Playoff race heating up as WNBA regular season winds down

ByMechelle Voepel ESPN logo
Monday, August 6, 2018

The Mystics' Kristi Toliver staged a one-woman takeover of the Wings. The Sparks' Candace Parker hit 5,000 points and beyond. The Lynx followed the high of hosting the All-Star Game with a worrisome three-game losing streak. And the travel-weary Aces didn't play in one game, while their defense didn't show up for another.

That was this past weekend in the WNBA, which now has two weeks left in a regular season that ends Aug. 19. If you thought things weren't going to get any crazier, of course they did.

The Aces' decision to not play the Mystics on Friday after a 24-hour-plus travel saga getting to Washington, D.C., was the overriding news story of the weekend. That was followed by Las Vegas' 109-88 loss at Connecticut in which the Sun shot 59.7 percent, led by Jasmine Thomas' career-high 30 points. But while the Aces' issues dominated WNBA headlines, a lot else went on.

Seattle became the first team to clinch a playoff spot this season, riding high with another sellout crowd for Friday's 85-75 victory over Minnesota. At 22-7 after Monday's 96-80 matinee victory at New York, Seattle is edging closer to nailing down one of the all-important byes into the semifinals. The Storm lost in a first-round playoff game the past two years; with the double bye, they would not have to worry about any potential one-and-done scenarios.

The defending champion Lynx, on the other hand, are 15-13 and look to be headed to that early-round roll of the dice for the first time since the playoff format changed in 2016. On July 28, Minnesota celebrated a successful All-Star Game at Target Center in which Maya Moore was named MVP. There was some thought that both she and the Lynx could get a boost from that going into one of the more difficult stretches of their schedule.

But it didn't work out that way. Thursday, Minnesota had its lowest point total of the season in a 79-57 loss at Los Angeles. That was part of the dreaded back-to-back double on the road as the Lynx then lost in Seattle on Friday. They were back home in Minneapolis on Sunday, but it didn't help as they fell 86-66 to second-place Atlanta, and starting forward Rebekkah Brunson might have suffered a broken nose.

Moore's shooting has been an issue all season and that continued in this three-game stretch. In total, she was 10 of 29 (34.5 percent) from the field and 7 of 9 from the line while averaging 10.0 points per game.

Moore, who has shot 45.1 percent and averaged 18.3 points for her career, has been dealing with offensive inconsistency and frustration more this season than at any time in her eight years in the WNBA. She has career-low shooting percentages of 40.0 overall and 32.0 from 3-point range.

Moore is still averaging 17.4 PPG this year, almost identical to last year's championship season. But you also have to look at how everything going on around Moore has impacted her and the Lynx as a whole.

Sylvia Fowles' numbers are slightly down from her MVP season last year, but she's still playing at a very high level, averaging 17.1 points and 11.6 rebounds. Seimone Augustus' 10.6 PPG is nearly the same as last year, but her 3-point shooting percentage is 35.8, down from a near career high of 43.2 in 2017. Brunson is averaging 7.2 points to 10.2 last year, and Lindsay Whalen has career-low averages of 5.6 points and 3.1 assists.

And one of the Lynx's most effective reserves of the last two-and-a-half seasons, Renee Montgomery, is now a starter for the surging Dream, who at 18-10 are in second place and looking to secure a bye into the semifinals. Led by Tiffany Hayes' 28 points, Atlanta had an offensive rating of 119.4 on Sunday, compared with Minnesota's 91.7. The Lynx aren't getting the offense or defense they were used to in winning four of the last seven WNBA titles.

And the Lynx have to go right back on the road this week, visiting Chicago on Tuesday and Las Vegas on Thursday before hosting the Storm on Sunday.

Dallas, the team behind Minnesota in the standings, is struggling, too, losing five in a row. Sunday's defeat especially stung; it looked like the Wings were about to snap their losing streak until Toliver took over.

Dallas led 74-68 with 2 minutes left, but then Toliver scored the last eight points of the game to give the Mystics a 76-74 victory. She hit two 3-pointers and then a turnaround fadeaway with 1.4 seconds left that was the final dagger. She had also made a 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer that was one of those shots that came back to haunt the Wings. They've been without an injured Skylar Diggins-Smith for the past two games after she suffered a facial injury July 31.

The Wings (14-14) still have some cushion for the last playoff spot over the Aces, but Dallas has to get back in gear.

Los Angeles has definitely returned to form since the All-Star Game. It helps to have Nneka Ogwumike (illness) and Alana Beard (injury) return to the lineup. But also key is that All-Star captain Parker and her fellow All-Star Chelsea Gray have continued to play at such a high level.

The Sparks dominated in their win over Minnesota on Thursday, and then held on Sunday to a 78-75 victory over Phoenix. Parker had 14 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists against the Mercury, and crossed the 5,000-point plateau in the game (she's now at 5,010). Gray led Los Angeles with a season-high 24 points, securing the game with two free throws with 12 seconds left.

And now the Sparks, despite having lost five consecutive home games before the All-Star break, are in third place at 17-11 and still well in position to battle for the bye into the semifinals.

Yes, it has been that kind of season in the WNBA: several twists and turns that few could have predicted. It should be more of the same these last two weeks.