And then there were three. The Minnesota Lynx and Phoenix Mercury clinched postseason berths this week, joining the playoff-bound Connecticut Sun, Las Vegas Aces and Seattle Storm. The top eight teams advance to the 2021 WNBA playoffs, and five teams are vying for those final three playoff spots. With just over two weeks remaining in the regular season, the playoff race has hit full stride.
Some teams are riding unbelievable momentum. The Sun have won nine consecutive games to take over the top spot in the WNBA standings, while the Mercury have won seven straight to move into the hunt for a first-round playoff bye. How have these streaks impacted the rest of the league, and how will they translate for Connecticut and Phoenix for the rest of the season?
Our panel -- ESPN's Kevin Pelton and Mechelle Voepel, and The Undefeated's Sean Hurd -- tackle both questions. We also examine how far the Chicago Sky might go this season, and revisit the "to tank or not to tank" debate and how it applies to the last-place Atlanta Dream and Indiana Fever.
How has Phoenix turned around its season? How far do you see the Mercury going in the playoffs?
Mechelle Voepel: Diana Taurasi recently said, "There was this sense of confidence even going into the Olympic break that if we could get healthy and all on the court together that we'd be able to turn it around a little bit. And we've always been a second-half team. That didn't worry me. But the way we're playing just shows confidence in each other, that we had a rough start and we're starting to figure things out."
That sums things up well. Taurasi has so much experience; she knew that the second half of the season could make all the difference for the Mercury, and so far it has. The Mercury went 4-7 from June 8 through July 11, the last day before the Olympic break. That period included one of the more lifeless games they've ever played at home, a 99-68 loss to Minnesota on July 3.
But that defeat seemed to flip the switch. Four days after being routed by the Lynx, Phoenix won at Las Vegas behind a fantastic game from Brittney Griner (33 points, 10 rebounds, five assists), who was equally good two days later in beating Seattle (29, 15, 2). Skylar Diggins-Smith was just as good in those two games, tallying a combined 53 points and 14 assists. The Mercury lost at Seattle in their last game before the break, but there was a strong sense things were back on track.
Because of injury, Taurasi played in just four games between May 21 and the break. So much of the struggles and figuring-out process the Mercury went through was without her on the floor. Having her back post-break has made the difference you would expect. She has talked a lot about how no one person can do it all, but she is one person who can help every teammate do things better.
As for Diggins-Smith, her play is reflected in something she said about the Mercury's mindset: "We're desperate right now." Diggins-Smith came to Phoenix because she wanted to be in the heat of a playoff race, with a lot on the line. She seems to be at her best the more pressure that is on her.
Let's face it: She would have liked to have played more in the Olympics, which is understandable. She's a competitor. But she has channeled all that into a fierce drive for the Mercury. When you add in what Brianna Turner (7.9 PPG, 9.4 RPG) brings and the contributions from the rest of the supporting cast, the Phoenix are now right in the thick of the championship chase.
Sean Hurd: So often we hear about how important it is for a team to peak at the right time, and that appears to be happening for Phoenix, which haven't lost a game since returning from the Olympic break. The Big Three continues to be the core that leads this group. Griner (20.6 PPG, 9.6 RPG) is having an MVP-level season, Diggins-Smith has averaged an incredible 24.8 points, 7.2 assists, 4.5 rebounds in her last four games, and the return of a healthy Taurasi makes this team extremely dangerous.
We've also seen other players step up during this streak. When Griner was out with an ankle injury against New York on Aug. 27, Kia Vaughn stepped in and contributed nine points and 11 rebounds. Against Chicago, Kia Nurse had 21 points and five rebounds. Turner has put forth another strong year in the frontcourt.
Phoenix is also getting it done defensively. Over this seven-game streak, the Mercury have the second-best defensive rating in the league.
Three of the Mercury's last six games are against the league's bottom two teams in Indiana (two) and Atlanta. But their final three games will come against Connecticut, Las Vegas and Seattle. How Phoenix closes the regular season, particularly against the top third of the league, could lend some insight into its potential for a long postseason run.
Have the Sun become the favorites to win the 2021 title? And how have they climbed to the top without injured Alyssa Thomas?
Hurd: It's hard to pick against a team that has won 13 of its last 14 games, including all seven since the Olympic break. Six of those seven victories were by at least 10 points, including two double-digit victories over the Lynx and a 14-point win over the Aces.
When a team misses a player of Alyssa Thomas' ability, it helps to have an MVP candidate in Jonquel Jones and two other All-Stars in DeWanna Bonner and Brionna Jones that can fill the frontcourt. The Sun frontcourt all rank in the top 16 in scoring, rebounds and steals this season. Brionna Jones' incredible jump, which really is adding on to the jump she made last season in the absence of Jonquel Jones in the bubble, has lightened that frontcourt deficit left by Thomas.
The Connecticut defense, statistically the best in the league, has been terrific. All five of Connecticut's starters rank in the top six in defensive rating for players averaging at least 15 minutes. One key defensively has been the Sun's ability to limit opponents on the offensive glass. They have the lowest opponent offensive rebound rate in the league. For example, Dallas -- which ranks first in the league at 10.1 offensive rebounds per game -- grabbed just one against Connecticut in a loss on Aug. 15. During this seven-game streak, no opponent has posted an offensive rebound percentage greater than 16 percent.
Voepel: It's strange to think that the Sun could be an even bigger threat for the title this year without Alyssa Thomas than they were in 2020 with her. But it has been a case of "next Terp up," with fellow Maryland grad Brionna Jones building on last year's breakthrough season. Jonquel Jones is also having an MVP-caliber year, and now opponents are struggling to -- you guessed it -- keep up with the Joneses.
Sean mentioned how good Connecticut's defense is, and that has been a hallmark of coach Curt Miller's Sun teams. Second-chance points are killers, and Connecticut is adept at limiting their opponents that way. And while the Sun franchise doesn't have a title, DeWanna Bonner and Briann January have WNBA championship experience.
A concern is how much the Sun rely on their starting five, who all average at least 30 minutes per game. No other team in the league has more than three players who average 30 minutes per game. Among the other top five teams, the Aces and the Storm each have two, and the Mercury and Lynx have three. If the Sun have the double-bye into the postseason semifinals -- which they are in good position now to get -- it will help. But you wonder if fatigue could get to Connecticut at some point.
Pelton: Like Mechelle, I've been concerned about the Connecticut depth all season, in particular what happens if one of those starters goes down with an injury. Now that the Sun have made it through the bulk of the schedule unscathed, and might be able to rest starters in the season's final week by clinching the No. 1 seed, that's less of an issue. And the top-heavy roster could even work in Connecticut's favor in the playoffs when teams rely more heavily on starters. I'm picking the Sun to win it all.
With three consecutive road wins, Chicago looked like it had put all the pieces together, but has since lost two straight. What is the Sky's ceiling?
Voepel: The Sky's two victories in Seattle last week showed Chicago's best. Courtney Vandersloot seemed more aggressive as a shooter, while still compiling 18 assists in those games. Candace Parker had 25 points, nine rebounds and three assists in one of the victories over the Storm. Diamond DeShields showed her value as a scorer and defender. Kahleah Cooper had a combined 39 points in victories against Seattle.
Yet Parker was pragmatic afterward, saying how the Sky couldn't get too giddy about it because the road ahead was still so tough. That proved true when they were thumped 103-83 at Phoenix on Tuesday, and then lost 90-83 at Las Vegas on Thursday. The good news for the Sky is that after a terrible first quarter when they trailed the Aces by 17 points, they pretty much won the rest of the game. But it wasn't enough for an actual victory.
The Sky (14-14) are back at .500 and in that middle ground: They're not quite the title contenders the five teams above them are, but they're better than the six below. With four more games -- two against the Aces -- Chicago still has time to build some momentum toward the postseason.
And you never know what's going to happen, especially injury-wise. The Lynx have won four in a row but have lost Damiris Dantas (foot) for the season, and Layshia Clarendon (leg) is out indefinitely. The Aces -- who play at Chicago on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, ABC) -- have won five of six since the Olympic break, but Liz Cambage (COVID-19) and Dearica Hamby (ankle) missed Thursday's game.
The Sky have to keep plugging and hope they can be more the team that came back against the Aces, not the one that fell so far behind.
Pelton: In Sunday's 32-point rout of Seattle, Chicago shot 15-of-22 on 3-pointers, the best accuracy in the WNBA this season. We knew it was going to be hard for Chicago to sustain that. The Sky then shot 6-of-20 in Tuesday's blowout loss in Phoenix and 8-of-24 in Thursday's loss to Las Vegas.
I was more impressed by Friday's win, when Chicago accomplished more with tough defense and Kahleah Copper was repeatedly able to get to the basket on the dribble. Chicago can't be counted out in a one-and-done situation -- possibly a rematch in Seattle -- but I don't think the Sky are a likely contender to reach the Finals.
What should fans of the Dream (6-20) and Fever (6-19) be hoping to see the rest of the season?
Pelton: Losses, honestly. As Richard Cohen highlighted earlier this week on HerHoopStats.com, the battle for the top spot in the 2021 lottery -- based on wins over the past two seasons -- has tightened up with Indiana's late surge. That's the difference between a 44% chance of getting the No. 1 pick for the top seed and 28% for the second seed. Ahead of a draft that will likely have a true difference-maker in Kentucky forward Rhyne Howard, every loss counts.
Voepel: A couple of people have mentioned to me, "At this point, shouldn't the Fever just be tanking?" I think if any team were to do that, it could create bad mojo. When you actively stop trying to compete, it's like allowing something toxic into the team. Obviously, the debate over tanking goes on in every sport. Some franchises do it but insist they aren't doing it -- as it sure seemed like the Mercury did in 2012, which helped them get No. 1 pick Brittney Griner the next year -- while other teams don't even try to hide it.
The Fever and the Dream seem in different places. Atlanta is a mess, and you hope the new ownership is prepared to do a lot of work and make big decisions in the offseason. Chennedy Carter has star talent, but at this point you have to be very concerned about her commitment to the Dream. If she's unhappy in Atlanta, maybe she's a bigger asset in a trade. Right now, who is really making personnel decisions for the Dream?
We know who is doing that for the Fever: general manager Tamika Catchings, with input from coach Marianne Stanley. We gave Indiana's 2021 draft a "D" grade, which has proven true so far -- with the caveat that the draft class as a whole has not been impactful.
The Fever always knew who they were from 2002 to 2016: They were Catchings' team. Different players orbited her over the years, but her fierce competitiveness and tireless defense always set the tone. Five years after her retirement as a player, the Fever still don't know who they are.
You can't commit to a youth movement yet give up on a No. 3 draft pick (Lauren Cox) after she has played just 25 total games (14 of those last year after having COVID-19). You can't get stuck waffling between the patience and pain of rebuilding and just trying anything to desperately crawl out of the cellar in the standings.
There is more than one impact player in next season's draft, but even the No. 1 pick won't solve the Fever's problems if they don't figure out an identity and then really stick to it.
Hurd: What a tough year it has been for the Atlanta Dream. Three head coaches in a single season, the indefinite exit of your future franchise player -- and to add fuel to the fire, Crystal Bradford, one of the great breakthrough stories of this WNBA season, is out for the season with a foot injury.
And yet, there is something for Dream fans to get excited about: The continued development of rookie guard Aari McDonald. With the team tied for last in the standings, the pressure is off McDonald, who can simply go out play her game and show why she was taken No. 3 in the draft. McDonald is playing some of her best basketball of the season down the stretch. She put together her best overall performance of the season against the Sparks on Aug. 19 with 15 points (4-of-8 on 3-point attempts), four rebounds, three assists and a steal. In her last five games, McDonald is shooting the ball the best she has all season over a five-game stretch at 44% from the field.