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WNBA Playoffs: Liberty try to shock the world and take down the Mercury

New York Liberty v Minnesota Lynx Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

Somehow, someway, we’re here. The New York Liberty are back in the WNBA playoffs for the first time since the 2017 season, and it took everything going right for them to make it to the dance. No matter now as the young squad hopes to shock the world and do something incredible this postseason. It doesn’t matter how you get in the postseason. Once you’re in, everything starts over and you have a chance to make it happen.

Standing in their way are the Phoenix Mercury. After a lackluster first half of the season, Phoenix came back with a vengeance and went 10-3 in the second half to secure the fifth seed. This is Phoenix’s ninth straight postseason appearance and they’re hoping to go on a deep run to make it back to the top of the WNBA mountain.

It’s a single elimination round for the WNBA, meaning it’s win-or-go-home ... for both teams.

Where to follow the game

ESPN2 has us covered. Late night affair so it looks like we’ll be starting after 10 PM Eastern. Grab your snacks and a beverage. We’re gonna be up all night.

Injuries

Jocelyn Willoughby remains out due to her Achilles injury. Asia Durr has yet to return to the WNBA due to complications from COVID-19. Liberty is as healthy as they’ve been all year.

Diana Taurasi sat out the final few games of the season due to a left ankle injury. It’s playoff time so don’t be surprised if DT is on the court tonight.

The game

In the regular season, New York took game one while Phoenix took games two and three.

The Mercury are at home. but not really home. They play their home games at Footprint Center, but due to a Papi Juancho concert that is scheduled for this evening, this game will have to be played at Grand Canyon University Arena. This is something that has happened to WNBA teams before in the playoffs, most recently and infamously with the Los Angeles Sparks in the 2019 playoffs against the Connecticut Sun. This shouldn’t be happening. They’ve been in their home arena all year long and now have to go somewhere they haven’t played before in a single elimination playoff game. The WNBA has to do better by their players and ensure that they have access to the top notch facilities, amenities, etc that they deserve.

That said, don’t think that the Mercury will let their guard down. Skylar Diggins-Smith recalled her experience going against the Mercury in 2018 as a member of the Dallas Wings and said:

“We thought we had them, too, because of that. But then it was like, Phoenix fans still travel very well.

I thought it was going to be. I thought, ‘Yo, it’s a new—’ [but] that shit didn’t matter.”

It’s single elimination so everyone will be on their toes.

We’ve talked on this site before about WNBA players leading the way in sports when it comes to advocacy and fighting for what’s right, and that continued this week. Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner, and scores of other women across the sports landscape signed a friend of the court brief to the Supreme Court to protect reproductive rights in the USA. Reproductive rights have been under attack in the United States for generations, and it appears the courts will try to restrict women’s rights even further. Hopefully, the worst case scenario doesn’t happen in the courts.

The playoffs are always fun, and with these two teams, it’ll be even more spicy. After the Liberty won the first regular season game, this happened on Twitter:

I love it!

Natasha Howard reports that she’s feeling good and healthy, and that’s gonna be crucial tonight. Howard will go up against Brittney Griner, and Griner had her way with the Liberty this season. In two games (she missed the third due to a knee injury), BG averaged almost 28 points and 12 rebounds a night while shooting 63.5 percent from the field. Griner made the occasional jumper, but she did most of her damage in the rim. She’s one of the best post players in basketball and it’s going to take a total team effort to slow her down tonight. As Howard has healed from her knee injury and found her footing, it gives the Liberty more to work with on both sides of the ball and another plus scorer.

We’ll be seeing an old friend of ours tonight. Kia Nurse spent three years with the Liberty and was an All Star in 2019. She was traded to Phoenix over the winter and has had a bounce back season after a rough wubble experience. She shot 35.3 percent from three and as a fourth option on this team, she has less scoring responsibilities on her shoulders.

Outside of Howard and Sami Whitcomb, a lot of Liberty players will get their first real playoff experiences tonight. Betnijah Laney played two playoff minutes in 2015, Reshanda Gray had eight total minutes across two trips to the playoffs in 2016 and 2020, and Rebecca Allen seven minutes in 2017. Allen was on the last Liberty playoff team so there’s a nice bit of symmetry there. Everybody else? First time out.

Speaking of Laney, her shot hasn’t been there recently, but she’s been a more than capable playmaker throughout the year. She tied her season high with 11 assists on Friday night and for the Liberty, having another ace shot creator will keep them in this game. The Liberty offense has looked good when Laney is running the show but they’re going to need some scoring punch from the All-WNBA candidate to keep their season going.

Player to watch: Skylar Diggins-Smith

As the Mercury took off in the second half following the Olympics, Diggins-Smith powered their attack. The 16 points and five assists were great, but what made it even more impressive was that she did it on a .512/.449/.778 shooting split. The most impressive thing about SDS is her ability to finish at the rim despite her small size. She torched the Liberty this season to the tune of 26 points and six assists a night on a .479/.444/.926 shooting split. The Liberty will look to change their defense on her this time around and make life more difficult on the gold medalist.

Sabrina Ionescu got the Diggins-Smith assignments at Barclays and had her struggles. Look for the Liberty to have her on someone else so they can slow Skylar down. On the other side, Ionescu has been getting to the rim a bit more over the past four games, and that’s a huge plus for the Liberty. Ionescu isn’t the greatest three point shooter so getting to the basket is a great way to maintain her aggressiveness and get good looks for her teammates as well.

From the Vault

The Liberty are hoping tonight goes as well as the first game in June

Also, there have been instances of New York teams pulling off late night upsets in Phoenix. Here’s a good one:

More reading: Swish Appeal