(Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images)

The 2017 WNBA Playoffs are here. After a 34-game regular season, eight teams will compete for the championship. Excelle Sports will be bringing you previews for every round and analysis after the games. We’ll also be launching our women’s basketball podcast featuring Pat Ralph, Emma Leyden and myself shortly. For the playoffs, “12 Takeaways” will expand from a weekly column and be used to cover each round of the playoffs. Here’s a look at what we can expect heading into Wednesday night’s first round elimination games and beyond.

1. The Schedule

First Round (Single Elimination): Wednesday, Sept. 6

Game 1: #5 Phoenix Mercury (18-16) vs #8 Seattle Storm (15-19)

Game 2: #6 Washington Mystics (18-16) vs #7 Dallas Wings (16-18)

Second Round (Single Elimination): Sunday, Sept. 10

Game 1: Lowest Remaining Seed vs. #3 New York Liberty (22-12)

Game 2: Highest Remaining Seed vs. #4 Connecticut Sun (21-13)

Semifinals (Best-of-Five): Starts Tuesday, Sept. 12

Series 1: Lowest Remaining Seed vs. #1 Minnesota Lynx (27-7)

Series 2: Highest Remaining Seed vs. #2 Los Angeles Sparks (26-8)

Finals (Best-of-Five): Starts Sunday, Sept. 24

Winner of Semifinal 1 vs. Winner of Semifinal 2

2. The Sparks are the best team in the WNBA right now

The Sparks enter the playoffs as the best team in the WNBA right now. They’re clicking on all cylinders as Odyssey Sims is now immersed into their system. Chelsea Gray is an All-WNBA candidate who if not for the breakout season of Jonquel Jones would be the Most Improved Player. Alana Beard is the likely Defensive Player of the Year and her ability to slow down Lynx star Maya Moore has been the biggest key to their recent success against Minnesota. They have two MVP-caliber players in last year’s winner Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker, who is arguably the most talented player in the league.

The Sparks have zero gaps in their starting five and two quality bench players in Essence Carson and Jantel Lavender. Their biggest weakness is depth. The Sparks basically run a seven-person rotation and have little margin for injuries. They’re most susceptible to foul trouble in their frontcourt, and both Lavender and Carson can play big minutes if Ogwumike or Parker pick up early fouls. However, after Gray, Beard and Sims, they have no proven guards. If they stay healthy, this team is a solid bet to repeat as champions.

3. Minnesota’s title chances may come down to the health of Lindsay Whalen

Just a few weeks ago, the Lynx were 20-2 and the favorites to win the championship. But they finished just 7-5 since the loss of Whalen and are hoping she returns to form for the playoffs. The Lynx finished first in both offensive and defensive rating and have a net rating of 14.2. To compare, the Sparks’ net rating is 10.5. These teams finished well ahead of the rest of the league; the Connecticut Sun are third in net rating at 5.3, followed by the New York Liberty at 3.8. On paper, this team should run away with the title. But without Whalen, they haven’t had the consistency to pick apart a disciplined team like the Sparks.

Although they have the likely MVP in Sylvia Fowles and the always dangerous Moore, the Sparks’ strongest defensive players match up well against them. Beard has come through consistently against Moore, and although Fowles will still score plenty against Ogwumike and Parker, it takes a lot more effort for her than against other teams. Additionally, Parker and Ogwumike are both comfortable playing on the perimeter, which neutralizes Fowles’ presence on defense as she is forced to move away from the basket. Even Chelsea Gray has become a good defender and Sims has held up as well. It’s going to be difficult for the Lynx to avenge their one-point loss to the Sparks in last year’s deciding Game 5 of the WNBA Finals if they don’t get healthy.

Luckily, they have another week to rest, and will have homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. They did finish with three straight wins to end the regular season with the one seed, and Coach Cheryl Reeve is one of the best in the business at getting her teams to stay focused on every single possession. It should be another epic WNBA Finals if both teams get there as expected. The Lynx have won three out of the last six titles and can never be counted out.

4. The Liberty have to prove their winning streak wasn’t a mirage

The Liberty have been really good in the regular season for three years now, but have been unable to produce in the playoffs. This year, they were an average team for the first 24 games before rattling off a 10-game win streak to finish third in the WNBA at 22-12. The Liberty, true to their identity, finished the season first in the league in rebounding and third in defensive rating. They have a deep frontcourt led by Tina Charles, and capable wing players in Shavonte Zellous, Epiphanny Prince and Sugar Rodgers. When they move the ball from side to side and attack early with quick hitters, this team is hard to stay in front of. However, they have a tendency to go cold from the field as they don’t have a traditional point guard running their offense.

The Liberty finished eighth in offensive rating but their defense and rebounding will keep them in every game. It will come down to whether or not they can score enough to win. They should be fine in the second round as they’ll play the Washington Mystics, Dallas Wings or Seattle Storm, who finished 7th, 11th and 9th in defensive rating respectively. But against the Sparks, who they’d play in the semifinals if they advance, they’d have to be the team they were these last ten games to have a chance.

5. The Connecticut Sun are a dark horse contender

Although the Liberty stole the headlines over the last third of the season with their streak, the Connecticut Sun are the story of the 2017 WNBA regular season. The Sun started the season without Chiney Ogwumike, lost for the year due to injury. They also started without Alex Bentley as she was overseas. Those were their top two scorers in 2016. After an 0-4 start, it looked like they might be in for a rough year. But the Sun went 20-6 after that and looked like the only potential threat to the Lynx and Sparks. They finished season losing three out of four to fall to fourth place, but had an amazing season overall.

The silver lining to their late season slip is that barring upsets, they would face the Lynx and the Liberty would face the Sparks in the semifinals. Given the injuries to the Lynx, Connecticut might match up better against Minnesota. But that’s getting ahead.

The Sun’s biggest weapon is their depth. Jonquel Jones, Jasmine Thomas, Shekinna Stricklen, Alyssa Thomas and Courtney Williams form a starting five without any offensive holes. Off the bench they have Morgan Tuck and Alex Bentley, who is essentially a sixth starter. To avoid a second-round letdown, Jonquel Jones needs to stay out of foul trouble. The second year star, who will win Most Improved Player and broke the single-season rebounding record, is a force on both ends of the floor. She led Connecticut to fourth in defensive efficiency and third in offensive efficiency per WNBA.com and fourth per Basketball Reference. Her rim protection on defense covers up some defensive mistakes on the wing. Offensively, she is a force on the glass, can post-up, and she also shot 45 percent on 3-pointers.

But when she struggles on offense or has to sit due to fouls, the integrity of the Sun defense falls apart. They can’t pressure the ball as much without Jones near the rim. Offensively, her absence allows opposing centers to stay by the basket.

At their best, the Sun are a team that actually has a chance to make the finals. They’re probably a year away from title contention, but they’re closer than anyone else to threatening Minnesota and Los Angeles.

6. Seattle has the offensive talent to make the semifinals

The Seattle Storm come into the 2017 playoffs four games under .500. After entering the season with high expectations, they found themselves 10-16 and on the outside of the playoff picture. But after firing Jenny Boucek and promoting Gary Kloppenburg, Seattle finished the season 5-3, and showed they could play with anybody.

The Storm enter the playoffs third in offensive rating (Basketball Reference). Their starting five of Jewell Lloyd, Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart, Crystal Langhorne and Alysha Clark is one of the more balanced units in the league. They have multiple players who can take over a game, and no clear weak spot that would allow opposing teams to double team their stars. They also have a net rating of 0.0 (WNBA.com), suggesting they’re closer to a .500 team. For example, Phoenix, who finished 18-16, has a net rating of -0.2.

The problem for Seattle is their defense. They finished 9th in defensive rating, and lost some close games where they were unable to get key stops. In a late season matchup against the Mercury, the Storm could not contain Brittney Griner, and fell asleep late in the game by leaving Diana Taurasi open for a decisive 3-pointer. If the Storm use Langhorne and Stewart to double Griner, and then play aggressive denial defense on Taurasi and Monique Curry, they could find success as Phoenix lacks depth on the offensive end. Unfortunately, as skilled as the Storm are offensively, they don’t have the ideal personnel to pull that off.

Ultimately, Stewart’s play may prove to be the difference for the Storm. If she’s able to use her length to disrupt Griner on defense and draw fouls on the other end, Seattle should be able to upset the Mercury. If they do that, they’d face the New York Liberty, another team they’d have a chance against. Although New York has won 10 in a row, they’re eighth in offensive efficiency and can be outscored.

7. Phoenix will need a surprise performance to get past the Storm

The Mercury won the WNBA title in 2015 and have tested playoff veterans in Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and Monique Curry. When healthy, they’ve been a quality basketball team. They finished seventh in offensive rating and sixth in defensive rating, but didn’t have Griner for a large chunk of the season due to injury. In Taurasi, they have a player who could be cold for three quarters and then suddenly come alive in the fourth. If the Mercury can bait whoever is guarding Taurasi and Curry into double-teaming Griner, they will be able to take advantage of the Storm. The Storm have fallen asleep before and left Taurasi open in critical moments. If they leave Curry, she’s a threat to attack off the catch.

But if Seattle is disciplined and can get Griner into foul trouble, they’ll need a fourth player to step up and give them a boost. That could be Camille Little, Danielle Robinson, Leilani Mitchell or Yvonne Turner. If the Mercury win, they would draw the Connecticut Sun. The Sun have a much deeper roster, but Griner somewhat neutralizes the Sun’s biggest threat in Jonquel Jones. The Sun just haven’t played well when Jones sits with foul trouble or is slowed down by an opposing big. Ultimately, the winner of Seattle vs. Phoenix is a bigger threat to make the semifinals than the winner of Dallas vs. Washington.

8. The Dallas Wings will have to play team defense or face an early exit

Despite being 16-18 and going on the road to face the Mystics, the Wings are a popular pick to win. They’re young, athletic, play at an exciting pace, and can run you out of the gym when they’re clicking. Most importantly, Dallas led the league in free throw attempts and puts pressure on referees with their ability to get to the rim. Skylar Diggins-Smith has had a career year, Glory Johnson has played some of her best basketball since the All-Star break, and Allisha Gray is a top two candidate for rookie of the year.

This team passes the eye test with their noticeable intensity, switch-ability on defense and free flowing offense. On the other hand, the analytics suggest it will be difficult for them to advance. The Wings finished 11th in defensive rating. The effort is there, but the technique and scheme leaves something to be desired. To be fair, this is a young team that is learning, but they’re not there yet. Diggins-Smith, Johnson, and Karima Christmas-Kelly are all minus defenders based on Defensive Player Impact Plus Minus (DPIPM), and their pick-and-roll coverage has not been tight all season. Additionally, they don’t have an elite rim protector.

It’s going to be a difficult match-up for Dallas against the Mystics. They don’t have anybody that can guard Elena Delle Donne. They’re also a team that plays smaller lineups, which will be a challenge against Washington, who starts two centers in Emma Meesseman and Krystal Thomas. The Mystics were third in offensive rebounds this year, which could be a problem for the Wings. On the other hand, the Mystics will have their hands full trying to contain Diggins-Smith and Johnson on the perimeter. Although the Mystics have a sizable advantage in the paint, they are a team in flux, still trying to figure out their rotations after dealing with injuries. The Wings are a flawed team, but they also have an identity and are going to be relentless for four quarters. They’re likely a year away from making a deep run in the playoffs, but they’re going to make their opponents compete for 40 minutes.

9. The Mystics are not playing well, but they have Elena Delle Donne

The Mystics have lost four out of five and find themselves in sixth place heading into the postseason. This is certainly not where they expected to be, and they’ll have to beat a scrappy Dallas Wings team just to earn a trip to the second-round. This team wanted to play fast and put up a ton of 3-pointers in order to deter double-teams on Emma Meesseman and make it difficult for teams to overload the strong side on Elena Delle Donne. However, due to several injuries, including Delle Donne, the Mystics juggled their lineups and found some success with the dual center lineup of Meesseman and Thomas. They fell to 11th in pace.

Now, with Delle Donne back, their spacing is strained. Teams have found success packing it in and forcing them to hoist 3-pointers, where they’re just 10th in 3-point percentage. Additionally, although Delle Donne continues to pour in points, she has less room to operate with both Meesseman and Thomas in the game.

If the Mystics try to get into a shootout with Dallas, they could be headed home. The Wings finished second in pace and first in free throws. It will be interesting to see if Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and Kristi Toliver will be able to hold serve defensively against a talented Dallas backcourt.

However, Washington should be able to score inside and pound the offensive glass against Dallas. This game is a clash of styles, and could come down to which team can hit more 3-pointers. Dallas will get to the line, and Washington should score inside. Toliver’s shooting and Ivory Latta’s ability to make shots will be huge factors. If the game is close, Washington has the comfort of being able to give the ball to Delle Donne.

10. My regular season individual awards

MVP: Sylvia Fowles
Runners-Up: Jonquel Jones, Tina Charles, Nneka Ogwumike, Candace Parker
Defensive Player of the Year: Alana Beard
Runners-Up: Sylvia Fowles, Jonquel Jones, Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike
Rookie of the Year: Allisha Gray
Runner-Up: Brittney Sykes
Coach of the Year: Curt Miller
Runners-Up: Brian Agler, Cheryl Reeve, Bill Laimbeer
Most Improved Player: Jonquel Jones
Runner-Up: Chelsea Gray

11. My all-WNBA teams

*My Criteria= 2 backcourt, 2 front-court, 1 flex

First Team:
BC: Chelsea Gray
BC: Maya Moore
FC: Nneka Ogwumike
FC: Jonquel Jones
FC: Sylvia Fowles

Second Team:
BC: Skylar Diggins-Smith
BC: Jasmine Thomas
FC: Breanna Stewart
FC: Candace Parker
FC: Tina Charles

Third Team:
BC: Diana Taurasi
BC: Courtney Vandersloot
FC: Elena Delle Donne
FC: Alyssa Thomas
FC: Britney Griner

Honorable Mention: Tiffany Hayes

12. Playoff Predictions

First Round:
#6 Mystics beat #7 Wings
#8 Storm beat #5 Mercury
Second Round:
#3 Liberty beat #8 Storm
#4 Sun beat #6 Mystics
#2 Sparks beat #3 Liberty
#1 Lynx beat #4 Sun
#2 Sparks beat #1 Lynx


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