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Handicapping the 2022 WNBA playoff race with a month left in the regular season

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Aerial Powers hits circus and-1 to ice game for Lynx in 2OT (0:27)

The Lynx take a commanding lead in double overtime after Aerial Powers connects on an acrobatic shot despite being fouled. (0:27)

With the 2022 WNBA regular season two-thirds complete, five teams have established themselves as postseason shoe-ins and, in some cases, clear championship contenders. But the jostling between the six others vying for the final three playoff spots -- the Atlanta Dream, Los Angeles Sparks, Dallas Wings, Phoenix Mercury, New York Liberty and Minnesota Lynx -- is where the league's highest-stakes competition lies over the next four weeks.

That became more clear Tuesday night, when Minnesota's double-overtime win over the Mercury and losses by the Sparks, Dream, Liberty and Wings allowed the Lynx to pull within 1.5 games of a playoff spot. Now, those six teams are all within 1.5 games of one another in the WNBA standings with between 11 and 13 contests remaining to secure a postseason berth.

The regular season wraps up Aug. 14, with the first round of the playoffs -- under a new format this season -- opening Aug. 17 with four best-of-three series to determine the semifinalists.

Which teams are most likely to reach the WNBA playoffs?

Through Tuesday's games, the Wings (70.0%), Mercury (55.0%) and Sparks (54.7%) were projected to make the postseason, according to ESPN's BPI.

The Dream (54.2%) weren't too far behind Los Angeles, and the Lynx (48.3%) weren't too far off, either. But the Liberty had by far the worst prospects of any team currently in contention at 17.8%.

What is each team's path to the postseason -- and does the eye test reflect the BPI?

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Kristi Toliver drains the 3 for the Sparks

Kristi Toliver drains the 3 for the Sparks

The Liberty and Lynx remain in 10th and 11th place, respectively, but have been two of the hottest teams in the league over the past few weeks, while the Dream and Wings cooled off following strong starts. Los Angeles and Phoenix never fully seemed to establish themselves as surefire playoff teams and have dealt with plenty of unexpected disruption, with the Sparks firing coach Derek Fisher midseason and 2012 MVP Tina Charles taking a buyout to sign with the Storm last month.

Behind its recent bout of success, Minnesota now has the best season-long net rating of the mid-tier teams (minus-0.7, sixth in the league), followed by Dallas (minus-1.0), Atlanta (minus-2.7), Phoenix (minus-3.1), New York (minus-4.1) and Los Angeles (minus-6.5).

Will Dallas and the Liberty be able to build upon last season's postseason appearances? Will the Dream be able to exceed expectations and make their first postseason appearance since 2018? Will future Hall of Famer Sylvia Fowles extend her final season with a playoff run? Will the Mercury defy the odds after losing Charles and Brittney Griner, the Sparks after switching coaches midseason, to play in late August?

We'll find all that out and more in the weeks to come. Here's a team-by-team look at what the next month might hold.

Atlanta: The sixth-place Dream -- who finally got back Tiffany Hayes four games ago -- have the fewest games remaining against top teams (four) and have also done fairly well against the rest of the field, already owning the tiebreaker over Dallas. They are fifth in the league in net rating in the four games (in which they've gone 2-2) since Hayes' return.

Los Angeles: The No. 7 Sparks have had their share of injury issues and absences (most recently, Nneka Ogwumike and Chennedy Carter have missed time, though Ogwumike is expected back Thursday from a non-COVID-19 illness), but seven of their remaining 13 games will be at home.

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Cunningham's clutch triple sends Mercury, Lynx to OT

Sophie Cunningham drains a game-tying 3-pointer in the final seconds of regulation to send the game to overtime.

Dallas: The No. 8 Wings haven't had the best of luck either, with Satou Sabally playing only 11 games this season and listed as doubtful going into Thursday's matchup against the Lynx. The Wings are the only team with multiple matchups against the last-place Indiana Fever remaining, which can help Dallas rise in the standings if it takes care of business.

Phoenix: The ninth-place Mercury have the fewest road games left (three) but continue to operate with such a slim margin for error following Charles' departure. Phoenix has been boosted by standout play from Sophie Cunningham, including her 36-point performance Tuesday, but is that a sustainable recipe for success down the stretch?

New York While the No. 10 Liberty -- who are still awaiting the returns of Betnijah Laney and Jocelyn Willoughby -- kicked it into high gear in June, they don't have a ton of potentially easy games left, and are currently behind in or have already lost four series tiebreakers.

Minnesota: Finally healthy and potentially able to bring back Napheesa Collier as well, the No. 11 Lynx have won six of their past eight, but they play more .500 teams (six) than any other mid-tier squad and have a road-heavy final few weeks. Helping Minnesota's case is that it owns the series tiebreakers over Phoenix and New York.

Matchups between any of these teams will carry even greater weight these next few weeks, especially as tiebreakers are decided. New York and Atlanta have the most remaining games against the mid-tier teams (eight), while Los Angeles has seven.


Games of the week

Wings at Lynx (8 p.m. ET Thursday, Twitter): Crucial matchup for all the aforementioned playoff implications. Neither of the two previous games between these teams were particularly close, most recently with the Lynx demolishing the Wings 92-64 in late June. Will Sabally, who did not appear in that game, remain out for Dallas?

Aces at Sun (1 p.m. ET Sunday, ABC): A battle between the top two teams from May that have both hit some road bumps in June and early July. The Sun stole one game from their pair of matchups at Mandalay Bay on May 31 and June 2, and could use a win here to halt their recent slide in the standings, where they now sit at fourth behind the Sky, Aces and Storm.

Dream at Mercury (6 p.m. ET Sunday, Amazon Prime): Another tiebreaker is at stake in this game. Charles finished with 20 points and nine rebounds in Phoenix's win in the series on June 10. Hayes had yet to return from injury. After winning their first three games without Charles, the Mercury have dropped three of their past four, their sole win coming against the 10th-place Liberty, but they'll need to string together some wins to ward off the Liberty and Lynx.


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Skylar Diggins-Smith's buzzer-beater forces 2OT

The Mercury and Lynx head to double overtime after Skylar Diggins-Smith scoops it home at the buzzer.

Stat of the week

In the Chicago's 90-75 win over the Dream on Tuesday, 36-year-old Candace Parker became the oldest player in WNBA history to record a 30-point, 10-rebound game after finishing with 31 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals for the Sky. It was her highest-scoring game since July 2018.

Later that night, Phoenix and Minnesota churned out the first WNBA game since 2010 to feature three 30-point scorers in Cunningham (36), Aerial Powers (35) and Skylar Diggins-Smith (32). In a wild double-overtime battle that Minnesota won 118-107, Powers and Cunningham became just the third pair of opposing players to each drop 35 points in the same game.


Fantasy women's basketball picks

Who to start: The Lynx's Aerial Powers has helped fuel Minnesota's recent success and is fifth in the league in fantasy points over the past five games. She might have struggled early in the season but is a must-start now.

Cunningham, on whom the Mercury have had to lean even more now that Charles is gone, also has been on fire, coming in at No. 6 in fantasy points over the past five games. She's still rostered in less than 30% of leagues.

The Sparks' Lexie Brown and Brittney Sykes have also been good from a fantasy standpoint in recent games and should get a look as streaming options as L.A. makes a concerted push for the playoffs.

Who to sit: The Lynx's Bridget Carleton has seen her playing time dip as Minnesota has gotten healthier and healthier. Dallas' Isabelle Harrison has also seen her playing time go down, and should be benched.

Atlanta's AD Durr has cooled off after a strong initial few games with the Dream.