Previewing the first-round matchup between the Mercury and Mystics

Washington's strength is in the frontcourt while Phoenix does its damage outside, creating a fascinating collision of styles.

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Orlando, FL- AUGUST 23: Ariel Atkins #7 of the Washington Mystics handles the ball against the Phoenix Mercury on August 23, 2020, at the Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. (Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)

Most seasons, a Mercury-Mystics series would be played in front of two of the best fan bases in the WNBA, likely near the tail end of the playoffs in a semifinal or championship round. Instead, their matchup is not even a series, but merely a single-elimination game — with no fans around.

Both squads experienced inconsistent 2020 campaigns and find themselves in the stressful environs of the WNBA’s knockout rounds despite the considerable talent on both sides. They last played in back-to-back contests on Aug. 23 and 28, but rosters looked quite different then. Washington is on a four-game win streak that pushed them into the playoffs, while Phoenix finished 7-2 and are quite hot as well. 

At a neutral site, seeding hardly matters, but the Mercury were clearly the better team in 2020 and swept the regular-season series. Will it matter on Tuesday, when the two teams clash in a winner-takes-all match (9 p.m. ET on ESPN2)?

Diana Taurasi vs. the Mystics’ depleted depth

When Phoenix first took on Washington, Taurasi apparently scoffed at the Mystics for defending her with the rookie Stella Johnson. At least that’s what Leilani Mitchell told reporters Monday morning, but it’s exactly the competitor we know Taurasi to be. And she was right to poke fun at the Mystics’ game plan.

Taurasi shredded Jacki Gemelos in the first half of these teams’ first matchup before head coach Mike Thibault switched to Johnson, who Taurasi promptly attacked even more aggressively. The result was seven made threes by Taurasi and a close Phoenix win.

Any reasonable viewer would posit that Thibault should try one of his more talented and experienced wing defenders on Taurasi, but the Mystics just don’t have the numbers anymore. They entered the season without Natasha Cloud and lost Aerial Powers early on. Essence Carson came and went. Even Johnson is out for the year now. Expect a lot of Ariel Atkins, whom Thibault should do everything he can to match with Taurasi, and Kiara Leslie will be an option against Taurasi or Skylar Diggins-Smith, too. 

Still, the domino effect of these glued matchups is unpleasant for Thibault and the Mystics as well. Atkins on Taurasi full-time would mean less of the incredible team defensive plays Atkins routinely makes. The rookie Leslie is just as liable to be chewed up by the Mercury’s great guards as anyone. It will take a variety of looks, including aggressive trapping on the perimeter that can make use of Myisha Hines-Allen’s mobility. 

When these teams played, both Taurasi and Diggins-Smith created good offense out of the side pick-and-roll, particularly when Tianna Hawkins or Alaina Coates was on the floor. Their shooting ability meant a creeping drop defense from Hawkins was poison, and with Kia Vaughn stretching the floor from mid-range (as well as Alanna Smith, who will be active on Tuesday after missing the final three games of the season), there was only so much help to be given without leaving shooters open.

Take Hawkins and Coates out of the equation and play Hines-Allen big minutes, and you might be in business with more vicious schemes to get the ball out of Phoenix’s stars’ hands. They’re smart players who will be ready for that, but it may be Washington’s best bet to guard the Mercury’s elite offense.

 “We have a lot of players who play on our front foot and everybody’s ready to be a threat,” Diggins-Smith said. “We’ve gotta get out of the traps fast, attack in transition, and loosen things up.”

The Meesseman factor

Neither game showed the full force of the Mystics, as Emma Meesseman missed the first and was not herself in the second, going 1-10 from the field. It was an ugly return to the floor for the Belgian reigning Finals MVP, but even in missing so many open looks, the Mystics showed that they can get Meesseman in position to score against Phoenix and exposed Vaughn as nearly incapable of guarding her.

Simple pick-and-pops were enough to free Meesseman in space, and even with less spacing and creativity than last year’s team, Meesseman remains terrific at half-cuts in which she simply fills space when the defense is sleeping. Should Vaughn pay too much attention to Hines-Allen on a roll to the rim, for instance, Meesseman will find an opening and launch with confidence.

“They can be dangerous if you let them be dangerous if they’re making some of their outside shots because they’ve got so many scorers on their team,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. “The post players on Washington are hard to guard, but Breezy (Brianna Turner) is a great defensive player. Not that we’ll just leave her on an island, but our players match up well with them.”

Brondello is likely specifically referencing Turner’s matchup against the breakout star Hines-Allen. In most cases, Hines-Allen holds an athletic advantage, a skill advantage, or both against her frontcourt opponent. Turner is a rare player who can match it all. Even more so than Meesseman, the main way Washington gets Hines-Allen into space is on pick-and-pops, where Hines-Allen can shoot, face-up, or post up a smaller player who’s switched onto her.

There’s no getting around Turner on a pick-and-pop, as the Notre Dame alum is too quick and can make up that ground in a snap. When Hines-Allen is out of the picture, Turner is a genius help defender who will smoothly turn open plays into turnovers.

The Mystics’ strength is in their frontcourt, and although Phoenix’s big rotation is depleted, Turner can match Hines-Allen like few can, limiting a typically reliable advantage for Washington. If the Mystics pull this game out, it will likely be because Thibault engineers a game plan that takes Turner out of the game while also relying on Meesseman’s matchup-busting scoring at all three levels.

Which point guard’s game survives into the postseason?

In one corner is the undersized Leilani Mitchell, who’s been bumped up to a primary scoring option after looking like a potential bench piece when she signed with Washington in the offseason. In the other is Diggins-Smith, who despite her college excellence and prolific pro career, is admittedly inexperienced in the WNBA playoffs. Both are complementary pieces on their respective teams but are the types of shot-makers who often decide elimination games.

For Diggins-Smith to be at her best, she needs the floor to be spaced and the team to be in rhythm. That doesn’t necessarily mean a fast-paced game (Phoenix can juice possessions in a hurry when they need to), but it means great ball movement and quick decisions. When these teams last met, Diggins-Smith’s pick-and-roll savvy was junked up by Atkins a few times, but when she saw Mitchell defending her, Diggins-Smith pulled up repeatedly for outside shots. Coming off a missed season, Diggins-Smith has rediscovered her handle and quickness like they never left, which is how she toyed with Washington on those side pick-and-rolls.

Diggins-Smith will have to make threes off the catch when Taurasi is pressured, but when she’s asked to create her own shot, it’s quick-hitting sets like these that Washington will have to watch out for.

There is no Brittney Griner to gameplan for (or even Bria Hartley, who scored well in both previous matchups and is now out with a torn ACL), but the Mystics have plenty on their hands defensively with two elite guards playing so well. 

“Without BG it just sort of opens up the driving lanes, and I think it really plays into Skylar's hands because she likes to attack off the dribble drive trying to get contact and finish at the rim,” Mitchell said. So I think that's why she's really blossomed without, you know, having BG in there.”

Mitchell proved long ago she could create her own shot, even in the playoffs. That’s no longer a question. And Diggins-Smith’s defense isn’t going to dissuade her from trying. A hot scoring night from Mitchell could easily change the course of the game, and making Diggins-Smith work on defense is a nice byproduct when Mitchell initiates the offense, but the Mystics guard will be hard-pressed to match the incredible output of Phoenix’s stars in the second half of the season.