There are just three weeks left in the 2021 WNBA regular season, and every time the buzzer of a game sounds, the playoff race shifts.
Every loss moves a team closer to elimination from the playoff race. Each win can mean one more chance to carry on the season or improve a team's seed.
At the top of the list of changes this week is a new No. 1 team, thanks to an extremely dominant performance by the Connecticut Sun over the Las Vegas Aces. Another surprise: The Seattle Storm's inability to close out games in the second half has dropped them two spots -- and for now, they've lost the double-bye into the WNBA semifinals.. Now, they're on their first three-game losing streak this season -- including a 32-point defeat at the hands of the Chicago Sky, and their first loss to the Minnesota Lynx since 2019.
So what do the teams left hunting for a playoff spot need to do? (Yes, we realize "win" is the main thing.) Play better defense? Commit fewer turnovers? Close out fourth quarters? Let's find out.
1. Connecticut Sun
Previous ranking: 3
Their sixth straight victory came over the previously top-ranked Las Vegas Aces and clinched the Sun a playoff spot -- and put a big exclamation point next to their name in the standings. The win came even without MVP candidate Jonquel Jones scoring in double digits, the first time she was held below 10 points this season.
That game told us a lot about what kind of team the Sun could be in the playoffs. When Jones isn't having the best night offensively -- or even when she is -- veteran DeWanna Bonner is there with her championship experience. And with Brionna Jones completing the "Big 3," Connecticut is headed into the playoffs as the team no one wants to face.
That said, Connecticut could use its remaining regular-season games -- just one this week on the road, before a break through Labor Day weekend -- for a bit of offensive fine-tuning. The Big 3's performances aside, Connecticut has averaged just 78.8 PPG this season, the third lowest in the league. That weakness could catch up to it, especially in the best-of-five semifinals.
This week: @WAS
2. Las Vegas Aces
Previous ranking: 1
The Aces aren't too far behind the Sun, even after a drubbing that shows what happens when the 2020 league MVP, A'ja Wilson, has an off night.
The Aces still lead the WNBA in offensive rating (105.7) and rank second in defensive rating (95.0). Wilson is averaging 18.8 points and a career-high 9.4 rebounds, while frontcourt partner Liz Cambage chips in 14.8 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.6 blocks. Las Vegas is 10-3 at home and 9-4 on the road, and is perfectly balanced to take on any surging team in the playoffs.
The Aces did bounce back against the Atlanta Dream, and then the Indiana Fever, though the close win against the former was concerning given the Dream's poor performance this season. The latter win, though, perfectly showcases how deep this team is. With Wilson and Cambage scoring just 12 and 11, respectively, the rest of the roster stepped up: Kelsey Plum had 14, Jackie Young and Chelsea Gray each had 13 and Riquna Williams had 15 points. It may have just been an off week for Cambage and Wilson, but that's not an issue with such depth.
Now, the Aces have back-to-back games against the Chicago Sky, who are on a three-game winning streak, including two dominant wins against the Storm. This will be a good test for the playoffs for both teams.
This week: CHI, @CHI
3. Minnesota Lynx
Previous ranking: 4
The Lynx finally look like the team everyone thought they could be at the beginning of the season. Minnesota opened the season with four straight losses before winning 15 of their last 20.
Napheesa Collier returned from playing overseas. Kayla McBride and Aerial Powers, who joined the team in the offseason, finally started clicking. And Layshia Clarendon, who was cut by New York, quickly found a home in Minnesota.
The team has gotten back into the playoff picture thanks to contributions from everyone, but it is veteran Sylvia Fowles who stands out. The 2017 MVP has put herself back into the conversation for the 2021 MVP, most recently dropping 29 points, 20 rebounds, four steals and three blocks to help the Lynx beat the Storm for the first time in two years.
The Lynx still need to work on their speed, however. Sometimes the ball movement is too stagnant: Pre-Olympic break, they averaged 21.1 APG, but post-break, that has dropped to 19.6 APG. It isn't a huge drop, but that quick ball movement and avoiding turnovers is necessary to take down top-ranked teams.
The Lynx are at home for the next three games, where they're up against three teams hungry for a playoff spot. Holding on to their fourth-place standing, which gives them a first-round playoff bye, will be more challenging than they'd like.
This week: NY, LA, WAS
4. Seattle Storm
Previous ranking: 2
Seattle has struggled since returning from the Olympic break, standing at 4-8 including a three-game losing streak for the first time all season after a massive 32-point loss to Chicago -- its worst in franchise history. In those losses, it has scored just 78 PPG, well below its season average (84.9).
That type of dip leaves us with some questions. Have the Storm become complacent? Are they coasting until the playoffs (the Aces, Storm and Sun are the only teams to clinch postseason berths so far)? Or does their inability to close out games in the fourth quarter signal future playoff struggles?
Regardless, that offense has to pick up -- which should happen when you have Olympic gold medalists like Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird on the roster. But so does the defense, which has been a concern since before the season even began. Matching up with teams like the Aces means that falling back on a defensive rating of 98.2, which ranks fourth, isn't going to get them too far.
The Storm have just four games left, with only one on the road. With all four of those opponents pushing for a playoff spot, they have to close out games to keep their first-round bye.
This week: NY
5. Chicago Sky
Previous ranking: 6
The Sky are right where they want to be.
They have the third-best offense (83.3 PPG) in the league. They have outstanding ball movement, averaging a league-leading 22.0 APG thanks to Courtney Vandersloot, one of the best point guards in the WNBA.
They also have Candace Parker, whose health correlates with their success. This season, they are a staggering 12-4 when Parker plays. Without her, they're 1-8.
Then there's 2021 All-Star Kahleah Copper, who dropped 26 and 13 points in the Sky's back-to-back wins against the Storm. Allie Quigley was the 3-point champion at the 2021 All-Star Game. Stefanie Dolson helped Team USA win a gold medal in 3x3 basketball.
So it is a mystery why it took Chicago (14-12 and sixth in the standings) so long to build a winning record. A lot can be attributed to health: Parker missed eight games early in the 2021 season ahead of the Olympic break. Quigley also missed a handful of games with a hamstring injury, and Dolson was out due to Team USA commitments. That lack of playing time together has led to a lack of continuity on the court: The Sky are turning the ball over 15.2 times per game, second worst in the league.
The Sky have all the pieces -- showcased perfectly in their series against the Storm that included a 32-point blowout to end the week. But the Sky have also narrowly lost to the Wings and the Lynx. They just have to correctly use their players, and any momentum from the wins over the Storm could translate to wins in the postseason.
This week: PHO, @LV, LV
6. Phoenix Mercury
Previous ranking: 5
Talk about good timing. For a team that struggled to put together anything other than losing streaks, the Mercury returned from the Olympic break and won six straight games. Even though they all came against teams with a sub-.500 record, those victories came at a time when the playoffs didn't seem possible.
In five of those wins, Skylar Diggins-Smith's performance stands out: shooting 62.7% from the field overall and 64.7% from 3-point range. And to help seal the sixth straight win, against the Liberty, she dropped 27 points and seven assists.
Meanwhile, teammate Brittney Griner has silently been putting together an MVP-caliber season. In addition to dunking for the 15th time in her career -- the rest of the WNBA has only seen three other dunks ever -- she's averaging 20.7 PPG, which ranks second in the league. Griner's also fourth in the league with 9.8 RPG, and first with 2.0 BPG.
Phoenix's win against New York was a perfect example of just how good this team can be with Diggins-Smith, Griner and Diana Taurasi -- the team's "Big 3" -- perfectly playing their roles (Taurasi had 21 points and nine assists).
Health is a concern for Phoenix, however. Griner injured an ankle in Wednesday's win over New York and sat out Friday's rematch. With seven games until the end of the season -- this week's games are against Chicago at home, and then Indiana on the road -- her availability could affect the team's chances of staying No. 5 in the standings.
This week: CHI, @IND
7. Dallas Wings
Previous ranking: 7
Before the Olympic break, the Wings needed to work on consistency -- you can't beat a team by 10-plus points, then lose the very next game against that same team by double-digits. They only continued this performance after the break. That inconsistency -- and the loss of Satou Sabally (12.4 PPG, 6.3 RPG), who's day-to-day with an Achilles injury -- is why they've struggled to stay above .500 all season, and why they are in danger of losing a playoff spot.
Still, as one of the youngest teams in the league -- only one player has five years of experience (Kayla Thornton) -- they're definitely one of the more fun teams to watch, more energetic, one of the grittiest to grind out wins. So how can they hold onto their first playoff berth since 2018? Paging Arike Ogunbowale, who can score from anywhere, and Marina Mabrey, the frontrunner for Most Improved Player. Together, they're why the Wings have the fourth-best scoring offense in the league (83.3 PPG).
They just have to keep shooting lights-out and carrying their offense when they do. And when they have off nights, their teammates need to step up. They now need to focus on not giving away any unnecessary games, like they did in their two-point loss at home recently to the Fever. They have also yet to beat the Dream this year, whom they face twice this week at home.
This week: ATL, ATL
8. New York Liberty
Previous ranking: 8
The Liberty have certainly turned things around from 2020, when they won only two games. That said, their red-hot start has since cooled down.
They went just 2-2 in July, and since the Olympic break, they are 1-5, including a four-game losing streak. Not the record you want when you're barely holding onto the eighth seed for the playoffs. In those six post-break games, they averaged just 78.3 PPG, while giving up 89.7 PPG. Overall, they average 79.0 PPG, fourth worst in the league.
Even with Sami Whitcomb, the best 3-point shooter in the WNBA, out until at least mid-September because of an ankle injury, New York has to remember it still has Betnijah Laney (17.9 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 5.2 APG), Sabrina Ionescu (10.5 PPG, 5.9 APG, 5.6 RPG) and Natasha Howard (14.9 PPG, 6.4 RPG), who won the 2020 championship with the Storm and has to use her experience to pull her team into the playoffs.
New York also simply has to get better at closing out games. It's averaging a league-high 16.9 turnovers per game, and was outscored 68-115 in the fourth quarter in its four recent losses.
Unfortunately for the Liberty, they have a tough close-out to the season, playing on the road until their last game. They need to play their best basketball against the Lynx, Storm, Wings and Sun if they want their season to carry on.
This week: @MIN
9. Los Angeles Sparks
Previous ranking: 9
The Sparks, like the Sky, were hampered by injuries throughout the season and are now playing catch-up to secure a playoff spot. It's not too far-fetched a possibility, when they have a healthy Nneka Ogwumike. Since the Olympic break, they have gone 4-3, and Ogwumike has averaged 14.5 PPG, 7.0 RPG and 5.0 APG.
The rest of Los Angeles' offense, however, is lacking. It's averaging a WNBA-worst 73.2 PPG, shooting just 40.4% from the field. It's also last in the WNBA in rebounds (29.7) and assists per game (15.4).
So scoring is a top priority if the Sparks want to steal a playoff spot. One way to do that is by capitalizing on their defense -- they average 8.4 steals per game (second) and 4.5 blocks per game (fourth) -- to turn over the ball for more offensive chances.
It won't be easy: Of their six games left, four are on the road, and four are against teams with a better record.
This week: @IND, @MIN
10. Washington Mystics
Previous ranking: 10
The Mystics have been victims of a series of unfortunate events this year. Plagued by injuries for most of the pre-Olympic break, they finally appeared healthy and ready for a competitive run at a playoff spot. Anchored by MVP candidate and league-leading scorer Tina Charles (25.4 PPG, 9.7 RPG), they also welcomed back their 2019 MVP, Elena Delle Donne, after a 22-month absence due to a pair of back surgeries.
But then Charles went down with a hip injury (out three to five games) and Delle Donne was pulled from her third game back as a precaution (now day-to-day). With both out, the Mystics' offense continues to flounder.
It doesn't help that Washington shoots just 40.6% overall from the floor, second worst in the league. Averaging 80.6 PPG will not get the Mystics wins against the teams they need to beat, either; they've gone just 3-7 over their last 10.
Other players have to step up and simply play better, particularly in the second half: In its five losses since the Olympic break, the team has been outscored 83-115 in the fourth quarter.
Now ninth in the standings, the Mystics are knocking on the door of a playoff berth, but they have a tough schedule going forward. If they can get some wins and teams above them record some losses, the playoffs are still a possibility.
This week: CON, @MIN
11. Atlanta Dream
Previous ranking: 11
At one point, the Dream were 5-6 and appeared to have some hope. Now they're on a 10-game losing streak, and though they haven't been officially eliminated from the playoff race yet, the 2021 postseason is out of the picture. Going forward, they should focus on what good can come from 2021, and apply it to 2022.
One of those good things is Courtney Williams. The 2021 All-Star is averaging a career-high 15.9 PPG, 6.5 RPG and 4.2 APG. Tiffany Hayes, who returned from an MCL injury, averaged 14.6 PPG, 2.9 RPG and 2.9 APG in just 14 games.
Building around Williams and Hayes will only propel Atlanta's offense going forward, especially if it gets top scorer Chennedy Carter -- still suspended indefinitely since July for conduct detrimental to the team -- back. It can also continue to develop 2021 No. 3 overall pick Aari McDonald, who has had a handful of double-digit scoring games.
Atlanta must work on both offense (98.3, ninth in the league) and defense (105.3, second worst) to compete with the league's deeper teams.
This week: @DAL, @DAL
12. Indiana Fever
Previous ranking: 12
Though the Fever have won only five games this season and may soon be out of playoff contention, they have seen a few successes, including upsets over the Sun and the Wings. In those narrow victories, Danielle Robinson (9.9 PPG, 3.7 APG, 3.5 RPG), Kelsey Mitchell (16.3 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 2.3 APG) and Teaira McCowan (11.1 PPG, 8.9 RPG) all were bright spots.
Hopefully Indiana will focus on building depth around them. It will also see the return of its 2021 lottery pick, Kysre Gondrezick, who stepped away from the team for personal reasons late in the season.
This week they face teams that are going to be playing their best basketball in order to get a playoff berth. Watching the way those teams move the ball or defend are just two of the lessons the Fever can take with them into 2022.
This week: LA, PHO