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Inside the W with Michelle Smith: Playoff Picture Preview

The number of games remaining in the 2020 WNBA regular-season is dwindling so quickly. The playoff picture is sharpening with every final score.

On the cusp of September, let’s take a look at where we are.

Checked In

The battle for the top two seeds – and the coveted double-bye to the semifinals – looks concentrated at the top between the three teams that have been the cream of the league for most of 2020 thus far. These three teams are already in the playoff bracket.

The Seattle Storm has played the most consistent basketball over the course of the season thus far with the league’s best record at 13-3, having clinched their playoff spot over the weekend.

The Storm were steamrolling their WNBA opponents, piling up double-digit margins of victory, until a second injury to point guard Sue Bird pulled her back out of the lineup, and the reaction to Bird’s absence – she has only appeared in seven games so far this season – was a 2-2 run in the last four games.

Breanna Stewart is having an MVP caliber season, Alysha Clark and Natasha Howard are the glue players, particularly on the defensive end, and guards Jewell Loyd and Jordin Canada are among the quickest, most dynamic backcourts in the WNBA.

What’s left on the schedule? Games against Los Angeles, Minnesota, Phoenix and Las Vegas, a gauntlet that should get a team ready for the playoffs.

 

The Las Vegas Aces, at 12-3 with four straight wins, lead the league in scoring offense (87.9) and rebounds per game (37.6). In a season in which they are playing without Liz Cambage and Kelsey Plum, the Aces have found their glue player in veteran Angel McCoughtry, who wasted no time getting comfortable with her Las Vegas teammates after missing most of two of the last three WNBA seasons. Meanwhile, A’ja Wilson continues to play at an MVP level.

What’s left – final three games (over four days) against Minnesota, LA and Seattle – should tell the Aces where they are heading into the postseason. Las Vegas is 3-0 against these teams so far this season.

The Los Angeles Sparks (12-3) joined the list of playoff entrants on Sunday night, notching their ninth straight win. Officially the hottest team in the league, the Sparks are getting offense from all over the floor. In fact, 11 players scored in Sunday’s win over Atlanta. Candace Parker continues her run at the MVP award with her all-around play.

The final six games for the Sparks include matchups against Seattle, Chicago and Las Vegas, a chance to gauge their postseason readiness while they compete for a top two seed.

Waiting in Line

There are five postseason spots left. Sliding into the No. 3 or 4 seed and earning a first-round bye is the next level of battle being waged down this home stretch of the season. Two teams are very close to nailing down their playoff spots.

The Minnesota Lynx is in a strong position to earn its playoff spot for the ninth year in a row, even having gone eight games without center Sylvia Fowles, because of the play of Napheesa Collier and rookie Crystal Dangerfield. The Lynx have been eliminated in the first round two years in a row. This proud franchise would love to earn a bye to skip that game in 2020.

The Chicago Sky have some regrouping to do, facing down two losses in a row, and the loss of both Azura’ Stevens and Diamond DeShields, who have left the bubble. Getting Stephanie Mavunga in trade with Indiana last week will hopefully help to shore up the depth inside for the Sky. A 14-point loss to the Storm on Friday night was a barometer game and the Sky need shore things up defensively. They have given up an average of 86.4 points in their last five games. That isn’t the recipe for playoff success and it will need to be addressed all the while making up for the contributions of Stevens and DeShields.

The stretch run is fairly kind to the Sky, with only two more opponents with winning records on the schedule.

Fighting for Their Spot

The goal at this point for this group of teams is to get in. Even if that means two straight single-elimination games to reach the semifinals.

The Phoenix Mercury have been up and down all season, but look to be on the upswing now with three straight wins, despite being without Brittney Griner for the last three games and the reported news that guard Bria Hartley is out for the rest of the season. Skylar Diggins-Smith is stepping up to compensate in the backcourt, scoring 49 points in the last two games, including a 17-for-17 mark from the free-throw line. Meanwhile, Brianna Turner is averaging 13 rebounds and 3.7 blocks over the last three games.

The Connecticut Sun. Considering where the Sun (7-9) started the season, with five straight losses, the fact that they are potentially playing themselves into a playoff spot is a testament to their resilience and improvement. Now it’s a matter of finding consistency. A three-game win streak in mid-August has given way to a win-loss-win-loss pattern over the past six games. DeWanna Bonner continues to carry the offensive load for the Sun, but is getting more help, especially from Alyssa Thomas. But there is only so much help to go around these days, however. Connecticut defeated Washington Sunday with just eight available players. The Sun have injuries at the moment to Bria Holmes, Jasmine Thomas, Brionna Jones and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and need to get healthy soon.

The Dallas Wings. The young guns of the league, led by Arike Ogunbowale, the league’s leading scorer at 22.0 points per game, and rookie Satou Sabally, give the Wings a glimmer of hope, but nothing less than a huge run of wins to close out the season will do here. With Los Angeles, Minnesota, Seattle and Chicago on the schedule, it will be a tall task.

The Indiana Fever are a team that remain in striking distance to qualify for the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2006 despite three straight losses, but will need to stem the tide and likely need to win at least six of their final seven games to have an outside shot at a playoff spot. Clearly a longshot.