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Inside The W With Michelle Smith: What’s At Stake

Even though seven teams have clinched playoff spots in an eight-team WNBA postseason field, there is still so much left to be decided in the final stretch of the 2019 regular season.

Four games separate the top five teams in the league and all five of those teams will be battling hard down the stretch for one of the top two seeds, giving those top seeds a double-bye to the semifinal round and a home-court advantage in that best-of-five series.

And there are some very big games left to be played in order for all of this to shake out. Here are the seven critical matchups that will tell you what you need to know about the upcoming Playoffs.

Saturday, August 31 – Los Angeles at Las Vegas (10:30 pm/et, NBA TV)
Why this one matters: Both of these teams are within striking distance of a top-two seed, both of them definitely want to hang on to a first-round bye at the very least and both of them have losses earlier this week that they had just as soon erase with a big win over a playoff-bound team. Los Angeles’ thudding 29-point loss to Washington is a game to forget with the postseason looming. And Vegas – which has lost three in a row and is 5-5 over its last 10 games even with the return of A’ja Wilson – could use its own dose of amnesia after a 15-point road loss to an Indiana team that is likely only playing for pride at this point.
What’s at stake: Vegas trails the Sparks in the tie-breaker 1-2. Should the Aces tie the season series and finish in a tie with L.A., seeding could be determined by the team with the best record in the conference. Currently L.A. is 8-5 and Vegas is 9-5.

Sunday, Sept. 1 – Phoenix Mercury at Chicago Sky (6:00 pm/et, League Pass)
Why this one matters: The playoffs are still more than a week away, which is time for Diana Taurasi to settle in further and see if she can bring some postseason urgency to a team that has been defined this season by injuries and subsequent inconsistency. The Sky, meanwhile, have won seven of their last 10 and are making a case as a darkhorse title contender, a team that is dangerous enough to knock off one of the favorites. Courtney Vandersloot will spend the next two weeks adding to her WNBA single-season assists record.
What’s at stake: If the playoffs started today, these two teams would be meeting in the first-round in Chicago – even as Chicago sits just a half-game out of a first-round bye behind Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

Tuesday, Sept. 3 – Seattle Storm at Phoenix Mercury (10:00 pm/et, ESPN2)
Why this one matters: Last year’s semifinal showdown between these two teams was unforgettable, but this year these are two teams that have been rocked by injuries to some of the league’s marquee players and figured out a way to end up in playoff position anyway. The Storm are stumbling a bit down the stretch, having won only won three of their last 10 games. Phoenix has won only four of its last 10. Both teams are aiming to head into the final few days of the season feeling like they have a burst of momentum. The winner of this game might get do that.
What’s at stake: Seattle wants a home game in the first round. They would need to finish above Minnesota in the No. 6 spot for that to happen, which would be aided by a win on the road here, where they are 5-9 so far this season.

Friday, Sept. 6 – Chicago Sky at Connecticut Sun (7:30 pm/et, League Pass)
Why this one matters: Want to find out where you are against a playoff-caliber team with the playoffs right around the corner? This matchup is a good way to do it. But this is also just a compelling duel between some of the league’s brightest young stars in Diamond DeShields and Jonquel Jones. They don’t go head-to-head, but each is having a strong season and looking to carry their teams deep into the postseason
What’s at stake: Connecticut has the best home record in the league at 14-1, which is part of the reason why having that double-bye into the semifinals and home-court advantage in a five-game series is so immensely important to them.

Friday, Sept. 6 – Minnesota Lynx at Phoenix Mercury (10:00 pm/et, League Pass)
Why this one matters: These two teams have won seven of the league’s past 12 championships. They match perhaps the two most dominant posts in the league in Brittney Griner and Sylvia Fowles. And both want to be a factor in the playoffs even as most spend their time talking about teams like Washington and Connecticut. Minnesota’s three-game winning streak that has included wins over Las Vegas and Chicago – teams ahead of them in the standings – seems to indicate that they are ready to emerge from the background of the playoff picture after reaching the playoffs for the ninth straight season.
What’s at stake: Minnesota will be looking to hang on to its No. 6 position and the opportunity to host a first-round single elimination game.

Sunday, Sept. 8 – Chicago Sky at Washington Mystics (4:00 pm/et, League Pass) 
Why this one matters: Washington, putting up one of the best offensive seasons in WNBA history, looks like the league’s strongest, most consistent team right now, even without Kristi Toliver, who has missed six straight games, on the floor. The biggest question in this game is around Toliver’s availability. Will Mike Thibault “save” her for the playoffs? This is a measuring stick game for Chicago and head coach James Wade on the final day of the regular-season.
What’s at stake: There is still every reason to believe that Washington will be battling for one of the top two playoff seeds at this point, while Chicago will be looking to get into the No. 3-4 spots for a first-round bye and possibly the opportunity to host.

Sunday, Sept. 8 – Minnesota Lynx at Los Angeles Sparks (4:00 pm/et, ESPN2) 
Why this one matters: It’s the last day of the regular season. There is a decent chance that L.A. could be playing for the opportunity to claim one of the top two seeds. Minnesota is in the playoffs for the ninth straight season, but would like to enter the single-elimination rounds with some confidence and some offensive flow. Plus, it’s the Lynx and the Sparks and this matchup is never, ever boring.
What’s at stake: There is a strong chance that L.A. could still be playing for the opportunity to claim one of the top two seeds.

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.