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Mercury's Griner, Mystics' Delle Donne dominate first round of WNBA playoffs

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Mercury pull away late to topple Storm (0:53)

Four of Phoenix's starters score in double digits, led by Brittney Griner's 23 points, in a 79-69 win over Seattle. (0:53)

When Brittney Griner and Elena Delle Donne were the first two picks in the 2013 WNBA draft, there was a strong feeling that they both could be franchise players.

We expected them to be this good -- and they've delivered.

On Wednesday in the do-or-die first round of the WNBA playoffs, Griner and Delle Donne both stood tall, and now their teams are moving on to the second round.

This summer, after an offseason trade to Washington, Delle Donne has battled ankle and thumb injuries, and she has had to play despite pain. But in a game in which the Mystics needed her to be her big-time self, she was. Delle Donne had 25 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots as the No. 6 seed Mystics topped the No. 7 Dallas Wings 86-76.

In Wednesday's nightcap, Griner -- who has dealt with knee and ankle injuries herself this year -- had 23 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and three blocked shots as the No. 5 seed Phoenix Mercury beat the No. 8 Seattle Storm 79-69.

Delle Donne and Griner had nearly identical stat lines; they have had pretty similar seasons in a lot of ways. Delle Donne was with a new team, while it probably felt a bit like that for Griner, because the Mercury has had such a big change in personnel from last season.

The two stalwarts who have remained with Phoenix are Griner and Diana Taurasi, but more of the load than ever was on Griner this year. Taurasi has wanted it to be that way; she has encouraged and sometimes flat-out pushed Griner to be better in every aspect.

Griner led the WNBA in scoring for the regular season with 21.9 points per game, although she missed eight games after a scary-looking injury on July 14. On Wednesday, she played all 40 minutes, the only time this season she has gone the distance. But it was what the Mercury required, and Griner understands what that much responsibility means now.

Delle Donne missed nine games this season, but she was ready to make a statement in the playoffs. She tied for third in the league in scoring (19.7 PPG) for a Mystics team that had a difficult time jelling because of multiple injuries.

Against the Wings on Wednesday, Delle Donne and the Mystics were prepared for what Washington coach Mike Thibault predicted would be some "extracurricular activity." He felt that Dallas had been especially physical in the teams' previous meetings, and the Mystics would have to be able to match that without playing into the Wings' hands by fouling them too much.

As it turned out, there was plenty of physicality on both sides. But the Mystics beat the Wings at their own game -- going to the free throw line 25 times to Dallas' 23 -- and the Wings lost key player Aerial Powers late to her second technical.

Powers, who didn't play this season until July 25 after having hip surgery, led the Wings with 21 points off the bench. But she was ejected with 1:11 to play after scoring and then making contact with the Mystics' Emma Meesseman. It appeared to be an erroneous call by the official, perhaps overreacting after so much had gone on between the teams.

Just seconds earlier, Powers was involved in double technical fouls on a tie-up with Washington's Tierra Ruffin-Pratt. So the referees were likely keeping a close eye on her.

However, the call that took Powers out of the game was one that had to make the WNBA cringe. Considering the last two games of the 2016 Finals each had a call that the league later acknowledged was incorrect, the last thing the WNBA wanted to see to start the playoffs this year was another controversial late call.

That said, officiating didn't cost Dallas the game. The Wings' awful 3-point shooting -- 2-of-21 -- hurt them tremendously. So did getting beat 52-42 on the boards.

All in all, this was still a solid 2017 for Dallas and its young squad led by point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, who had her best overall season. The Wings had talent but very little postseason experience individually or collectively. At least now they have a little more.

Washington was the more experienced team and also had strong support behind Delle Donne. Meesseman bounced back from an off game in the regular-season finale loss at Minnesota to play one of her best all-around games of the season, posting 16 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.

And Krystal Thomas, who has found a home in Washington as a blue-collar center, had 17 rebounds and was strong, as always, defensively.

Similarly, the Mercury got some very good play backing up Griner, especially from the guard combination of Leilani Mitchell and Yvonne Turner, who together had 32 points, eight rebounds and four assists.

It wasn't one of Taurasi's best nights. She went 2-of-8 from the field, but both her makes were 3-pointers, one of them putting the Mercury up 70-63 with 1:12 left. Taurasi also went 8-of-8 from the foul line.

It was a disappointing but not surprising ending for Seattle, which never really put all the pieces together this season and perhaps didn't quite have enough of them. We'll wait to see if the Storm retain Gary Kloppenburg, the assistant who became interim head coach after Jenny Boucek was fired in August.

Washington and Phoenix now move to the second round, where they'll take on the No. 3 New York Liberty and the No. 4 Connecticut Sun, respectively, on Sunday. The Mystics and Mercury will be on the road this time, and they'll both need to play even better to advance to the semifinals.

But at least they know they have the star potential to accomplish that. Delle Donne and Griner can't do it all, but they can do enough to make their teams dangerous.