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Inside the W With Michelle Smith: Battle For The Bye

We’ll call it the battle for the bye.

The WNBA’s postseason golden ticket is securing one of the top two seeds. This feat gives the team a berth in the WNBA semifinals without having to go through the grueling uncertainty of single-elimination games in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

A top two seed, achieved by the two teams with the best regular season records, brings a squad one step from the WNBA Finals. Ever since the change to the new postseason format in 2016, no team has come out of the single-elimination round and gone on to win the WNBA title.

Conclusion: the battle to finish among the top two in the WNBA standings is big because it comes with such a considerable reward.

Let’s take a look at the teams who are currently in contention for a top-two seed, including their advantages and obstacles as the season races toward the halfway point. The list is limited to teams with a winning record. The next tier of teams, such as Phoenix, Seattle and Los Angeles – all of whom have been hampered by injuries early in the season – can make runs at one of the top two seeds, but will need to build some momentum to get there.

Washington Mystics (9-4) – The Mystics, who saw a five-game win streak end with a loss in L.A. on Sunday, have been very impressive in building the league’s best record so far. A 43-point win over the second-place Connecticut Sun on June 29 – the largest margin of victory in team history – felt like a message to the rest of the league that the Mystics have no intention of coming in second this season after last year’s runner-up finish. Washington has had the benefit of good health for most of this first half, but a broken nose sustained by Elena Delle Donne on Sunday in the loss to the Sparks could be a bit of a speed bump. Assuming that Delle Donne (currently listed as day-to-day) can play the next few weeks with a mask, there’s no reason to think that it will be anything more than that. Emma Meesseman will be back on the floor after returning from the EuroBasket Tournament, which will seemingly bolster the offense. The second half of the season is going to be heavier on the home games for Washington, which bodes well considering the Mystics have a 4-1 record on their home floor so far this season. The Mystics look like a team on a mission.

Connecticut Sun (9-5) – The Sun have hit an undeniable rough patch in an otherwise stellar season, with four straight losses including that 43-point gut-punch against Washington last week. Connecticut flew out of the gate with a 9-1 start including a seven-game winning streak, but have lost their mojo of late. The losing streak includes three road losses. But for a team that has followed up back-to-back great regular-season campaigns with a loss in the single-elimination round, no one understands the value of locking up a top two seed better. It would be hard to find a team in the league that wants it more. Now it’s a matter of figuring out what ails and quickly, to maintain an inside track. The Sun need to improve their shooting, ranking 10th in the league in field-goal percentage and last in free-throw percentage. The defense could use some improvement as well. There is still plenty of time for this experienced team to make the adjustments they need to right the ship.

Las Vegas Aces (9-5) – This team was picked to win the league title in the preseason after the addition of Liz Cambage and the 2019 No. 1 draft pick Jackie Young. But the Aces needed a little time to marinate together and find their chemistry, as they opened with a less-than-stellar 1-3 record. That moment seems to have arrived for a team that has won three straight games and seven wins in the last nine games to vault to the top of the standings and into a tie for second with the Sun. A’ja Wilson is an MVP candidate. Liz Cambage is settling in nicely, averaging 16.6 points per game in the last five games, including a 21-point, 11-rebound output against New York on Sunday. She has scored in double figures in 45 straight games. Dearica Hamby is looking like a leading contender for the 6th Player of the Year with her strong contributions off the bench. Kayla McBride is coming off a 24-point game against New York. The Aces barely missed the playoffs last year and will certainly be hungry to be a postseason team in 2019. Especially considering the expectations that have been placed upon them as one of the most talent-rich teams in the league. They are also healthy, which works in their favor as other teams scramble to fill gaps caused by missing players. The pieces are in place and as the team motto for the season declares, it appears the Aces are “All In”.

Minnesota Lynx (8-6) – The four-time WNBA champions are still working through their extreme makeover, but settling into a new identity as a strong defensive team that needs to run its offense through Sylvia Fowles, one of the most dominant post players in the world. Getting Temi Fagbenle back from the Eurobasket Tournament should prove to be a boost to the offense and provide needed depth inside. Odyssey Sims has become very comfortable, leading the team in scoring at 16.2 points per game. But, injuries keep plaguing this team. Jessica Shepard and Karima Christmas-Kelly are out for the season with knee injuries. Seimone Augustus has yet to play a game this season. Damiris Dantas is struggling with a calf injury. However, Cheryl Reeve keeps plugging holes and building confidence in rookie Napheesa Collier, who is a front-runner for Rookie of the Year and Australian Stephanie Talbot, who put up 24 points against Atlanta on June 3. Reeve looks like she is going to find a way. After being eliminated in the first round last year, this proud franchise is looking to get back where it believes it belongs, among the WNBA’s elite.

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