Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com 281d

Top seeds Lynx, Sparks pose tough challenges for Mystics, Mercury in semis

WNBA, Phoenix Mercury, Washington Mystics, Minnesota Lynx, Los Angeles Sparks

Minnesota and Los Angeles both went 3-0 this season against their respective WNBA semifinal opponents. But with the upsets that Phoenix and Washington pulled in the second round, the Lynx and Sparks are well aware that they'll need to be ready to play their best.

The Mercury and the Mystics are all that stand between a repeat of last year's WNBA Finals matchup, when Los Angeles beat Minnesota in five games. In the closing weeks of the regular season, it seemed like New York and Connecticut posed the most danger to the top two. But with the single-elimination drama of the second round, the Liberty and Sun saw their 2017 chances end.

Much is the same for the Lynx and the Sparks from last year, although one key player for Los Angeles, guard Kristi Toliver, is now with Washington. She owned the second round with her 32-point performance, which included a playoff-record nine 3-pointers.

The WNBA Finals have featured the same two teams in back-to-back years only once previously: Houston versus New York in 1999 and 2000, which the Comets won both times. Will the Lynx and Sparks make it a second time?

The best-of-five semifinals begin Tuesday, with a 2-2-1 format: The higher seeds host Games 1 and 2, and the lower seeds host Games 3 and (if necessary) 4. The higher seeds also host the fifth game if the series goes the distance.

Here's how the semifinals shape up:

   No. 6 Washington at No. 1 Minnesota

Game 1: ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET Tuesday

Regular-season results:
June 9 at Washington: Lynx 98-73
June 23 at Minnesota: Lynx 93-76
Sept. 3 at Minnesota: Lynx 86-72

These two teams ended the regular season playing against each other. Minnesota was happy with how it played in its final weekend, going into the postseason with a league-best 27-7 record and knowing point guard Lindsay Whalen was coming back.

She suffered a broken bone in her left (non-shooting) hand on Aug. 3 and didn't play for the remainder of the regular season. But she returned to practice last week.

Lynx center Sylvia Fowles (18.9 PPG, 10.4 RPG) has had an MVP season. She leads the league in field goal percentage (65.5) and player efficiency rating (PER) at 30.9.

With Minnesota's greater emphasis on the 6-foot-6 Fowles' offense, Maya Moore's numbers are down a little (17.3 PPG, 5.0 RPG). Moore shrugs that off, pointing out that the year she won league MVP (2014), the Lynx didn't make the WNBA Finals. In fact, it's the only one of Moore's previous six seasons that they didn't reach the championship series. Individual numbers don't matter to her except as it pertains to team success. She wants another title -- which would be Minnesota's fourth -- and if that means her stats go down a bit, she's fine with that.

The other members of Minnesota's starting lineup -- Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Rebekkah Brunson -- have the same mentality as Fowles and Moore. It's a culture, fostered under coach Cheryl Reeve, that has brought out the best in them all.

The same goes for the Lynx reserves, led by guard Renee Montgomery. She had to start the last month of the regular season because of Whalen's injury, and she handled that well. But she and the Lynx tend to be more dangerous when she's coming off the bench.

Minnesota also has longtime veterans such as Jia Perkins and Plenette Pierson as reserves, too. This is a team that is well prepared for the postseason but also won't take anything for granted.

Then you have the Mystics, who started the season feeling they could be championship contenders, but then were discombobulated by injuries. Losing guard Tayler Hill to a season-ending knee injury on July 14 was the biggest blow.

Star Elena Delle Donne -- obtained in a trade with Chicago before the season -- also dealt with ankle and thumb injuries that cost her nine games. Toliver, obtained via free agency, averaged 11.9 PPG in the regular season and wanted to make a bigger impact in the playoffs.

Following the Mystics' Sept. 3 loss at Minnesota, Toliver wasn't discouraged at all. She was excited about starting the postseason.

"I know how fun playoff basketball is, and how fun it is to make a run," she said that day. "We are capable of doing that. There are just some things we have to clean up. I think we know the lapses that have happened. We have to take it to another level."

And that's exactly what the Mystics have done. They beat Dallas 86-76 in the first round and then stunned New York 82-68 in the second round, snapping the Liberty's 10-game winning streak. Washington was able to be physical and run with Dallas enough to essentially beat the Wings at their own game. Against New York, the Mystics pounded away at the Liberty's strength -- its defense -- led by Toliver's nine 3-pointers. That worked too.

Washington hasn't won a playoff series since 2002, though, and the Mystics have a mountain in front of them with the Lynx. But they got this far, and they'll keep grinding.

Pick: Lynx. As well as the Mystics played to beat Dallas and New York, this is a very difficult matchup for them. The Lynx won the three regular-season games against Washington by an average of 20.7 points. It's hard to see the Mystics reversing that to the tune of three victories.

   No. 5 Phoenix at No. 2 Los Angeles

Game 1: ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET Tuesday

Regular-season results:
June 10 at Phoenix: Sparks 89-87
June 18 at Los Angeles: Sparks 90-59
Aug. 24 at Phoenix: Sparks 82-67

The Mercury's rivalry with Minnesota has been more intense of late, but the competitiveness is also fierce between Phoenix and Los Angeles. Both franchises have won three championships: Los Angeles in 2001, '02 and '16; Phoenix in 2007, '09 and '14.

Sparks great Lisa Leslie's career ended in a playoff loss in Phoenix back in 2009. In all, the franchises have met four times in the postseason, with the Mercury winning three.

But Los Angeles has had the better of the rivalry over the past two seasons; the Sparks are 5-1 in that stretch. Now they'll meet in the postseason for the first time since 2014.

Los Angeles rides a seven-game winning streak into the semifinals and has won eight of its last nine. Two of those victories were over the top-seeded Lynx, so the Sparks are playing their best basketball at the right time. But can they keep that going against a Mercury team that has gained confidence from its playoff victories over Seattle and Connecticut?

The Sparks' success starts with stars Nneka Ogwumike (18.8 PPG, 7.7 RPG) and Candace Parker (16.9, 7.2), who've worked well together in the post. Parker is also averaging 4.3 assists per game, second on the team only to point guard Chelsea Gray's 4.4.

Gray began to emerge late last season and then had a big impact in the playoffs. She has started throughout this season and helped the Sparks not just as a playmaker but a scorer (14.8 PPG). Fellow guard Odyssey Sims moved into the starting lineup about midway through the season, and that has worked too.

Guard/forward Alana Beard, who always takes on foes' top perimeter scorers, leads the Sparks defensively. She'll be trying to slow down Diana Taurasi (17.9 PPG regular season; 18.5 thus far in the playoffs), who was the No. 1 pick ahead of Beard in the 2004 draft.

Taurasi became the WNBA's all-time leading scorer earlier this season. And while she has had some down games, she tends to shine in big moments. She had 23 points in Phoenix's 88-83 victory over Connecticut on Sunday.

It will be a group effort by the Sparks against Phoenix center Brittney Griner, who averaged a league-best 21.9 points in 26 regular-season games and is at 24.5 in the playoffs. She missed eight games with ankle and knee injuries but has been quite good since her return on Aug. 12.

In Griner's past five games, in fact, she has averaged 27.8 points and 8.4 rebounds. She looked a little out of sorts at the start of Sunday's game against Connecticut but then took over and finished with 26 points and nine rebounds.

Beyond Griner and Taurasi, the Mercury have been more of a role-player team, and that has worked to this point. It's going to be more difficult, though, against a team with the talent level and cohesiveness of the Sparks.

Pick: Sparks. The Mercury should play better than the last two times these teams met in the regular season, when the Sparks won big. Ultimately, though, the Sparks likely have too much offense for Phoenix to slow down over a series.

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