The WNBA has been split into its top five and everybody else for a while. The defending champion Chicago Sky, the Las Vegas Aces, the Connecticut Sun, the Seattle Storm and the Washington Mystics already have secured their playoff berths. Now with six teams competing for the three spots left -- the Indiana Fever are in spoiler mode -- every game has a heavier feel to it.
In truth, it's starting to feel like five teams going for two spots. Things are looking good for the sixth-place Dallas Wings. They go into the weekend on a high, coming off back-to-back victories over the Sky and the Aces, the league's current top two teams.
Dallas has won four of its past five games and is 15-16. The franchise has finished at .500 or better just once since moving from Detroit after the 2009 season. That was in its last of six seasons in Tulsa, when it went 18-16 in 2015. The next year, the team moved to Dallas and has made three playoff appearances since, including last season, but lost its first-round game each time.
The Wings have had some rough patches this season, including losing six of seven during a stretch from late May to mid June. But Dallas' March trade with Indiana for center Teaira McCowan and a first-round draft pick, which became be guard Veronica Burton, has turned out well for Dallas.
It took a little while for McCowan, the No. 3 overall pick in 2019, to get warmed up; she didn't score in double figures until June 12. But she has now done that in 10 of her past 14 games, including the past five in a row.
"I'm proud of Big T -- the way she's performing is huge," Dallas coach Vickie Johnson said after McCowan's 21 points and 16 rebounds Thursday against the Aces.
Burton and Tyasha Harris both have stepped forward the past two games to help make up for the absence of star guard Arike Ogunbowale, who has an ankle injury. No one would have predicted that the Wings would beat the Sky and Aces with Ogunbowale sidelined, but that's what makes playoff races exciting.
How teams compete over the next 10 days will make the difference between moving on to the postseason -- which this year is back to having a full series in every round instead of single-elimination games in the first two rounds -- and being in the draft lottery.
Let's take a look at what is at stake in this weekend's games, both for teams trying to secure a playoff spot and those that are already in the postseason but that want to maintain or improve their seeding.
Sparks at Dream; Mystics at Sky: There's no way to sugarcoat it: The Los Angeles Sparks' season has taken a nosedive, as they have lost five in a row. According ESPN's BPI projections, Los Angeles' hopes of making the postseason have fallen to 10.3%. If the Sparks miss the playoffs, it will be the first time since the WNBA's first two seasons -- 1997-98 -- that Los Angeles has done that two years in a row. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Dream are projected to have a 56.2% chance of getting a playoff berth. That might seem high for a team that has lost seven of its past 10, but at 13-18, the Dream and the Liberty currently claim the last two playoff spots. Atlanta has not been in the postseason since 2018.
Washington has the same 20-12 record as Seattle and has played well since the All-Star Game, winning six of eight. Elena Delle Donne has had a lot to do with that, but she won't be traveling to Chicago as part of her rest regimen. The Sky are coming off a loss to Dallas, but they have won seven of nine since the All-Star Game. Chicago has five games left, four against teams that also have already clinched their playoff spots. The Sky, of course, are playing to have home-court advantage throughout the postseason.
Fever at Wings; Liberty at Mercury:
Johnson made it clear that the last thing the Wings are doing is overlooking Indiana, even if the Fever have lost 15 games in a row. Indiana has five games left, two of them against the Wings. Dallas started a four-game home stand Thursday against the Aces, and this game against Indiana is one that the Wings simply can't let get away.
The Mercury finish the regular season with four games in Phoenix at Footprint Center, where they are 9-5 vs. 4-14 on the road. After an emotional loss at Connecticut on Thursday following the news of Brittney Griner's sentencing in Russia, Phoenix needs a strong finish to make the playoffs. The odds are with the Mercury, who are projected to have a 62.7% chance at the postseason.
Diana Taurasi (right quad) didn't play Thursday, the first game she has missed this season.
"She is day to day; we're hopeful to get her back soon," Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said. "We are happy to be returning to Phoenix. We have played much better at home than we have on the road this season. Three of the games are against teams we're competing with for those final playoff spots."
That includes Saturday's opponent, the New York Liberty, who have gone about resurrecting their playoff hopes by winning three in a row and four of their last five. That has moved the Liberty's playoff odds up to 48.2%.
Sun at Sky; Sparks at Mystics; Aces at Storm; Dream at Lynx: The doubleheader on ABC starts at 1 p.m. ET with Connecticut-Chicago, followed by Las Vegas-Seattle. The latter will be Sue Bird's last regular-season home game after 19 seasons with the Storm, and it is a sellout. The Aces right now have the second-best chance to win the league title according to BPI (28%), but they're coming off back-to-back losses before walking into Sunday's Bird nostalgia show.
Which team projects as most likely to win the championship? The Sun at 34.5%. Connecticut, tied with Las Vegas at 22-10 in the WNBA standings, is seeking its first league title, as are the Aces. The Sun had the league's best record last season but then were defeated in the semifinal by Chicago. They Sky have continued to have Connecticut's number this season, winning their first three matchups.
The Sparks, as mentioned, have been fading fast and have to take on the Mystics, who have been going the opposite direction. Los Angeles will be finishing a stretch of six of seven on the road.
Lastly, the Minnesota Lynx -- who had to endure a fast break clinic at Seattle on Wednesday -- are 12-20 with just four games left. Minnesota has not missed the playoffs since 2010, but the Lynx have just a 25.9% chance of making the postseason this year, according to projections.