This WNBA season has been jam-packed with on-court drama. But lately, the off-court kind has been bubbling up. Two big issues -- one regarding travel woes and the other about a lengthy losing streak -- came to a head in Washington, although neither had anything to do with the Mystics.
The two teams at the heart of that drama -- the Las Vegas Aces and Dallas Wings -- will battle in this final week of the regular season for the remaining playoff spot. The Wings, whose coach, Fred Williams, was fired Sunday, have a one-game lead over the Aces, but they haven't won since July 19.
Dallas visits Connecticut on Tuesday and Seattle on Sunday. Las Vegas will host New York -- which has lost nine in a row -- on Wednesday and Atlanta on Sunday. But in between those games is a head-to-head meeting: The Aces take on the Wings in Dallas on Friday.
It all could come down to who wins that game. If the teams finish with the same record, Dallas has the tiebreaker, having won their first two meetings this season.
Seven other teams -- Seattle, Atlanta, Washington, Connecticut, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Minnesota -- already have made the playoffs, although the exact seeding has yet to be determined. Seattle (24-8) needs just one win or a loss from Atlanta (22-10) to secure the top seed.
As for who gets in at No. 8, it'll be either the team that must adjust to a new head coach or the team that forfeited a game to take a stand on travel fatigue.
On Aug. 3, the Aces decided their two-day, crossing-three-time-zones travel ordeal from Las Vegas to the nation's capital presented too much risk for injury, so they opted not to play, knowing it could cost them in the playoff hunt. A few days later, the WNBA ruled it a forfeit.
Then on Sunday in D.C., Dallas lost 93-80 to the Mystics, the Wings' eighth consecutive defeat. Williams and the team's president and CEO, Greg Bibb, had an altercation after the game. The Wings later announced the firing of Williams, ending his five-year tenure with the organization. Assistant Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who won two WNBA titles as a player, was promoted to interim head coach.
Williams, who began coaching in the WNBA in 1999 after more than a decade in the college game, took over the Tulsa Shock in 2014, then stayed in that role as the franchise moved to Dallas for 2016. Williams told espnW on Sunday that he did not want to leave the Wings and was disappointed that he wouldn't finish the season with them. He did not comment about the altercation.
As for pinpointing what went wrong during the losing streak, Williams said: "I just think it was putting down some shots; we've had some really clutch shots that we couldn't put down in certain situations down the stretch. The team played hard, but we just didn't finish some games at the end very well."
The losing skid had some rough moments: back-to-back losses to teams that didn't make the playoffs (Chicago, by one point in Dallas, and Indiana) and a 76-74 crushing loss at home against Washington.
Injuries also played a role, with point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith missing two games (against Indiana on Aug. 2 and Washington on Aug. 5) with a facial injury and center Liz Cambage out two games this past weekend (against Atlanta and Washington) with a head injury she suffered in Wednesday's loss to Connecticut.
It has been an abrupt and precipitous slide for the Wings, who were one of the hottest teams in the league at one point. From July 3 to July 19, Dallas won five in a row and seven of eight. That stretch included Cambage's WNBA-record 53 points in a victory over New York on July 17.
Then Dallas gave up 114 points in a loss at Chicago on July 20. That game was the second of a back-to-back that followed a July 19 win at home over Washington. What might have been seen initially as a loss attributed largely to fatigue instead turned into the start of the Wings' descent. Dallas hasn't won since.
Meanwhile, the Aces -- led by Rookie of the Year favorite A'ja Wilson -- have the chance to take advantage of Dallas' misfortunes and make the playoffs for the first year in their new city. In the franchise's previous three seasons in San Antonio as the Stars, the team had the WNBA's worst record and missed the postseason.
The Aces won't have a winning record this year; the best they can finish is 16-18, but that still might be good enough for the playoffs.
Las Vegas lost five in a row (including the forfeit) after the All-Star break but beat Indiana on Saturday as the past two No. 1 picks, Wilson and Kelsey Plum, combined for 39 points. That victory gives Las Vegas momentum.
Will it be enough to help propel the Aces to the playoffs? Or will the Wings rally behind McWilliams-Franklin and reach the postseason for the second year in a row? These teams might be near the bottom of the standings, but their duel for that remaining playoff spot will still be one of the top things to watch in this final week of the regular season.