Playoff picture coming into focus

Candace Parker, Maya Moore and Elena Delle Donne are among the leading MVP candidates. Getty Images, AP Photo

We must be getting toward the end of the WNBA season. People are starting to bleed.

On Sunday night in Los Angeles, Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike took an enthusiastic hug from teammate Candace Parker to the left eyebrow and ended up looking like she was co-starring in "Million Dollar Baby." Ogwumike was in the middle of an epic second-half rally with the Sparks, who rode her 21-point effort (all after halftime) to a 90-88 double-overtime victory over the Tulsa Shock.

Los Angeles' bloody victory kept the Sparks within one game of first-place Minnesota. Each team has locked down a playoff position, and with seven games to go, the other two spots in the West look fairly secure, as well.

What's left to hash out? Can Phoenix hang on to the No. 3 spot, or is the Mercury's inability to beat the Seattle Storm going to cost them and drop them into a matchup against the No. 1 seed in the West? Only one game separates these two teams from the No. 3 and No. 4 playoff spots.

The Storm -- currently, in fourth place -- seem to have enough separation with San Antonio and Tulsa to feel comfortable. The Silver Stars are just missing too much to make a true run given the injury to point guard Danielle Robinson, while the Shock badly needed the Sunday night game in Los Angeles to improve their postseason prospects. They didn't get it.

The Chicago Sky, riding a five-game winning streak with six left on the schedule, nailed down their first playoff berth over the weekend. All that's left is for the Sky to hang on to the No. 1 seed in the East. That looks like a relatively easy task considering their 4½-game lead over the Atlanta Dream (who have lost eight straight road games) with six to go. But the rest of the Eastern Conference is, what shall we call it? A mess.

Only four games separate the next four teams in the East -- Atlanta, Washington Mystics, Indiana Fever and New York Liberty.

Connecticut, meanwhile, has lost a franchise-record 19 games, but is still just 4½ games out of postseason position in an unstable conference race.

Who will win MVP?

The field is crowded with some very worthy candidates, but a quartet of stars has emerged.

Parker is leading a Los Angeles team that has played as well as anyone during the second half of the WNBA season. She's averaging 17.7 points a game. The thing about Parker, she doesn't have to do it all. She has Ogwumike, Kristi Toliver, Lindsey Harding and Alana Beard. But it's Parker who is driving the Sparks into the postseason.

Maya Moore, in her third year in the league, has found her stride as a dominant player. Her career-high 35 points on Sunday against Indiana marked the 12th time this season she has scored at least 20 points. She began her WNBA career as something of a supporting player to the likes of Seimone Augustus and even Lindsay Whalen. But the Lynx are mostly Moore's team now.

Which brings us to the rookie, Elena Delle Donne. She arrives and Chicago breaks through to make the WNBA playoffs for the first time. Go figure. It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that Delle Donne has had the biggest breakout among the "3 To See" rookie trio that also includes Skylar Diggins and Brittney Griner. Delle Donne's game has probably been pro-ready for a couple of years now. She will be a landslide winner of the league's Rookie of the Year award. But she has also been good enough to become the first first-year player since Parker to truly contend for MVP and maybe, maybe, she might even lead Chicago to a title.

What about Angel McCoughtry, you ask? The league's scoring and steals leader is a ridiculously talented player. And the Dream are sitting solidly in the second position in the Eastern Conference standings. It's her ability to impact the game on both ends of the floor that distinguishes her on this elite list.

Ranking them today:
1. Moore
2. Parker
3. Delle Donne
4. McCoughtry

Shaking up things in Phoenix

In Phoenix, new head coach Russ Pennell finds himself on the same roller coaster that the Mercury have been on all season.

Phoenix won the first three games when he took over the team after Corey Gaines was let go. But the Mercury then dropped two of three to teams below them in the conference standings.

Still, at 4-2, Phoenix is off to its best start under a new head coach in franchise history.

Defense is the difference. In three wins, the Mercury allowed opponents fewer than 70 points a game. In the three games that followed (two of them losses and the other a squeak-by 89-86 win over Tulsa), they gave up more than 80.

Pennell, for his part, has been willing to shake things up. Look no further than what he said to reporters about No. 1 draft pick Brittney Griner. ''She's going to have to start doing some things we ask and she's going to have to start paying attention to detail, and I think she will,'' Pennell said. ''She wants to do it. … I'm not calling out Brittney here in front of the press, but frankly, she does need to improve and this is not anything I haven't told her.''

It's progress

Stuck in the middle. That's where the Mystics find themselves.

Washington is in third place in the Eastern Conference with a lukewarm 13-15 record that seems to indicate the Mystics are merely a playoff entrant and not really a contender to do any real damage.

But … it beats the heck out of the cellar-dwelling that had been happening in Washington over the past couple of years.

Laimbeer goes too far

Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer was fined an undisclosed amount by the league last week for saying that Moore "should get hurt" for playing in the latter minutes of a Minnesota blowout win over New York.

Laimbeer is known for being a fiery competitor, and there are those who might have even called him a "jerk" at one point in his playing career. But as a coach, implying that any player deserves to be injured is just a bad look.

He wasn't fined because the WNBA was being oversensitive. He got fined because it's the second time he has played the "injury card" in a heated moment this season. Earlier in the year, he implied that he thought Chicago center Sylvia Fowles was faking an injury.

In a league in which the players are precious resources and an abundance of injuries can hurt the entire WNBA operation, it's simply not a topic to be flippant about.