WNBA enters final week with only one team out of playoff hunt
By Sara Ziegler
The Chicago Sky, the reigning champions, are assured of one of the top two spots in the upcoming WNBA playoffs. The rebuilding Indiana Fever are the only team out of contention. Everything else is up for grabs.
The final week of the WNBA’s regular season should be a showcase of the parity and chaos the league has seen all season. Six of the league’s 12 teams are battling for the final three playoff spots, and the teams that have already clinched are still jockeying for seeding.
At the top of the standings, the Sky are 25-8 and hold a two-game lead in the race for the No. 1 seed. Chicago can fall no further than a No. 2 seed after a win Sunday over the Connecticut Sun, but it will still need to hold off the Las Vegas Aces, who spoiled Sue Bird’s final regular-season game at Climate Pledge Arena with a win over the Seattle Storm. Chicago and Las Vegas face off Thursday in their final regular-season meeting.
The Sun, who were on the road against the Los Angeles Sparks on Tuesday night, are solidly in the third spot but could still overtake the Aces for the No. 2 seed. A bigger battle is brewing below them, though, as Seattle and the Washington Mystics fight for home-court advantage in what is nearly certain to be the playoff matchup between the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds. The Storm are at a scheduling disadvantage, with games on the road against Chicago (Tuesday night) and Las Vegas around a trip to Minneapolis. The Mystics, meanwhile, finish with two games against the last-place Fever and play their final regular-season game at home.
Of the teams hoping to clinch one of the final playoff spots, the Dallas Wings were in the best shape entering Monday, holding a 16-16 record with four games remaining — all against teams that sit below them in the standings. Marina Mabrey’s 31 points helped Dallas clinch a berth with an 86-77 win Monday night against the New York Liberty.
Below the Wings, though, the race is wide open. With three games left for each, the Atlanta Dream and Phoenix Mercury were tied at 14-19 (with Atlanta playing the Western Conference-leading Aces on the road Tuesday night), though the Dream own the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Liberty are now 13-20 with three games left, and the Minnesota Lynx and the Sparks were also hanging on at 13-20 entering Tuesday’s games.
The Dream, the Mercury and the Liberty have all been without key players down the stretch. Atlanta guard Tiffany Hayes has missed three games with an ankle injury, while Phoenix announced Monday that Diana Taurasi would miss the rest of the regular season with a quad injury. For Saturday’s game with Phoenix, the Liberty had finally gotten healthy as Betnijah Laney returned to action two months after knee surgery, but forward Natasha Howard went down with an ankle injury.
Those injuries could leave the door open for the ninth-place Lynx: They hold the season tiebreakers over Phoenix and the Liberty, and they play the Mercury in a must-win game today. But the rest of Minnesota’s schedule is daunting, with games at home against Seattle and on the road against Connecticut. In its favor is the comeback of Napheesa Collier, who returned Sunday less than three months after giving birth. (A motivating factor for her was the chance to play again with Sylvia Fowles, who is retiring at the end of the season.)
Finally, the Sparks may face the most difficult path to a playoff berth, for reasons on and off the court. Los Angeles had been in position for the No. 6 seed after a July 21 win over the Dream. But with drama swirling as four-time All-Star Liz Cambage left the team, the Sparks dropped six games in a row to fall to 11th place.
A win Sunday against the Mystics kept their hopes alive. But they must play back-to-back games this week against the third-place Sun before finishing up against the surging Wings. And making matters worse, the Sparks were caught up in a travel nightmare while trying to leave Washington.
After their flight was delayed and then canceled, some members of the Sparks spent the night in the airport when there weren’t enough hotel rooms for all players. Nneka Ogwumike, a former league MVP, said in a video posted on Twitter, “It’s the first time in my 11 seasons that I’ve ever had to sleep in the airport.”