The No. 4 seeded Storm hosts the No. 5 Phoenix Mercury in a single-elimination playoff game at noon Sunday at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett. Here’s a look at the keys to the game.
Matchup to watch
Jewell Loyd vs. Skylar Diggins-Smith
This should be fun. Both WNBA All-Star guards will likely garner All-WNBA honors when the end-of-the-season awards are announced. Among guards, Loyd ranked second in scoring (17.9 points) and averaged 4.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists while Diggins-Smith was fourth in scoring (17.7 points) and averaged 3.2 rebounds and 5.3 assists.
During this year’s Storm-Mercury regular-season series, both guards had big scoring nights. In the first matchup, an 85-77 Phoenix win on July 9, Diggins-Smith tallied 26 points on 8-for-13 shooting, including four three-pointers. In the most recent encounter, Loyd poured in a career-high 37 points, including seven 3-pointers to lead Seattle to a 94-85 victory on Sept. 17.
Loyd also held Diggins-Smith to just seven points in their last matchup. It was just the third time this season the Mercury guard tallied fewer than 10 points.
Player to watch:
It’s no easy thing trying to replace Stewart, the reigning WNBA Finals MVP who averaged 25.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.7 blocks and 1.7 steals while shooting 53.7% on field goals and 50% on three-pointers in the playoffs last year.
And yet, Magbegor will need to play a pivotal role in her first WNBA playoff start. In six postseason games as a rookie last year, the 6-foot-4 backup center tallied just six points and seven rebounds.
“Obviously, it’s a big game,” Magbegor said. “But taking it with the mindset of just going in like it’s any other game — that’s what works best for me. Just keeping level headed.”
Magbegor missed the first two games this year against Phoenix while training with the Australian women’s national team that competed in the Tokyo Olympics. She tallied 15 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals against the Mercury in the regular-season finale.
“If Player X goes down, Player Y doesn’t have to be Player X,” said Sue Bird, who has played in 53 WNBA playoff games. “They just have to be themselves. That’s the conversation I will have Ezi. She just needs to be herself. That’s what she was in our last game out against Phoenix.
Coaching decision to watch:
How will the Storm defend Brittney Griner?
It’s a certainty that Seattle is going to send double teams at Griner, a physically imposing 6-9 center who was second in scoring with 20.5 points per game. However, the Storm will need to be strategic about how it deploys an extra defender to help contain Phoenix’s primary offensive weapon.
In their last game, Seattle used Magbegor as the primary defender against Griner while bringing 6-6 center Mercedes Russell to trap at various spots on the floor. The strategy yielded mixed results considering Griner finished with 26 points on 10-for-16 shooting and 13 rebounds while the Storm collected a much-needed win.
The Phoenix superstar has missed the past four games because of a left ankle injury and is questionable for Sunday. Before Taurasi went down, the Mercury were one of the hottest teams in the WNBA after the Olympic break while winning seven straight games.
“She has not told me if she’s playing or not,” Taurasi’s longtime best friend Bird said smiling. “We talk all the time, even before games, but we don’t talk about things like that.”
This season, Phoenix is 12-4 with Taurasi, who averages 15.2 points, 4.9 assists and 4.3 rebounds.
Player who could surprise:
The 6-2 backup forward led the WNBA in three-point shooting (51.4%) at the Olympic break before a protracted 10-game slump in which connected on just 6 of 25 shots behind the arc.
In her last outing, Talbot showed signs of reclaiming her shooting stroke while dropping 3 of 4 shots, including 2 of 3 from long range against Phoenix.
Without Stewart, the Storm will need scoring, particularly on the perimeter and 27-year-old Talbot, who has played in nine WNBA playoff games, has proven she’s capable of knocking down outside shots. Seattle is 6-0 when she’s made at least 2 three-pointers.
The Storm is 20-3 when scoring 38 or more points in the first half. When scoring 37 or fewer points, Seattle is 1-8.
The Final Word
Phoenix 77, Seattle 75
In its last outing, Seattle needed a monster game from Loyd to overcome Stewart’s absence and defeat Phoenix. Even though Loyd has historically had big games against the Mercury, she’ll likely draw extra defensive attention this time, which will force the Storm role players to produce offensively. It seems unlikely that Taurasi will play, but the Mercury still have several capable scoring options in Griner, Diggins-Smith and Kia Nurse. Phoenix also received 21 points off the bench from Sophie Cunningham, who also had six 3-pointers, in its first-round playoff win over New York. Seemingly, the difference in this game is the amount of time each team has had to get adjusted without its injured star. The Storm spent the past two weeks with Stewart on the sideline while the Mercury has played half of the season without Taurasi who has missed 16 games.