Inside The W with Michelle Smith

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The WNBA season will resume this weekend after the five-week Olympic break, and with teams having less than a dozen games left, time is precious.

Some teams have already made quite a lot of headway. Los Angeles and Minnesota have locked down their postseason berths and are looking to hold on to the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. New York is in a great position for a deep run and the No. 3 overall seed. And the majority of the league has much left to play for with just 4.5 games separating teams 4-11 in the league standings, a race only enhanced by the league’s new Playoff format.

As a result, every team in the league has a big question it needs to answer before the home stretch.

Can L.A. regain momentum?
The Sparks have been the best team in the WNBA the entire season and there’s much to keep playing for, including the franchise record for wins (28 in 2001) and the league record (29 by the 2014 Mercury). Los Angeles, led by the well-rested and very motivated tandem of Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike, has already nailed down its 16th playoff appearance. But hanging onto the league’s best record is not going to be a cakewalk. The Sparks lost two of three games heading into the break, and they open post-Olympic play with four straight games on the road.

Are the Lynx poised to grab the No. 1 seed?
If any team in the league didn’t want to take a break last month, it was Minnesota, which had reeled off six straight wins before the break. The loaded Lynx are just a half game behind Los Angeles in the race for the top overall seed. But four of the team’s stalwart players didn’t get a chance to rest this past month. Will Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles — not to mention coach Cheryl Reeve, who was an Olympic assistant for Team USA — show signs of fatigue? It won’t matter for Minnesota’s playoff spot, but there’s such a big advantage to those top two seeds, the Lynx won’t have time to be tired.

Can New York flex against the West?
The Liberty are 10-2 against Eastern Conference foes and 8-6 against Western Conference teams. To close out the season, New York has four games to go against West teams, including a big matchup against Phoenix on Sept. 3. Tina Charles comes back from Rio as an MVP candidate and she will need to lean on Sugar Rodgers and Kiah Stokes for help on both ends of the floor. Getting Epiphanny Prince back on the floor should be very helpful to New York down the stretch, as well. Prince, who averaged 15.0 points a game last season, is expected back after missing the first 26 games of the season after tearing her ACL overseas in November, but her impact may be limited for the rest of this season as she gets back into playing shape.

Will Atlanta really be a threat?
The Dream have looked like a top-tier team in stretches this season and floundered in others. This team has a legacy of strong postseason performances, but much of that legacy was built by an earlier generation of players. Angel McCoughtry, the team’s constant, will have to lead the Dream to a late-season rally, and it won’t hurt to have three of the first four games after the break at home. That may position Atlanta for a defining early-September stretch that includes two games against Phoenix and one game against Los Angeles.

Can Indiana make one more run?
Tamika Catchings’ professional career is nearing an end. Stephanie White’s tenure with the Fever is almost over. And Indiana – largely the same group that pushed Minnesota to a five-game series in the WNBA Finals last fall – is sitting nicely in playoff position. But in this one-and-done format, the Fever haven’t been consistent enough to look like a true title contender.

Can Chicago bound back into playoff form?
The Sky have, frankly, been one of the bigger disappointments this season, struggling to recapture the level of play they have displayed the previous two seasons. But they still have the league’s second-leading scorer in Elena Delle Donne and an opportunity for fresh, rested bodies such as Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley to contribute to a postseason run. Five straight games against teams with a losing record should provide the Sky an opportunity to solidify playoff position and pick up some momentum.

Is Phoenix ready to put it together?
The Mercury have been a mystery all season. They have played sub-par defense, seemingly struggled to find their chemistry, and stumbled when trying to put together winning streaks that would’ve put them solidly in playoff position. But now the postseason is getting close. Diana Taurasi can smell it. Coming off a stellar Olympic run, one of the greatest players in the history of the game comes back loaded emotionally to lead her team into the playoffs and, if the Mercury play the way they are capable, into title contention.

Can Hill help Washington pick up the pieces?
The youthful Mystics went into the break losers of seven straight games, yet still not out of the race for the playoffs. Washington needs a quick turnaround and maybe third-year guard Tayler Hill is the one to lead it. Hill, who sat out Washington’s last two games before the break with a sprained foot, has set career-highs in points per game, rebounds per game, assists per game, and minutes played.

Is the future now in Seattle?
The Storm, who are currently tied with Washington for the final playoff spot, have had their moments, thanks to the superb tandem of Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart. But Seattle is battling for one of the league’s last playoff spots and have to hope that Sue Bird’s knee sprain, sustained in Rio in the semifinal game, isn’t going to impact her ability to help the Storm get there. The tests are going to come quickly after the break, with Seattle looking at back-to-back games against Los Angeles and Minnesota, the two best teams in the league. In its final 10 game, Seattle faces the Sparks, the Lynx and the Liberty a combined five times.

Can Dallas pull out of the tailspin?
Six straight losses heading into the break have the Wings looking like a team playing out the string for next season. Skylar Diggins scored 29 points in the last game leading into the break for Dallas. The Wings will hope to get Glory Johnson back on the floor in time for the final stretch of the season, and perhaps a flurry of wins on the way to a playoff spot for the second year in a row.

Can the Sun keep up the rally?
After a dismal start, Connecticut went 5-3 in July and won two in a row going into the Olympic break to put themselves just one game out of postseason position. The Sun are getting consistently strong play from guard Alex Bentley and rapidly improving play from post Chiney Ogwumike – who averaged 16.4 points and 8.8 rebounds per game in July. The play of those two standouts, and improvement on the defensive end, just might be enough to get Connecticut back into the postseason.

What’s there to play for in San Antonio?
Pride is the easiest thing to muster for the Stars, who are hobbled by injuries, and lining up for a top draft pick with the league’s worst record. The Stars have lost five in a row. San Antonio’s upcoming stretch is a big test for rookie guard Moriah Jefferson, who will look to rally a struggling team to a strong finish after a chance to take a break and get fresh legs.