After eight days off, the LA Sparks will begin their title defense on Tuesday when they host the Phoenix Mercury in the best-of-five semifinal round of the 2017 WNBA Playoffs. By securing the No 2 seed, the Sparks earned a bye to the semifinal round while the Mercury had to play their way to this point, winning single-elimination games against Seattle and Connecticut.
Game 1: Tuesday, Sept. 12 — Phoenix @ Los Angeles
Game 2: Thursday, Sept. 14 — Phoenix @ Los Angeles
Game 3: Sunday, Sept. 17 — Los Angeles @ Phoenix
Game 4*: Tuesday, Sept. 19 — Los Angeles @ Phoenix, TBD
Game 5*: Thursday, Sept. 21 — Phoenix @ Los Angeles, TBD
LA are looking to become the first WNBA team to successfully defend their championship in 15 years. It was the Lisa Leslie-led Sparks that last won back-to-back titles in 2001 and 2002. Phoenix are looking to get back to the championship series for the first time since winning their third title in 2014. They have made it to the semifinal round of the playoffs in nine of the past 11 seasons, having gone through the Sparks on three of those occasions.
2000 First Round: Los Angeles 2, Phoenix 0
2009 West Finals: Phoenix 2, Los Angeles 1
2013 First Round: Phoenix 2, Los Angeles 1
2014 First Round: Phoenix 2, Los Angeles 0
This will be the fifth playoff meeting between these teams, with the Mercury holding the edge in series won (3-1) and games won (6-4). Phoenix knocked off LA in the Western Conference Finals en route to winning their second title in 2009 and opened their 2014 title run by defeating the Sparks in the first round. The Sparks are looking for their first playoff series win over the Mercury since the first round of the 2000 playoffs. That was before Alana Beard – the supreme veteran player on the current Sparks roster – ever played her first college game.
While the recent playoff history has been dominated by the Mercury, the current season series was controlled by the Sparks. LA swept the three-game season series with only one game decided by single digits and the Sparks winning by an average of 16 points per game.
Nneka Ogwumike led five Sparks games that averaged double figures against Phoenix at 17.3 points per game. Diana Taurasi averaged 23.0 points in the two games she played, while Brittney Griner averaged 16.7 points and 5.3 rebounds – both well below her season averages.
6/10/17 at Phoenix
Los Angeles Sparks 89, Phoenix Mercury 87
Gray: 24 pts, 8 ast, 8-13 FG;
Parker: 14 pts, 5 reb, 5-14 FG;
Ogwumike: 13 pts, 5 reb, 4 ast, 5-8 FG
Taurasi: 27 pts, 3 reb, 8-16 FG, 6-10 3P;
Griner: 21 pts, 9 reb, 5 ast, 7-14 FG, 4 tov
6/18/17 at Los Angeles
Los Angeles Sparks 90, Phoenix Mercury 59
Ogwumike: 18 pts, 7 reb, 8-9 FG;
Parker: 17 pts, 8 reb, 6 ast, 3 blk, 4-10 FG;
Gray: 12 pts, 5 reb, 3 ast, 4-7 FG;
Williams: 15 pts, 3 stl, 5-7 FG
Taurasi: 19 pts, 3 reb, 7-16 FG, 4-10 3P (breaks all-time scoring mark)
Little: 14 pts, 5 reb, 6-12 FG
Griner: 11 pts, 3 reb, 5 pf, 4-9 FG, 4 tov
8/24/17 at Phoenix
Los Angeles Sparks 82, Phoenix Mercury 67
Sims: 28 pts, 8 ast, 6 reb, 3 stl, 12-19 FG
Ogwumike: 21 pts, 10 reb, 3 stl, 9-17 FG
Parker/Gray: 12 pts, 5-11 FG each
Griner: 18 pts, 4 reb, 5 pf, 5 tov. 8-14 FG
Cannon: 11 pts, 5 reb, 4-6 FG
Taurasi: DNP (rest)
This series will feature some of the biggest stars in the WNBA, headlined by former MVPs Diana Taurasi (2009), Candace Parker (2008, 2013) and Nneka Ogwumike (2016) and two-time Defensive Player of the Year Brittney Griner (2014, 2015).
The statistical dominance by the players in this series is remarkable, including: the league leader in scoring (Griner 21.9 ppg), steals (Alana Beard 2.1), blocks (Griner 2.5), 3-point percentage (Chelsea Gray 48.2) and 3-pointers made (Taurasi 96).
Looking for offensive firepower? Four of the top 11 scorers in the league this year will be on the court in this series with Ogwumike (sixth, 18.8), Taurasi (eighth, 17.9) and Parker (11th, 16.9) joining Griner. There are also multiple top 10 players in rebounds, assists, field-goal percentage and double-doubles.
Matchups To Watch
Taurasi vs Parker
The former regular season and Finals MVPs will square off once again in the postseason. While they may not defend one another on the court, the play of their teams will directly feed off their contributions.
When Phoenix were down in double digits in their second-round matchup with Connecticut, it was Taurasi who sparked the comeback. The three-time champion is 11-0 in winner-take-all games in her WNBA career and 15-4 overall in elimination games. Taurasi may not be Phoenix’s leading scorer this season, but she is still the player who takes over when it matters most.
Parker earned a similar reputation in last year’s Finals. After sharing the spotlight with regular-season MVP Nneka Ogwumike, the veteran forward had 28 points and 12 boards in the decisive Game 5 in Minnesota to lift the Sparks to their third title and the first of her WNBA career.
Griner vs Ogwumike
Last year, it was Nneka Ogwumike who made a leap from Parker’s sidekick to co-star as she put together a career year that was capped off by winning MVP honors during the regular season and knocking down the championship-clinching bucket in the waning seconds of the Finals.
This year, it was Brittney Griner’s turn to make the jump. The 6-foot-9 center had been a defensive force from the moment she stepped into the WNBA, winning two Defensive Player of the Year awards and leading the league in blocks every season of her career. But it took her until her fifth season before she matched that outstanding defense with dominant and efficient play on offense. Griner not only led the Mercury in scoring this season, she led the entire WNBA with 21.9 points per game. And entering the semifinal round, she also leads all players in the playoffs at 24.5 points per game.
By Brian Martin
First appeared on WNBA.com