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Race To The Playoffs: Seven Key Games To Watch

Twenty-nine games over 11 days. That is all that remains in the 2018 WNBA regular season to determine the playoff field for one of the most competitive seasons in league history.

Entering Thursday’s three-game slate, we have five teams (Seattle, Atlanta, Washington, LA, Connecticut) that have clinched playoff berths and two teams (New York, Indiana) that have been eliminated.

There are three races that we need to examine:


Race For A Top Two Seed

Earning a top two seed brings the all-important advantage of a double-bye all the way to the Semifinals. That means the teams that finish 1-2 in the standings don’t have to face any single-elimination games from the first two rounds of the playoffs. Instead, they are guaranteed a five-game series – with home-court advantage – and need to win just one series to advance to the WNBA Finals.

In the first two years of the new playoff format, the teams that finished 1-2 in the standings – Minnesota and Los Angeles – have advanced to the Finals both times. The advantage of not having to face a do-or-die game just days after the regular ends can’t be overstated.

  1. Seattle (23-7)
  2. Atlanta (19-10) 3.5 GB
  3. Los Angeles (18-11) 4.5 GB
  4. Washington (18-11) 4.5 GB

Seattle has all but locked up a top two seed. Even if they lost all four of their remaining games, the Storm would finish the season at 23-11, which is the best that Washington or Los Angeles could finish if they each ran the table. And the Storm own head-to-head tiebreakers over both (2-1 vs LA, 2-0 vs WAS) teams.

The only team that could surpass the Storm is Atlanta. The Storm would need to lose three of their final four games, while the Dream run the table for this to happen. Atlanta does hold the tiebreaker over Seattle in the unlikely case that they finish with matching records. There is a super-rare chance that Seattle, Atlanta, Washington and LA all finish with 11 losses, which would trigger further tiebreakers. If that were to happen, then those four teams would earn the top four seeds and at worst have a first-round bye.

Key Game #1:

Thursday, August 9
Seattle Storm at Washington Mystics
Capital One Arena, Washington, DC
11:30 AM ET, NBA TV

The first of our seven key games is Seattle’s first chance to clinch the double-bye to the Semifinals. The Storm need to win just one of their final four games to lock up a top two seed. Seattle has made the playoffs each of the last two years (No. 7 seed in 2016, and No. 8 seed in 2017) and lost on the road in first-round single-elimination games. A win would allow the Storm to bypass the first two rounds, guaranteeing a better playoff finish than they had the past two years before they even play their first postseason game.

Let’s assume Seattle locks up one of the top two seeds – whether that win comes Thursday vs. Washington or in any of their three games that follow – and look closer at the next three teams vying for the other double-bye. Atlanta, Washington and Los Angeles are separated by just one game, with Atlanta having one fewer loss than both Washington and LA.

Key Game #2:

Thursday, August 9
Los Angeles Sparks at Atlanta Dream
McCamish Pavilion, Atlanta, GA
7:00 PM ET, NBA TV

The season series between the Dream and Sparks is tied at 1-1 with this being their third and final meeting of the regular season. The winner of Thursday’s game earns the head-to-head tiebreaker, which could be the difference between opening the playoffs in the Semifinals or with a second-round single-elimination game. The Dream have been on fire over the past month as they have won 11 of their last 12 games dating back to July 8. Meanwhile, the Sparks are finally healthy and have won three straight games since the All-Star break. This is the second game of a back-to-back for the Sparks, who escaped New York with an 82-81 win over the Liberty on Wednesday before heading to Atlanta for Thursday’s crucial matchup.


Race For A Top Four Seed

While earning a top two seed yields the greatest reward of the regular season, earning spots three and four in the final standings comes with a strong consolation prize – a first-round bye. While the two teams that miss out on the other top two seed (Atlanta, Washington, Los Angeles) will be the favorites to finish in either the three or four spot, there are a handful of teams still within striking distance over the final 11 days.

  1. Atlanta (19-10) 3.5 GB
  2. Los Angeles (18-11) 4.5 GB
  3. Washington (18-11) 4.5 GB
  4. Connecticut (17-12) 5.5 GB
  5. Minnesota (16-13) 6.5 GB
  6. Phoenix (16-14) 7.0 GB
  7. Dallas (14-15) 8.5 GB

The odds are clearly stacked against Phoenix and Dallas as they already have 14 and 15 losses, respectively, but the current Nos. 3 and 6 seeds are separated by just two games. Any game that is played between these four teams (Los Angeles, Washington, Connecticut and Minnesota) down the stretch is critical.

Here’s a snapshot of where things stand between these four teams in terms of tiebreakers:

LOS ANGELES

  • (1-1) (1 game remaining, away) vs. Washington: head-to-head tiebreaker goes to winner of final meeting
  • (0-2) (1 game remaining, away) vs. Connecticut: Sun own head-to-head tiebreaker
  • (3-1) vs. Minnesota: Sparks own head-to-head tiebreaker

WASHINGTON

  • (2-2) vs. Connecticut: no head to head tiebreaker, goes to better winning percentage against all teams with .500 or better record at the end of the season
  • (1-1) (1 game remaining, away) vs. Minnesota: head-to-head tiebreaker goes to winner of final meeting

CONNECTICUT

  • (2-0) (1 game remaining, home) vs. Minnesota: Sun own head-to-head tiebreaker

There are four remaining games that feature two of these four teams squaring off. As we see above, two of these games have tiebreaker implications, but any meeting between these teams is significant to the final standings.

Key Game #3:

Friday, August 17
Los Angeles Sparks at Washington Mystics
Capital One Arena, Washington, DC
7:00 PM ET, NBA TV

The Sparks and Mystics currently have matching 18-11 records and have split the first two games of their season series. So not only will this game give one team an edge by gaining a W, while giving their opponent another L, but it will determine the head-to-head tiebreaker should these teams finish with the same record at the end of the season.

Both teams face challenging schedules down the stretch with each facing playoff teams in four of their final five games. This game takes place in Washington as the Sparks have four of their final five games of the season on the road, where they are currently 8-5.

Key Game #4:

Friday, August 17
Minnesota Lynx at Connecticut Sun
Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, CT
7:00 PM ET, League Pass

While watching the Sparks and Mystics square in DC on NBA TV, get League Pass running on a second screen in order to watch the Sun host the Lynx in Connecticut at the same time. The Sun may have the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Lynx wrapped up by taking the first two games of the season series, but this game will still be important to settling playoff seeds. While the Sun close out the season with four straight games at home, their final two come against the two teams that have met in the Finals the last two years – this matchup with Minnesota, followed by a meeting with LA on Sunday.

Key Game #5:

Sunday, August 19
Los Angeles Sparks at Connecticut Sun
Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, CT
3:00 PM ET, Twitter

Similar to their meeting with the Lynx on Aug. 17, the Sun enter season-finale contest with LA already owning the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Sparks. The Sun are currently riding a four-game win streak and sit one game behind the Sparks in the standings. Where they will be on the final day of the regular season remains to be seen, but if the Sun can match the Sparks record, they would earn the edge in seeding against the 2016 champs. After missing out on an Ogwumike sisters reunion at All-Star on the same team, we get another meeting between them as rivals to close out the regular season. Could a first postseason meeting follow?

Key Game #6:

Sunday, August 19
Washington Mystics at Minnesota Lynx
Target Center, Minneapolis, MN
7:00 PM ET, ESPN 2

The final game of the regular season could have major seeding implications, as it will determine the head-to-head tiebreaker between the Mystics and Lynx, who split their first two meetings of the season. While Washington is currently two games up on Minnesota in the loss column, the Mystics have four of their final five games against teams currently in the playoffs, while the Lynx have just three. These teams have not met since June 7, when the Lynx defeated the Mystics 88-80 in Minnesota, which is the site for their regular season rubber match.


Race To Make The Playoffs

The Las Vegas Aces playoff hopes are on the ropes after a losing streak coupled with a forfeited game has left them with four straight losses coming out of the All-Star break. They have been unable to take advantage of the struggles by teams directly ahead of them in standings (Dallas has lost six straight, Phoenix has lost two straight and eight of 10).

  1. Minnesota (16-13) 6.5 GB
  2. Phoenix (16-14) 7.0 GB
  3. Dallas (14-15) 8.5 GB
  4. Las Vegas (12-17) 10.5 GB
  5. Chicago (10-19) 12.5 GB

Also not helping the Aces chances is the fact that they have lost the season series to both Dallas (2-0) and Phoenix (3-1), which means they must finish with a better overall record than one of them in order to squeeze into the playoff picture. Considering the Aces have two more losses than the Wings and three more than Mercury, they will likely need to run the table over their final five games to give themselves a realistic chance.

Two items in Vegas’ favor are upcoming matchups with the Liberty and Fever – the two teams already out of the playoffs have a combined 12-45 this season – as well as having four of their final five games at home. But it is their one road game that we have to highlight here.

Key Game #7:

Friday, August 17
Las Vegas Aces at Dallas Wings
College Park Center, Arlington, TX
8:00 PM ET, League Pass

If the Aces playoff hopes are still alive heading into the final weekend of the season, then this matchup with Dallas is the biggest must-win of the season. Remember, they can’t earn the tiebreaker so they must finish above the Wings to knock them out. Being able to earn a win, while giving the opponent your chasing a loss is the biggest opportunity the team could ask for at this point in the season.

Now, if Dallas and Phoenix both continue to struggle and all three teams finish with matching records, the Aces would be out, as they do not have the tiebreaker over either the Wings or Mercury. In this case, the Mercury would be the No. 7 seed and Wings would be No. 8 as Phoenix won the season series with Dallas 2-1.