WNBA playoff X factors, predictions

Tamika Catchings

We know who "won" the WNBA regular season: the Phoenix Mercury. Their 29-5 finish set a league record for most victories in a season and sends them into the playoffs as the obvious favorite.

Before the postseason begins Thursday (ESPN2 and WatchESPN, 7 p.m. ET), we take a look at the conference semifinals. Who's hot and who's not of the eight teams still playing? Might there be an upset or two brewing? Here's a series-by-series breakdown:

No. 1 Phoenix (29-5) vs. No. 4 Los Angeles (16-18)

The Sparks have been consistently inconsistent. Every time you thought they'd turned a corner, it turned out they were just turning in circles. Firing coach Carol Ross in July didn't fix that. By contrast, Phoenix has been consistently great virtually all season. Hard to see either of these things changing dramatically in this series.

Key matchup: Candace vs. Candice. Candace Parker didn't play in two of the Sparks' five losses this season to the Mercury. But she had two of her better games of 2014 in the two closest losses, which were both by five points. In those two contests, Parker combined for 50 points and 19 rebounds. She's averaging 19.4 PPG overall.

Meanwhile, Candice Dupree is having another terrific season in what has turned out to be a very good career. Dupree is averaging 14.5 points and 7.6 rebounds. As great as Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner have been for the Mercury, Phoenix wouldn't be this strong without Dupree.

X factor: Kristi Toliver. Will Los Angeles have the sharpshooter version of Toliver, who can be extremely effective in opening things up for the interior players? Or the bricklayer version, who can shoot the Sparks out of games?

Regular-season series: Mercury went 5-0.

Mechelle Voepel's prediction: Mercury in two games. Phoenix beat Los Angeles last year in the playoffs when that was more of an upset. This year, it would be a huge stunner for the underdog Sparks to return the favor. The Mercury lost just once at home this season, while the Sparks were 7-10 in Los Angeles.

Michelle Smith's prediction: Mercury in two games. Phoenix is too good and the Sparks too inconsistent to make this as competitive a series as it should be. Candace Parker hasn't been at full strength, and Los Angeles hasn't been able to win consistently at home.

No. 2 Minnesota (25-9) vs. No. 3 San Antonio (16-18)

The Lynx won the first four meetings this season. Then the Stars caught the defending champions at the end of their three-game slide in the last week of the regular season. Was that evidence of Minnesota having some vulnerability? Or just the Lynx easing up in games that really did not mean much to them, as they had second place in the West secured? This playoff series should give us that answer.

Key matchup: In the paint. Minnesota's Maya Moore (league-best 23.9 PPG) will do her damage from inside and out. Both teams' backcourts are really good, and sometimes spectacular. But who will emerge on the interior as the most effective, especially on the boards: Minnesota's Janel McCarville/Rebekkah Brunson or San Antonio's Jayne Appel/Sophia Young-Malcolm/Danielle Adams?

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