Which teams have momentum with the WNBA playoffs just around the corner? Which games will have the most impact on the playoff race in the final week of the 2021 WNBA regular season?
Six of eight postseason berths are locked up. But teams will be jockeying for seeds and the final two playoff spots right through the Sept. 19 regular-season finales. Our panel -- ESPN's Kelly Cohen, Doug Kezirian, Dana Lee, Kevin Pelton and Mechelle Voepel -- discusses which teams might earn byes in the playoffs, who might meet in the WNBA Finals and which squads have what it takes to pull an upset in the first or second rounds.
If the season ended today, the Dallas Wings (12-17) and New York Liberty (11-18) would clinch the final two playoff bids. But the Washington Mystics (10-18) are just one-half game out of eighth place, and the Los Angeles Sparks (10-18) are one game behind the LIberty.
So buckle up and keep a close eye on the WNBA standings as the countdown to the regular-season finish line nears. The 2021 WNBA playoffs open Sept. 23.
With two playoff berths still up for grabs and seeds far from set, which teams, storylines and games are you focusing on with a week to go in the regular season?
Mechelle Voepel: Momentum can change quickly in the WNBA and then reverse again just as quickly. So which teams among the 5- through 8-seeds that get and keep momentum over the next week-plus will be of interest.
It's not that the top of the standings isn't intriguing. But the two teams that get the double bye and automatically advance to the semifinals won't be seen for a little while as the first and second rounds play out. The 5-8 seeds have the toughest odds of making it to the WNBA Finals, but they have the chance to disrupt things in regard to what semifinals matchups we will get.
Since the last week of June, the only teams that the Minnesota Lynx have lost to are Connecticut (twice) and Las Vegas. The Lynx now have three consecutive games against the Indiana Fever and then finish at Washington. So Minnesota has a pretty good chance to climb into the top four, especially since the Seattle Storm and the Phoenix Mercury -- who have won 10 in a row -- still have to play each other. And even if the Lynx don't do that, they should still take some momentum into the postseason.
I think we all want to see how strong Seattle looks in closing the regular season. The Storm have had uneven results post-break, and now we'll see how healthy and confident they are. Seattle finishes with Los Angeles and Phoenix, with the latter matchup catching our eye also because we just can't know how many more times we have to see Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi on court together.
Doug Kezirian: The playoff push is clearly the storyline that resonates most. The WNBA has separated itself from the NBA with a playoff format that rewards higher seeds. Thus, we do not see load management or disinterested play. The top teams are all making a push and trying to gain a bye or two, which makes for some compelling games down the stretch.
I am also keeping an eye on the Fever. For any sports bettor paying attention, this team has been an absolute cash machine since mid-June. Indiana has covered the point spread in 11 of its last 14 games. That's impressive, considering the results are supposed to be around 50%. The Fever are figuring out some things and outperforming expectations, which is particularly good to see for a team that started the season by losing 16 of its first 17 games.
Kevin Pelton: As interesting as the races are for third, fourth and fifth, ultimately the biggest factor in what's going to happen in the WNBA playoffs is who gets the second double bye given that the two teams that automatically advance to the semifinals have gone 9-1 since the format change. Las Vegas took a huge step toward locking up the No. 2 seed with Wednesday's win over Minnesota. As long as the Aces win their next two games (home against Dallas and at the Chicago Sky), they'll clinch before their regular-season finale at Phoenix.
Kelly Cohen: I'm excited to see how the top teams close out the season. The Aces wrap up the regular season with three big games against teams that desperately need wins: Dallas, Chicago and Phoenix. Can Las Vegas carry its momentum into the playoffs, or did the Aces peak too soon? Defending champion Seattle, which has struggled offensively -- specifically from 3-point range -- since the Olympic break, is just 5-5 in its last 10 games. The Storm have two games left: at Los Angeles and against Phoenix. Can the Storm get in some fine-tuning before the postseason arrives?
Dana Lee: I'm here for all the last-minute chaos, and since most of the group has already addressed the top half of the league, I'm interested in what Washington does. Currently, the Wings and Liberty are slotted at seventh and eighth, respectively, in the standings. The Mystics are only half a game back from New York, which is on a six-game losing streak. It's certainly a position the Mystics have faced before. Last season, the team just eked into the playoffs, all while missing Elena Delle Donne, Tina Charles and Natasha Cloud. Charles returned to the lineup late last week, and despite scoring only four points in a loss against the Storm, the veteran remains the team's biggest chance to reach a fifth straight playoffs.
The two hottest teams in the league meet Saturday when Phoenix faces Connecticut. Could it be a preview of the WNBA Finals?
Kezirian: Give these two squads credit for cranking it up lately, but let's not overlook the friendly reminder the Aces and Storm each provided in their most recent wins. Las Vegas handled the Lynx and did so without Liz Cambage, who is in COVID-19 protocols. The Storm finally lived up to their potential and dropped 105 points in a blowout win. Perhaps they've just been bored by the regular season and awaiting the playoffs?
Based on the betting market, the Storm, Aces and Sun are tri-favorites, with each having championship odds slightly shorter than 3-to-1. The Mercury are still considered longshots at 12-1, and that's because they likely will not get the advantage of two byes, but they might get one. It's worth noting that not only has Phoenix won 10 straight, but entering Wednesday's game, when they played without Brittney Griner (out for personal reasons) and Diana Taurasi (ankle), the Mercury led the WNBA in offensive rating and net rating since the Olympic break. The Mercury could very well reach the Finals and face the Sun, who have looked exceptional since Jonquel Jones returned. The one-two punch of her and DeWanna Bonner is pretty special. However, the Aces and Storm are still elite, and Minnesota's best is as good as anyone's. It's shaping up to be a great playoffs.
Pelton: It's worth keeping in mind how favorably the schedule has broken for Phoenix. Somehow the Mercury have won 10 in a row while beating only one of the six teams that has clinched a playoff spot (Chicago, the likely 6-seed). Even after we adjust for opponent, Phoenix has still played better in this stretch, but over the course of the season the Mercury's point differential isn't in the same ballpark as the top three teams Doug mentioned. They're favored for good reason.
Voepel: You have to be so impressed with what we've seen from the Sun and Mercury post-Olympic break. We mentioned a concern last week about the Sun's lack of depth, but they don't seem concerned about it. The Mercury's comeback victory Wednesday over the Atlanta Dream without Griner or Taurasi was a testament to their ability to dig deep.
That said, Las Vegas and Seattle are right there, too, and Minnesota remains in the mix as well. I lean a little more toward Connecticut-Las Vegas as the favorite for the WNBA Finals matchup, but the fact that we legitimately can see several different possibilities is exciting.
Cohen: I'm most interested in what we might be able to take away from Saturday's matchup. There is definitely more to gain for the Mercury, who -- as Kevin pointed out -- have beaten only one of the teams ahead of them in the standings during their 10-game winning streak. Phoenix had to really work to beat Atlanta on Wednesday without Griner and Taurasi. So a win Saturday could really put the rest of the league on notice that the Mercury are super-hot at exactly the right time of the season.
I'm also intrigued about the offensive and defensive matchup. We know the Sun have the best defense in the league -- wow, are they fun to watch. But the surging Mercury rank fourth in the WNBA at 82.4 PPG. Griner is expected to be back after a one-game absence, and Taurasi could return as well. Something's got to give on Saturday night. Will it be Phoenix's offense or Connecticut's defense?
Lee: Currently, FiveThirtyEight gives the Sun a 72% chance of reaching the finals, while the Mercury are only 17% likely to make it that far. The Aces, Lynx and Storm all have higher odds. Do with that what you will. It's not an insult to the Mercury, who have set a franchise record with this 10-game winning streak, but an indicator of how good the other three teams are. If Taurasi misses Saturday's game, it would be hard to call this a true preview of a potential Finals matchup given how crucial she is to the Mercury's success.
Dallas and New York meet Saturday. In the current standings, they're both bound for the playoffs. Which team has a greater chance of winning a postseason game?
Kezirian: I do not give either a chance against whichever team ends up with the fifth seed, but I can see Dallas upsetting Chicago, assuming that's how it shakes out. The Sky lean on Candace Parker a great deal, so the Wings certainly have enough firepower if Parker is human or they just play really well. Dallas has shown some solid flashes with Arike Ogunbowale leading the way.
For whatever reason, I always find myself disappointed in New York. Maybe I just expect too much from 2020 No. 1 draft pick Sabrina Ionescu and got teased with her exceptional buzzer-beater in the opener. At the end of the day, I think her limited quickness inhibits her game too much at this level. Consequently, the Liberty look disjointed on offense far too often and their core players don't really seem to know their roles or how they all fit together. The Liberty have lost nine of 10 for a reason. I just cannot see them all of a sudden flipping the switch and winning a postseason game.
Pelton: I'm with Doug; I think the Liberty are first-round fodder if they do make the playoffs by virtue of Los Angeles and Washington being unable to take advantage of New York's slide. Amazingly, the Liberty's minus-7.2 point differential ranks 11th of the 12 WNBA teams, behind 7-21 Atlanta (-5.4). Meanwhile, Dallas' minus-0.4 differential is better than the Wings' 12-17 record and would typically translate into something more like 14 wins.
Cohen: Both the Wings and the Liberty have been on the struggle bus since returning from the Olympic break, with the latter having won just once in their last 10 games.
I have consistently praised the Wings this season, mostly because of Ogunbowale. She has the ability to hit a shot from anywhere. I think the Wings will make it to the playoffs, but I'm not sure if the Liberty will advance.
The Mystics' chances of reaching the postseason got harder Thursday with the news that Delle Donne might not return this season. Still, I could see Washington sneaking in now that Tina Charles is back from injury.
The Wings are currently seventh, which would match them against the Sky in the first round. Dallas went 2-1 against Chicago this season, and I could see Dallas winning that matchup in the playoffs. In a July matchup between the two teams, Candace Parker had 22 points but the Wings still beat the Sky thanks to 46 combined points from Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey. In August, Ogunbowale dropped 10 points in the second half to secure the win. Though both wins were by single digits, the Wings can upset the Sky if they can get their offense going.
Lee: Kelly put it best: It has been a struggle for the Liberty and Wings. I'm not terribly confident in either team locking in a playoff win, but like the rest of the group, give an edge to the Wings.
Voepel: We're all in agreement that neither team seems likely to win a playoff game if they make the postseason. But considering the Liberty won two games last year, even tasting 40 minutes of the postseason would mean something. And while New York is young, Dallas is even younger, so any playoff experience is better than nothing. Nine of the Wings' 12 players are 26 or younger, and only two current Wings players were on the roster when the franchise last made the playoffs in 2018: Allisha Gray and Kayla Thornton.