WNBA playoffs 2019 — Who will survive first-round elimination games?

10:25 AM ET

Mechelle VoepelespnW.com

CloseMechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

As the top four seeds in the 2019 WNBA playoffs, the Washington Mystics, Connecticut Sun, Los Angeles Sparks and Las Vegas Aces can sit back and watch as the first round opens.

The first of Wednesday’s single-elimination games features the Phoenix Mercury at the Chicago Sky. Then the past two WNBA champions, the Seattle Storm and the Minnesota Lynx, face off.

The regular season ended Sunday with all 12 teams in action. No. 1 seed Washington (26-8) and No. 2 Connecticut (23-11) are off until Sept. 17, when the WNBA semifinals will begin. The Mystics are riding a six-game winning streak, while the Sun have lost their past two.

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The third-seeded Los Angeles Sparks (22-12) and fourth-seeded Las Vegas Aces (21-13) will host single-elimination second-round games on Sunday. Both those teams have been very good at home; the Sparks are 15-2 and the Aces are 13-4.

Who will they face? We’ll find out Wednesday, with both games on ESPN2.

No. 8 Phoenix at No. 5 Chicago (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET)

Season series: Sky won 3-0
June 11: At Chicago 82, Phoenix 75
Aug. 25: Chicago 94, at Phoenix 86
Sept. 1: At Chicago 105, Phoenix 78

Outlook: Phoenix has no momentum, having lost its past four games, including Sunday’s 98-89 loss to visiting Las Vegas in which Diana Taurasi (hamstring) did not play. She has missed most of this season after back surgery, appearing in just six games and shooting an abysmal 10.3 percent from the field. That’s not a typo: She’s 4-of-39 overall, and 1-of-24 from 3-point range. So it’s not just a question of whether she’ll play Wednesday, but how effective she might be if she’s on the court. That said, Phoenix center Brittney Griner has had a strong season, finishing as the league’s leader in scoring average (20.7), while teammate DeWanna Bonner was fifth (17.2). And point guard Leilani Mitchell at age 34 has had the best season statistically of her career, averaging 12.9 points, 3.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists.

No one will underestimate Diana Taurasi in the postseason. For three straight seasons, Phoenix has survived two single-elimination games to reach the semifinals. Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

But the Mercury, who’ve also dealt with injuries to veterans Sancho Lyttle and Essence Carson, plus rookie Alanna Smith, never seemed to jell as much as expected. Maybe they are saving their best for the playoffs again? The Mercury have made it to the semis by winning two games the past three years under the current format of two single-elimination rounds, followed by best-of-five semifinals and finals. They did that as a No. 8 seed in 2016, and as a No. 5 seed in 2017 and ’18.

But the Sky, whose hopes of the No. 4 seed were dashed Sunday when they fell to the Mystics, have owned the Mercury this year, sweeping the regular-season series. Courtney Vandersloot led the league in assists (300, 9.1 per game), and second-year player Diamond DeShields became an All-Star, leading the Sky in scoring (16.2 PPG). And the Sky have sharpshooter Allie Quigley (13.8 PPG), along with post play that isn’t spectacular but is solid. In his first season with the Sky, coach James Wade got them back into the playoffs after a two-year absence, and he has been able to overcome disappointments like the loss of veteran center Jantel Lavender to a foot injury.

Pick: Chicago. Based on their season-series dominance and the struggles the Mercury have had, we’ll go with the Sky. Chicago still is in the bottom four of defensive teams, but the Sky actually are better defenders than they were last year. And on the other end of the court, the Sky are second only to the Mystics in offensive rating (101.6).

Seattle had a 3-1 edge over Odyssey Sims and Minnesota in the regular season, but are the Lynx the favorite Wednesday, even on the road? Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty ImagesNo. 7 Minnesota at No. 6 Seattle (ESPN2, 10 p.m. ET)

Season series: Storm won 3-1
May 29: At Minnesota 72, Seattle 61
June 4: At Seattle 84, Minnesota 77
July 17: Seattle 90, at Minnesota 79
Aug. 18: At Seattle 82, Minnesota 74

Outlook: This is a matchup of two resilient teams; both have had to overcome huge obstacles this season. The defending champion Storm looked like they’d be the WNBA favorites again after a sweep of Washington in the WNBA Finals last year. But then an overseas Achilles injury to 2018 MVP Breanna Stewart and knee surgery for veteran point guard Sue Bird kept both out all season. The Storm also lost dynamic guard Jewell Loyd for seven games with an ankle injury. But forward Natasha Howard stepped up to lead the Storm in scoring (18.1) and rebounding (8.2). Plus, two second-year players — point guard Jordin Canada (9.8 PPG, 5.2 APG) and center Mercedes Russell (7.5 PPG, 6.1 RPG) — both took big steps forward as they got more opportunity to play. And the Storm’s glue player, forward Alysha Clark, provided not just her usual stellar defense, but had the best season of her eight-year career from beyond the arc, shooting 48.1 percent (51 of 106).

It was a given that this would be a different season for the Lynx without Lindsay Whalen, who is retired, and Maya Moore, who is taking a basketball sabbatical. Seimone Augustus, the heart of the Lynx since 2006, was limited to 12 games because of knee issues. Free-agent signee Karima Christmas-Kelly and second-round draft pick Jessica Shepard, both of whom were expected to be contributors, were limited to just six games each because of injuries.

But the Lynx got a lot from their veteran center Sylvia Fowles (13.6 PPG, 8.9 RPG), as well as from a former rival guard they traded for, Odyssey Sims (team-high averages of 14.5 points and 5.4 assists), and their top draft pick, No. 6 Napheesa Collier (13.1 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 2.6 APG).

The Lynx announced Sunday that Fowles had been signed to a multi-year contract extension, and the 2017 league MVP has stood tall in this year of change. But coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve also has been pleased with everything Sims and Collier have provided.

Pick: Minnesota. Yes, Seattle dominated the regular-season series, and the Storm are hosting, so they would be the easy choice. But the Lynx have won five of their past six. Look for big games from Fowles, who has so much playoff experience, and Collier, who had a double-double in the regular-season finale loss at Los Angeles. The Lynx also will need Sims and forward Damiris Dantas, who shot a combined 6-of-27 from the field against the Sparks, to rally.

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