The Wings Make Their Move as Top Teams Step Up

With just three games left to play, the postseason picture is elusive as ever in the West. 

By Laura Fay

The Dallas Wings are on a tear, positioning themselves as the sixth seed and a true first-round upset threat. Meanwhile, their longtime mid-ranked compatriots need to find another gear, with both the Lynx and Mercury fighting tooth and nail for the last two playoff berths. The former is desperate to give Sylvia Fowles the sendoff she deserves—but their path may be blocked by Seattle’s pursuit of the same for Sue Bird. Meanwhile, locked into the top two, the Las Vegas Aces square up for control of the No. 1 seed. 

Aces Bounce Back in Two Tight Wins

For everything that has been said about the Las Vegas Aces this season, one thing is certain: they’re fighters. They only proved that further this week, bouncing back from a disappointing two-game losing streak to spoil Sue Bird’s Seattle send-off. 

A’ja Wilson was dominant throughout, but it was Chelsea Gray who answered the Storm’s runs late in the game. Whenever Seattle looked like they had a little momentum—mostly from a brilliant Breanna Stewart performance—Gray was there to hit a three and restore Vegas’s lead to two possessions. 

The win puts the Aces three games ahead of Seattle, and just one behind the league-leading Sky. The two face off on Thursday, with control of the No. 1 seed hanging in the balance. 

Kiah Stokes makes a block in the Aces’ victory over Atlanta on Tuesday / via Las Vegas Aces

With such an important game coming up, it should be interesting to see how coach Becky Hammon manages her rotations. The Aces’ starting five, which hasn’t changed all season, was disrupted on Sunday with Kiah Stokes getting the nod over Dearica Hamby. While Hamby’s production has slipped after a brilliant start to the season, it’s nonetheless an interesting move to make so close to playoffs. 

With the Aces’ bench continuing to be a weak spot in an otherwise star-studded lineup, it’s possible Hammon moved Hamby to the bench to act as a spark within the reserves. Unfortunately, it’s unclear yet whether she’ll be able to realize that role. 

Hamby went down with an apparent knee injury in the Aces’ tight win over Atlanta on Tuesday, and her recovery timeline is unknown. If she is unable to return this season, Vegas will be without their All-Star contributor heading into the postseason. 

Storm Search for Better Seattle Sendoff for Sue

Seattle is clearly annoyed about losing Sue Bird’s sendoff game, and took their frustration out on the Sky on Tuesday night. In a high-scoring battle for the ages, the Storm pulled off a 111–100 victory in a game that saw them break records all across the board. 

Powered by an electric 38-point first quarter, it felt like the Storm could do no wrong. Every difficult shot was connecting, and they pushed a rapid pace that threw Chicago off balance. 

Even after putting up one of the quarters of the season, they didn’t let up offensively—perhaps recalling that the Sky came back to beat the Aces after the latter scored 41 points in the first term. They matched the Sky for the rest of the way, weathering a third-quarter masterpiece by Kahleah Copper to walk away worthy victors. 

It felt like Seattle was playing for more than just the win—they were playing for pride. The Storm were outplayed by Las Vegas for all of Sunday’s matchup, a sour ending to a sold-out sendoff for Sue Bird. With only the postseason left to return to Climate Pledge, the Storm are doing all they can to secure home court advantage. 

One game ahead of the Mystics, the Storm only need to win one of their two last games to book a trip back to Seattle. With a date against Sylvia Fowles’s Lynx on Thursday, the Storm are in prime position to spoil another retiree’s last home game and seal up fourth place. 

Dallas is Playoff Bound, but Questions Remain

Dallas clinched a playoff seed on Monday, capping off a remarkable turnaround that saw them triumph in five games straight. 

We’ve dubbed the Wings as consistently inconsistent all season, and they looked ready to prove us right this weekend. After two straight victories over the Sky and Aces, they fell double-digits down to the 5–29 Fever—a team on a whopping 16-game losing streak. 

This isn’t the Dallas of old, however. Teaira McCowan has come alive in the past fortnight, scoring double-digits in her last eight games, including five double-doubles. Her dominance in the paint was unrivaled this week, with a 17pt/14reb outing sealing the win over Indiana and earning her Western player of the week honors. 

Guard Marina Mabrey has also found new life. With Arike Ogunbowale missing games, Mabrey’s production and efficiency has skyrocketed. The career 40.5% field goal shooter is hitting an even 50% of her shots and has now recorded four straight double-digit performances. With a 31-point haul against the Liberty on Monday, she set a new career high. 

Dallas is clicking, but there’s one huge elephant in the room. They’re doing it without Arike Ogunbowale, the franchise star, raising questions about her impact on the team. There’s no question Ogunbowale is a prolific scorer, but she is prone to poor shot selection and is unreliable on defense—she has a 107.5 defensive rating in the 2022 season. For comparison, the defensive rating of the league-worst Fever is 107.8. 

Ogunbowale also acts as the team’s shooting guard—a position also played by Marina Mabrey. When Ogunbowale is on the court, Mabrey is shifted to playing point guard, despite it being a suboptimal role for her. As her shooting numbers in the last week suggest, she is deadly in her natural position. 

None of this is to say the Wings are faultless without Ogunbowale—a blown lead and loss to the Liberty on Tuesday makes that clear. Still, with Ogunbowale sidelined until the second round of the playoffs with a hip injury, coach Vickie Johnson will have to adjust around their missing star. Only time will tell how her absence will affect Dallas’s postseason campaign.

Setbacks Spur Strength for Resilient Mercury

The 2022 season has been nothing short of a mess for Phoenix. The emotional toll of Brittney Griner’s continued detainment is omnipresent over the group, and their player list has gotten thinner with each game. Just this week, it was announced that a quad strain would end Diana Taurasi’s season, despite her absence initially appearing precautionary. 

But with everything stacked against them, the Mercury have rallied. A 78–62 win over the Liberty has them clinging to the eighth playoff seed, with a two-game run home to come. 

Despite missing Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith (illness), Phoenix locked the game away early as New York struggled to get any offensive rhythm going. Diamond DeShields returned strong from injury with 25 points, while Shey Peddy had a career-high 20. Sophie Cunningham’s 18 points capped off the makeshift Big Three. It’s a far cry from the superteam envisioned in the preseason, but this Mercury side isn’t going down without a fight. 

Still, fight can’t win every battle. In a loss to the Lynx on Wednesday, the team’s disconnection was laid bare—their ball movement failed to translate into high percentage shots, and a deep Minnesota team punished their inexperience. 

To make matters worse, on Wednesday Phoenix announced that Skylar Diggins-Smith, the team’s leading scorer, would sit out the last two games of the regular season due to personal reasons. The detainment of Brittney Griner has been omnipresent over Phoenix’s entire season and has only become more raw with the news of her sentencing last week. Diggins-Smith in particular has been open about the emotional toll playing has been for her, and we hope she takes all the time necessary to recover.  

While the Mercury will hopefully have a refreshed and renewed Diggins-Smith come playoff time, first they need to make it that far. Phoenix hosts Dallas and Chicago to end the season—both teams with something to play for. It certainly won’t be a cakewalk, but this Mercury team seems bent on defying the odds. 

Lynx Regain Collier and their Hope for a Finals Berth

With matchups against the playoff-hungry Mercury and two top-four sides to close out the regular season, it’s now well and truly crunch time for the Minnesota Lynx. 

Minnesota has had a tough go of it this season. After a miserable 3–13 start, they’ve miraculously gone better than .500 to close out the year. With two games to play, the former cellar-dwellers have hope of closing out the season strong. 

One great sign for the Lynx is the return of Napheesa Collier, who returned to action this week less than three months after giving birth and provided an instant spark offensively. Collier had 11pts/5reb against the Mercury, while Aerial Powers returned from injury for 14 points off the bench. Now with six starter-caliber players, Minnesota isn’t a team anyone wants to see on their run home. 

The Lynx also have everything to play for. Like Seattle, they want the best possible sendoff for their veteran leader—and if Sylvia Fowles’ sendoff is anything like Sue Bird’s, the energy in Target Center on Thursday will be electric. 

Capping off the night with a win will still be a tall order—especially against a Seattle squad looking to seal home-court advantage. Still, this is the healthiest Lynx squad we’ve seen all season and if there ever was a time to show out, it’s now. 

Directionless Sparks Face Tough Run Home

Saying that it’s been a rough two weeks for the Sparks feels like an understatement. Since making a playoff push that had them as the eighth seed, Los Angeles has now lost seven of their last eight games, had Liz Cambage depart the team, and, as if adding insult to injury, been forced to spend the night in the airport after a canceled flight. 

After their travel fiasco, Los Angeles played a home game that, judging by their performance, felt like a road one. The Sparks were run off the court by Connecticut from start to finish, failing to win even a single quarter. Reigning MVP Jonquel Jones put up another brilliant performance, and double-digit hauls from four other Sun players were clearly too much for LA to withstand. 

If fans thought a hard-fought yet controversial win over the Mystics could give the Sparks some momentum, they were wrong. With the surging Dallas Wings and a rematch with the Sun still to come, Los Angeles has one of the toughest runs home and lots of ground to make up. While they’re not technically eliminated from the playoffs yet, everything would have to go right for the Sparks to steal the eighth seed. 

Still, trying for the playoffs is a better bet than tanking for the draft. Barring trading away stars for draft picks, the Sparks don’t have a first-round pick next year—they traded it to Atlanta for Chennedy Carter. Carter’s minutes per game have plummeted with Los Angeles, despite being productive in the time she does get, and for the last week she’s been entirely benched. While there is clearly something happening behind the scenes, losing what will likely become a top-four pick for someone coach Fred Williams refuses to play is a poor trade-off for Los Angeles. 

With a rebuild on hold for at least another year, Sparks fans will have to hope for a miracle if they want to make the postseason.

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