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Inside The W with Michelle Smith: The Race for the Playoffs

There’s a line of demarcation forming in the WNBA heading into the final week of the season before the All-Star break.

The top four teams in the standings this week – Minnesota, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Connecticut – have been playing winning basketball over their past 10 games. The Lynx and Sparks are 8-2 over that stretch, while the Sun and Mercury are 7-3.

But the remaining eight teams are fighting to find their groove and a consistency, even as they stay in contention for playoff spots.

Let’s take a look, one at a time, at the teams who are seeking momentum heading into the All-Star break.

5. Washington Mystics (10-8)

Status report: The Mystics, with their position-less basketball scheme and the incredible talent of All-Star Elena Delle Donne, seek to be an elite team by season’s end. But Washington is riding a roller coaster right now, following up a three-game winning streak with three straight losses as it suddenly struggled in close games. There is no better example than last Saturday’s loss to Connecticut, a game in which the Mystics led by 22 points midway through the third quarter, but couldn’t hold on to win. Delle Donne earned her fourth nod as an All-Star Game starter, but she’d rather get another shot at winning a championship.

What do the Mystics need: Wins over the West. The Mystics have seven wins over Eastern Conference teams and just three over the West. With three of the top four teams in the standings in the Western Conference, getting some wins over those teams will go a long way to building confidence for a postseason run.

6. New York Liberty (8-8)

Status report: The Liberty qualify as one of the two big surprises to be sitting in this tenuous position, with four losses in five games. The Liberty had to think they were on their way to being the best team in the Eastern Conference, but starting the season with an injury to point guard Brittany Boyd, a tone-setting player, has been an issue. Tina Charles ranks second in the league in scoring, but she needs more help. New York ranks 10th in the league in scoring at 78.8 points a game.

What do the Liberty need: A little time at home. The Liberty ended a four-game, 12-day road trip with a loss in Phoenix on Sunday. New York will play at home against Connecticut and Washington before the All-Star break.

7. Atlanta Dream (8-9)

Status report: The Dream are picking up steam. First-time All-Star Tiffany Hayes is leading the way in her best season. With Layshia Clarendon and Elizabeth Williams showing off their experience and Sancho Lyttle returning to the lineup, the Dream seem to be playing like a team that’s building toward something big. Whether Atlanta’s lack of 3-point shooting – they are currently last in the league at 27 percent from beyond the arc – becomes a factor still remains to be seen.

What do the Dream need: More time to play together with Lyttle in the rotation and more from rookie guard Brittney Sykes, who has averaged 16.4 points over the last seven games to give the Dream more offensive punch.

8. Dallas Wings (9-11)

Status report: Dallas is a very dangerous team with the inside-out combination of Skylar Diggins-Smith and Glory Johnson, a contender for Comeback Player of the Year in the WNBA. But it’s been a strange season in some ways for the Wings. They have been buoyed by the play of rookies Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis, and they have endured adversity. Coach Fred Williams has been dealing with health issues that took him away from the sideline. And the Wings are just getting Courtney Paris back in the lineup after she sat out with a knee injury sustained in the third game of the season, the first major injury of her WNBA career. If the Wings can settle, there are few who don’t think this could be a playoff team.

What do the Wings need: To get back to where they were in late June, when they won four in a row before the calendar turned to July and they lost three of four.

9. Seattle Storm (8-10)

Status report: Who thought the Storm, with Sue Bird, Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart on the roster, would be in this spot hanging just outside of playoff position at the halfway point of the season and struggling to figure out how to be consistent from night to night? A big win over Los Angeles is a sign that the Storm can play with the best in the WNBA – Seattle’s five starters accounted for its 81 points in that game. And then they turned around and lost to a hot Connecticut team. The big question at this point is whether the team that’s lost five games this season by eight points or less can do it night-after-night down the stretch run.

What do the Storm need: Consistency. The Storm rely on scoring balance, transition and ball movement to succeed. They simply aren’t getting those things on a consistent basis. It’s been more than a month since Seattle won back-to-back games. That needs to change quickly.

10. Indiana Fever (7-10)

Status report: The remodel in Indianapolis isn’t easy. The Fever have lost four of their last five games, and three in a row for the first time this season. Those losses include a 21-point defeat to Atlanta, followed by a Wednesday loss at home to last-place San Antonio. The issue always seems to be defense. While second-year guard Tiffany Mitchell is having a strong season and veterans Briann January and Candice Dupree provide stability, the Fever are the worst rebounding team in the WNBA. They also rank last in assists and ninth in scoring. Those aren’t the kind of statistics that point to success.

What do the Fever need: Head coach Pokey Chatman thinks it’s pretty simple: play defense or watch the playoffs from home. Tough to argue.

11. Chicago Sky (5-12)

Status report: Life after Elena Delle Donne has been difficult enough for the Sky. Now veteran guard Cappie Pondexter is sidelined with a concussion, her return date not precisely known. Yet the Sky pulled off what might be the upset of the year in the WNBA with a home win over Minnesota last weekend – their first home win of the season – and followed it up with a big victory over Dallas on Wednesday. The two-game run ended a seven-game losing streak. But the Sky still have some work to do to push for a playoff spot, particularly on the offensive end, where they rank 11th in the league in scoring (78.8 ppg). But if guard Courtney Vandersloot (who had a team-high 26 points and 13 assists in the win over the Lynx), Stefanie Dolson and Tamera Young can keep the momentum, perhaps better days will be ahead in the Windy City.

What do the Sky need: Home wins. A 2-7 record on your home floor is not a ticket to the playoffs. The inability to capitalize on a home-court advantage has been a major reason the Sky can’t get out of the bottom rung of the WNBA standings this season.

12. San Antonio Stars (2-16)

Status report: This difficult season for the Stars shows fleeting signs of abating. After winning for the first time this season, they lost their next two games by a combined 48 points before winning again in Indiana on Thursday. The Stars rank last in the league in scoring (73.3 points per game). They lead the WNBA in turnovers and are struggling to find a groove. Top draft pick Kelsey Plum continues to learn as a professional and has to be happy about her 12-point performance against the Fever. Starting guard Moriah Jefferson missed the July 7 game with a concussion, while Kayla McBride leads the way with 15.7 points per game. The Stars needs some positive results, however, to pull this season out of its tailspin.

What do the Stars need: To build team chemistry, and wins to develop confidence.

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith will have a weekly column on throughout the 2017 season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.