a career-high 33 points against the Mercury on Aug. 27.

It will be an all-hands-on-deck task for the Storm to try to slow down the 6-foot-9 Griner, but Seattle reserve center Carolyn Swords, who is 6-6, could be a factor if she's able to provide some good minutes off the bench to help starter Crystal Langhorne.

Then there's Seattle stalwart Sue Bird, who broke the WNBA career assists record last Friday and is playing in her 15th season. Bird will be 37 in October but is in such good shape that she's still effective: She averaged 10.6 points this season and a career-high 6.6 assists.

Seattle finished the regular season with an 85-80 victory at Chicago. Starters Bird and Alysha Clark sat out the game because playoff seeds were already set; the Storm had the No. 8 seed and couldn't improve on that.

But Stewart (29 points, eight rebounds), Loyd (25 points, five assists) and Langhorne (13 points, 12 rebounds) led the way in sending the Storm into the postseason on a high note.

Pick: Phoenix. This is a game that the Storm can win -- and that the Mercury can lose. But expect to see both Griner and Taurasi rise to the occasion and have enough to hold off the Storm.