With a pair of high-scoring, star-studded teams, this might be the best first-round matchup of the WNBA postseason. The two teams, which haven't met in the playoffs since 2009, split the season series after Los Angeles closed the regular season with a 34-point win over the depleted Mercury on Sunday.
The Sparks couldn't catch the relentless Minnesota Lynx to win the Western Conference, but Los Angeles believes it is every bit the title contender. Candace Parker, in particular, badly wants to win her first WNBA title. Her play of late, averaging 19.6 points over the last eight games (versus 17.9 for the season), indicates that she's getting ready for postseason battle.
Los Angeles, which won five of seven to close the regular season, is still looking for its best basketball. The Sparks want to keep the pace high and must battle harder on the boards.
Mercury star Diana Taurasi, the league's second-leading scorer this season (20.3 ppg), is playing the best all-around basketball of her career in leading a Phoenix team that was picked to win the title at the start of the season. But the Mercury had trouble finding a groove with No. 1 pick Brittney Griner and stumbled through stretches this season, including a coaching change (Russ Pennell replaced Corey Gaines in early August).
The Mercury have won nine of 13 games since Pennell took over, giving them plenty of reason to be optimistic about their postseason prospects. They also get veteran Penny Taylor back for the playoffs. Taylor has missed most of the season with knee injuries, but she knows her way around a playoff game and should provide a big boost of experience.
Pennell came in and put an emphasis on defense -- a tough turn for a team that was all about running and gunning under Gaines -- and the Mercury's improved defense will be tested against the Sparks, who get scoring from almost every player they put on the floor.
Key to the series
Griner: The rookie is no stranger to the postseason, having made some long NCAA runs with Baylor during her legendary college days. But the WNBA playoffs are a bit of a different animal. The physicality that she has experience so far in her first season will be ramped up. And the Sparks will be working hard to take her out of the game. If she comes up big for Phoenix -- think double-doubles -- the Mercury will be the title contender that everyone thought they would be at the start of the season. But if she looks too much like a rookie, the Mercury might end their season early at the hands of the talented Sparks.
In a series with two strong offensive teams -- Los Angeles is the No. 2 scoring team in the league and Phoenix is No. 3 -- and plenty of options, this matchup will be decided by defense and rebounding.
Which team can get stops? Which team can control the boards so they can get out and run?
It is worth noting that the Mercury have given up more points this season to the opposition than any team in the league.
Michelle Smith: Sparks in three games. Los Angeles has played like the best team in the league in stretches this season. The Sparks are due to find the next level in their game.
Mechelle Voepel: Sparks in three games. The Mercury are one of the two teams that have won in Los Angeles this year (Seattle is the other), but look for the Sparks to protect their home court twice in this series.
They met Sunday in the regular-season finale, with Los Angeles routing Phoenix 89-55 to split the series 2-2. All eyes are on the health of the Mercury's Diana Taurasi, who took a knee to the quad in the second quarter Sunday and sat out the rest of the game. The Mercury beat the Sparks 97-81 in Phoenix on June 14, and added a 90-84 victory on July 18. L.A.'s other win in the series, 88-76, was in Phoenix on July 14.