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Inside The W with Michelle Smith

Ah, break time.

A hammock. A cold glass of lemonade. Maybe, some swaying palm threes.

The WNBA has started its five-week hiatus — games will resume again on August 26 — giving many a respite from playoff races, nail-biting finishes and long plane flights.

For most players and coaches, it’s a time to relax, get away, spend precious time with family and friends, to heal and recharge. For others –- namely the chosen members of the U.S. Women’s National Team — it’s a time for more intense basketball and a run at a historic sixth straight Olympic gold medal.

Here in Inside The W, it’s time to prognosticate. Time to go out on a limb and attach names to future postseason awards and playoff games and then wait and see if I really know as much as I hope I do about this league I’ve covered for 20 years.

Ok, here goes.

If the season ended today…

The MVP Award would go to… Nneka Ogwumike. Just a few weeks ago, at the season’s true halfway point, I picked New York’s Tina Charles as the MVP favorite. But the Los Angeles Sparks have kept their foot on the gas now for two-thirds of the WNBA season and Ogwumike is the fuel source.

Charles is having a spectacular year, and she doesn’t have as much help as Ogwumike does. As great as Sugar Rogers has been –- and we will get to her in a moment –- Charles is not playing alongside a player like Candace Parker.

But Ogwumike is simply putting together one of the most efficient, statistically impressive seasons in WNBA history. She is averaging 19.6 points a game, shooting 71 percent from the floor and pulling down 9.2 rebounds a game, while playing alongside one of the best players in the world. She is no longer a supporting player, but a player who is the support structure for the Sparks.

With 10 games to go after a five-week break, the Sparks will have to recapture their chemistry and momentum to prepare for a title run. Ogwumike, in MVP form, looks poised to lead the way.

The Coach of the Year would be… Brian Agler. Agler has done something in Los Angeles that previous coaches couldn’t do. A veteran of WNBA sidelines, Agler has harnessed the talent on this roster, convinced them to buy into offensive and defensive schemes rooted in balance and discipline and therefore has built the Sparks into a team that looks ready to take its place alongside some of the best seasons in league history.

The Rookie of the Year would be… Breanna Stewart. I know, “Duh”. But Stewart hasn’t backed into this award merely by virtue of being one of the most accomplished draft picks in the league’s 20-year history. On her way to reviving the Seattle Storm, Stewart is averaging 19.2 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. Her scoring and rebounding averages are good for fifth and second in the league, respectively. She has scored in double figures in 14 straight games, a stretch that’s included four double-doubles, and she’s pushing the Storm toward postseason contention.

The Defensive Player of the Year would be… Tamika Catchings. Her legacy as one of the league’s best all-time defensive players is in stone. She has won this award more than any other player in league history. And she currently ranks second in the league in steals (2.0 per game). She is as tenacious and tough as she is experienced, and it would only be fitting that in her final season, this award could be hers one more time.

The Sixth Woman of the Year would be… Jantel Lavender. Lavender is a true spark off the bench in Los Angeles. She has not started a single-game this season after starting every game last season, but she’s contributing 9.8 points a game in just 19 minutes a game. Her ability to come off the bench and score gives Los Angeles versatility and depth, while also providing Ogwumike and Parker the breaks needed for a long postseason run.

The Most Improved Player would be…Sugar Rodgers. Rodgers is averaging 14.7 points per game, far and above any production she’s demonstrated in the previous three years of her career. She’s started 26 games –21 more than she started in three previous seasons — as an injury to Epiphanny Prince opened up the opportunity for Rodgers to get significant playing time. Rodgers has taken advantage in a big way.

The All-WNBA First Team would be… Nneka Ogwmike, LA; Candace Parker, LA; Maya Moore, Minnesota; Tina Charles, New York; Elena Delle Donne, Chicago.

If the postseason started today…

The toughest thing about this format is the cruelty of single elimination.

It will unquestionably be a quick out for some of the league’s brightest stars. Tamika Catchings, Elena Delle Donne, Breanna Stewart and Diana Taurasi will all be a tough day away from quick elimination. Meanwhile, Los Angeles and Minnesota will be watching on TV, enjoying their byes and hoping not to get cold after stellar regular seasons.

First Round (single elimination)
5 Indiana vs. 8 Seattle
Winner – Seattle. A tough one. One of the league’s all-time greats vs. one of its brightest young stars. In an upset, the Storm win this one as Stewart starts to get her feet under her and puts a quick end to Tamika Catchings’ historic WNBA career.

6 Chicago vs. 7 Phoenix
Winner – Mercury. A rematch of the 2014 WNBA Finals. This one is going to go to the Mercury, who will flip the switch behind Diana Taurasi and turn into the dangerous postseason team everyone expected them to be.

Second Round
3 New York vs. 8 Seattle (lowest seed)
Winner – New York. The Liberty will prevail here because they have last year’s postseason experience — and disappointment — to build on. Tina Charles is motivated to compete for a championship.

4 Atlanta vs. 7 Phoenix (first-round higher-seeded winner)
Winner – Phoenix. Too much playoff experience on this Mercury roster gives them the edge against the young and disruptive Dream.

1 LA vs. 7 Phoenix
Winner – L.A. in 4. The Sparks have been eliminated in the postseason by the Mercury in 2013 and 2014. This time, L.A. is more prepared, consistent and motivated. It won’t be easy, but the Sparks will punch their ticket to the WNBA Finals for the first time since 2003.

2 Minnesota vs. 3 New York
Winner – Minnesota in 4. The Lynx entered the break playing better than anyone — including Los Angeles. Sylvia Fowles has integrated into the offense beautifully and Minnesota looks to be peaking. Provided they are healthy and the legs are still strong after the Olympics, the Lynx set up this obvious, yet highly anticipated Finals matchup.

WNBA Finals
LA vs. Minnesota
Winner – LA in 5. After years of the WNBA Finals coming and going without suspense, Minnesota and Indiana played to five games last season, and we are looking at another classic with this dreamy matchup between two teams who’ve played better than everyone else all season. The difference here may end up being stamina. For all of their motivational mileage derived from being left off the Olympic team, Parker and Ogwumike will be fresher and stronger after five weeks off during August. And in a long season, it will make the difference between two great teams.