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WNBA playoff previews and predictions

The New York Liberty have home-court advantage throughout the WNBA postseason, but there's no obvious favorite in the 2015 WNBA playoffs.

Before the games tip Thursday (ESPN2/WatchESPN, 7 p.m. ET), we take a look at the conference semifinals. Who's hot and who's not of the eight teams still playing? Might there be an upset or two brewing? Here's a series-by-series breakdown:

No. 2 Phoenix (20-13) vs. No. 3 Tulsa (17-16)

The Phoenix Mercury's title defense continues against the Tulsa Shock making their first -- and only -- playoff appearance in Tulsa. The Shock pulled themselves out of a huge tailspin, winning eight of their last 10 games to close the season with a winning record for the first time since the franchise moved from Detroit in 2010.

Skylar Diggins' season-ending knee injury knocked the Shock for a loop as they lost 10 in a row and looked like they might lose their postseason spot. But one of the league's best offensive teams (77.7 PPG) rallied for a strong finish. Phoenix, in the playoffs for the sixth time in the past seven seasons, finished with the second-best record in the Western Conference and the third-best record in the league in a season played without Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor. DeWanna Bonner, Candice Dupree and Brittney Griner picked up the slack, and the Mercury won three of four to close the regular season.

Key matchup: Griner vs. Courtney Paris. These two former Big 12 record-holders have such different approaches to their positions in the paint because of their body types. But both were among the league's best rebounders this season. Paris' best overall game in 2015 came against Phoenix on Aug. 4, a 16-point, 16-rebound effort that ended with the Mercury winning in overtime. Paris led the league in the regular season with 9.3 RPG. Griner averaged 8.1 rebounds.

X factor: Odyssey Sims. The Baylor product has plenty of postseason experience with many long NCAA tournament runs in college. And the 5-foot-6 playmaker has been looking playoff-ready of late, averaging 19.9 points over the last 10 games and 25.5 points in the four games before playing limited minutes in the regular-season finale. Can the dynamic guard be an offensive spark and propel the Shock to their first playoff series win? -- Michelle Smith

Regular-season series: Phoenix leads series 3-2.

Smith prediction: Mercury in three games. Phoenix has the definitive edge in playoff experience, and the odds are in its favor: The Mercury are 10-1 against Tulsa at home since 2010, and host Game 1 and, if necessary, Game 3, in this series.

Voepel prediction: Mercury in three games. Phoenix has pretty much every advantage on court. But in what's likely their first and last playoff game in Tulsa, look for the Shock to get one victory in this series.

No. 1 Minnesota (22-12) vs. No. 4 Los Angeles (14-20)

From a records standpoint, this looks like a mismatch. But that is the deception of the Los Angeles Sparks, who became much different when Candace Parker (rest) and Alana Beard (injury) were activated in late July. Still, it's hard to know just what we'll see from the Sparks in the playoffs. By contrast, the Minnesota Lynx have seemed a sure thing since No. 1 pick Maya Moore's arrival in 2011, winning two titles, making one other trip to the WNBA Finals, and falling in the Western Conference finals last year. But injuries have made the Lynx seem less-than-invincible this season. Let's see, though, if they turn it on full-force at playoff time.

Key matchup: Superstar vs. superstar. Parker (19.4 PPG, 10.1 RPG) and Moore (20.6 PPG, 6.7 RPG) are the elite of the elite. Moore has had to carry even more weight this season with the Lynx's injuries, and she had another MVP-level season. Parker took time off to rest, and has averaged a double-double in her 16 regular-season games. As these players go, so go their teams. But both also need their supporting casts to be "on."

X factor: Minnesota's health. The Lynx are obviously a different team if guards Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus are on the court. As of Tuesday, the Lynx had not announced their status for the series with Los Angeles. Augustus missed games from July 17-Aug. 11 after knee surgery, and hasn't played since Aug. 19 with a foot injury. Whalen's last game was Aug. 30; she has ankle issues.

Regular-season series: Lynx went 3-1. The last time the Lynx and Sparks met in the postseason was 2012, when Minnesota swept their Western Conference finals series. -- Mechelle Voepel

Smith prediction: Lynx in three games. This is going to be a tight series. But Los Angeles, for all its strong play in the past month and a half, has not done a good job of holding on to leads. And the Sparks haven't played well at home. Meanwhile, Minnesota almost always does.

Voepel prediction: Lynx in three games. Not a lot has been easy for the Lynx in the second half of the season, so it seems fitting they'll have to battle their way past the Sparks.

No. 2 Chicago (21-13) vs. No. 3 Indiana (20-14)

So we meet again. The Chicago Sky didn't make the playoffs until 2013, and now for the third season in a row they will face the Indiana Fever in the postseason. They were swept in the first round in 2013, and won 2-1 last year in the Eastern Conference finals. Chicago had the upper hand in their 2015 regular-season meetings, winning all four. But no franchise has more postseason experience than Indiana, which is in the playoffs for the 11th year in a row.

Key matchup: Elena Delle Donne vs. the Fever defense. Indiana is a more up-tempo offensive team under first-year head coach Stephanie White, but the Fever try to be similarly stingy defensively, as was their tradition under Lin Dunn. Clearly, Delle Donne is the focus of every foe; versus the Fever this season, she averaged 22.2 points and shot 48.1 percent from the field (26 of 54).

X factor: Guard play. Along with Delle Donne, who's sort of a guard/forward/everything, the Sky's perimeter game is the heart of their offense. Cappie Pondexter (15.0 PPG), Courtney Vandersloot (11.4) and Allie Quigley (11.1) have been consistent threats all season. For the Fever, Shenise Johnson has made strides defensively in her fourth season in the WNBA, first in Indiana. That adds to what Indiana already had on perimeter defense, led by Briann January. But it's a tall order to really slow Chicago's guards. -- Mechelle Voepel

Regular-season series: The Sky swept the Fever for the first time, 4-0.

Smith prediction: Sky in three games. This rematch of last year's Eastern Conference finals is going to be a good series. But the Sky have the likely league MVP in Elena Delle Donne, the league's highest-scoring offense and the momentum of three wins in four games to close the regular season.

Voepel prediction: Sky in three games. It's difficult to pick against Tamika Catchings in her next-to-last year in the WNBA, but having the home-court advantage in the third game might be the difference in this series.

No. 1 New York (23-11) vs. No. 4 Washington (18-16)

The Liberty finished the regular season with the best record in franchise history and the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the first time since 2002. It's also the first time the Liberty have put up the best record in the league. New York will be looking to regain some momentum after losing the final two games of the regular season, albeit after its postseason position was sewn up.

The Liberty are the best defensive team in the league, Bill Laimbeer's squad carving its identity from its ability to put the clamps on opposing team. New York allowed a league-low 70.2 PPG. And center Tina Charles (17.1 PPG, 8.5 RPG) has had an MVP-caliber season, clearly the player that will determine New York's postseason fortunes.

Interestingly, the Washington Mystics -- who made the WNBA playoffs for the third straight season for the first time in franchise history -- were perhaps the one team that truly had the Liberty's number this season. Washington defeated New York handily as recently as last week, putting up an 82-55 win. But the Mystics have largely stumbled down the stretch, winning three of their final 10 games.

This is the third postseason meeting between these two teams, coached by two of the most successful male coaches in league history in Laimbeer and Mike Thibault, the league's all-time leader in regular-season wins. The Liberty are 4-1 all-time against the Mystics in the playoffs. They haven't met since 2002.

Key matchup: Ivory Latta vs. Epiphanny Price. These two veteran guards are important scorers for their teams, which have such strong inside games and will work to get their points in the paint. Prince is averaging 15.0 points per game. Latta has picked up the offensive pace of late, averaging 16.4 points over the past five games. Whoever can set the scoring pace on the perimeter might just lead her team to the conference finals.

X factor: Experience. New York's roster has a combined total of 134 games of playoff experience. Role players such as Swin Cash and Candice Wiggins have WNBA titles to their credit. Meanwhile, even rookie Kiah Stokes knows how to win titles, with three at Connecticut. Championship experience will matter.

Regular-season series: Mystics went 3-1.

Smith prediction: Liberty in three games. Considering how the head-to-head matchups have gone, this series has the scent of an upset. But the Liberty play too much good defense and the Mystics have been too shaky of late to let that happen.

Voepel prediction: Liberty in two games. New York seems well prepared for a postseason run, and defensively understands you have to grind out the entire shot clock against a typically patient Mystics offense.