WNBA Power Rankings: Olympic Fatigue Is Real, and the Sun Are Taking Advantage

Jackie Powell@@classicjpowContributor IAugust 31, 2021

WNBA Power Rankings: Olympic Fatigue Is Real, and the Sun Are Taking Advantage

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Editor's note: Welcome back to Bleacher Report's WNBA power rankings, where we will examine the standings and happenings on and off the court each week. With three weeks left in the regular season, which teams are rising at the right time and which squads are waning down the stretch? Who's getting closer to locking up those first- and second-round byes, and who's letting a playoff spot slip away?

            

    One of the WNBA's main storylines leading into the first Commissioner's Cup a couple of weeks ago was how a team that had five players who competed in the Tokyo Olympics would look. While the Seattle Storm's Breanna Stewart didn't seem to feel any jet lag initially, the fatigue has hit her and her teammates, including Jewell Loyd, who hasn't missed any games. (Stewart and Sue Bird missed two games following the Cup to recuperate before returning Aug. 20 against the Liberty.) 

    How do we know the Storm's Olympic hangover has finally set in? Seattle has lost three straight, and the third was the fifth-worst loss in franchise history. But the Storm aren't alone; the Las Vegas Aces are in the same boat. A'ja Wilson hasn't looked like herself. In the past week she's shot under 40 percent. But the main difference for the Aces vs. the Storm is Vegas' strength of schedule hid its struggles. Playing the Atlanta Dream and the Indiana Fever after getting blown out by the Connecticut Sun allowed the Aces to catch their breath. 

    In addition to the recuperation of Olympian-heavy rosters, the heat is on for the eighth playoff spot. The Liberty are scraping to stay alive while the Los Angeles Sparks and Washington Mystics trail close behind.  

12. Can the Fever (5-19) Steal Some Games at Home? (↓ 1 Spot)

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    Stew Milne/Associated Press

    Before the Fever's only game this week against the Las Vegas Aces on Saturday, head coach Marianne Stanley remarked that guards Lindsay Allen and Danielle Robinson have been invaluable. "Both of them have really really helped us," she said. "They're smart, they know how to run a team. They don't turn the ball over."

    In the first quarter, the Fever kept pace with an Aces team that wasn't playing hard. Wilson wasn't her usual self, missing free throws and shooting 3-of-7 in the game. But after Robinson left the game with a sprained ankle with 1:48 left in the first, the Fever lost their focus, turning the ball over and allowing Vegas to score on turnovers.

    Even with a solid outing from Allen where she scored 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting and had four assists, as well as a visible team effort defending the paint, the Fever's poor shot selection plagued them as it has all season.

11. The Dream (6-19) Stay Competitive with Two Playoff Teams (↑ 1 Spot)

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    Photo by Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images

    While the Atlanta Dream have lost 10 games in a row, they showed signs of life last week with close, single-digit losses to the Chicago Sky and the Aces. Amid a laundry list of injuries to players including Candice Dupree (back), Crystal Bradford (broken left foot) and Tianna Hawkins (a knee injury limited her to two minutes against Vegas), Atlanta found a way to play two competitive games with fewer than 10 bodies available. 

    "We have resilient players. It seems like every game someone goes down and we've continued to fight and stay in games that we shouldn't be in," head coach Darius Taylor said following their 78-71 loss to the Aces. "I think we kind of ran out of gas a little bit there at the end. ... We're working so hard to be in games."

    With Cheyenne Parker (maternity leave) and Chennedy Carter (suspension) out, the Dream brought back a familiar face in Blake Dietrick, a guard who can play either the 1 or the 2 and shot 44.8 percent from three last season with Atlanta. While she didn't shoot similarly in two games with the Dream last week, her on-court presence has led to more efficient basketball from the team. Against the Sky, Dietrick finished with a plus/minus of zero in 23 minutes, and then against the Aces, she notched a plus-two in 17 minutes.

10. Momentum Dulls for Sparks (10-16) Against Mystics and Sun ( ↓ 2 Spots)

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Following a four-game winning streak after the break, L.A.'s sparkle has dimmed, and it lost three straight last week. The first came against the Mystics and Elena Delle Donne, who felt healthy enough to play, while the others came in a two-game set against Connecticut at Mohegan Sun.

    Against the Mystics, head coach Derek Fisher emphasized the lack of free-throw attempts that his star Nneka Ogwumike has received this season, noting that five free throws in about 170 minutes doesn't seem reasonable. But against Washington, the usually potent perimeter defense of the Sparks allowed 56 first-half points, and they couldn't capitalize on the turnovers they produced.

    "It has nothing to do with us not playing defense," Fisher said. "But there's no question that it impacts the way a game flows when your best players can't get to the free-throw line."

    Disrespect? I'm not sure. Is it confusing? Yes. While the Sparks rattled Jonquel Jones and company initially, the Sun's interior game was too potent for the Sparks to defend. While Ogwumike is a five-time WNBA All-Defensive player, the Sparks don't have many elite interior defenders to help her hold off not only Jones and DeWanna Bonner, but also Most Improved Player front-runner Brionna Jones.

9. Consistency a Problem for Liberty (11-16) without Whitcomb, Jones (↓ 2 spots)

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    Noah K. Murray/Associated Press

    After the Liberty's 86-83 loss against the Sparks on Aug. 22, head coach Walt Hopkins believed his team needed to do a better job of trusting each other and responding to physical play with physicality of their own. Instead of taking one step forward against the Phoenix Mercury, New York took two steps back. On Wednesday, the first quarter the Liberty played against the Mercury in the first game of their two-game series at home was probably the worst defensive quarter they've played all season. They gave up 35 points in a 106-79 loss.

    Natasha Howard is still finding her footing and looked uncomfortable against Brittney Griner in the first game. While Howard is learning to trust her injured knee, she looked rushed during both appearances at home against Phoenix. She looked more like a former Defensive Player of the Year on Friday when she was primarily guarding Brianna Turner. But the Liberty clearly miss two of their guards: starter and Most Improved Player candidate Sami Whitcomb and second-year player Jazmine Jones. While Jones returned Friday, she reinjured her right foot in the fourth quarter while securing the offensive rebound on one foot with under eight minutes left to play. 

    The one ounce of progress for the Liberty has been the emergence of rookie DiDi Richards. The 17th overall draft pick not only has been showing oodles of confidence on defense but has also proved to opponents that they can't leave her open. Since returning from the Olympic break, she's shooting 62.5 percent, including 8-of-13 from three-point range.

8. Wings (11-15) Must Play Defense to Maintain a Playoff Spot (↑ 2 Spots)

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    Danny Karnik/Associated Press

    The Dallas Wings have a lot of talent that hasn't always translated into a lot of wins. The team sits in the seventh spot in the standings and would make the playoffs if the season ended today. Although 2021 second overall pick Awak Kuier is finally getting solid minutes—a combined 41 in two games against the Mystics this week—there is cause for concern regarding the Wings' playoff chances and their success if they do get to the postseason.

    After falling to the Mystics on Sunday, Marina Mabrey explained how and why it's difficult for Dallas to put together four full quarters. She equated it to the frustration the Wings face when something doesn't go their way. Instead of punching back regardless of a questionable call, Dallas dwells on the issue and loses focus. This isn't only a Dallas problem but rather a consequence of being a young group that is building chemistry.

    "Gotta let it go and just win the next game and have that will to win, that fight, that energy that we had the first half, and try to put it together for 40 minutes," Mabrey said. "Even if it's not perfect, like it wasn't the first half, it can't be as bad as it was in the second half, you have to have some type of balance."

    Also, the Wings cannot give up almost 60 points to the Mystics in the second half while playing no transition defense. It's one case to be fatigued and not sprint back quickly enough, but it's a different situation if Dallas players are standing around rather than getting back.

7. The Mystics (10-15) Are in 'Win or Go Home' Mode (↑ 2 Spots)

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    Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

    When Elena Delle Donne is feeling comfortable, the Mystics have a chance to outmuscle almost any team offensively. Washington proved this Tuesday against the Sparks when Delle Donne scored 18 points on nine shots. Myisha Hines-Allen, Ariel Atkins and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough reached double figures as well in their 78-68 win.

    But when Delle Donne isn't feeling right, the onus falls on the rest of the Mystics. Washington is without Tina Charles, who has a left gluteal strain and won't return until Sept. 7 at the earliest. Against the Wings on Thursday, the Mystics beat themselves, committing costly turnovers and failing to secure rebounds.

    With their playoff hopes in jeopardy, they returned Saturday for the rematch and started flat, scoring 19 points in two quarters and giving up 35 to Dallas. Head coach Mike Thibault challenged his team in the locker room during halftime, and the Mystics scored 57 points in the second half.

    In the second half, the Mystics saw more inspired performances from Hines-Allen and Natasha Cloud. Hines-Allen ended up with 15 points on 6-14 shooting, and Cloud put up 21 points and shot 6-of-12, including 4-of-8 from three. After squeaking by with the 76-75 win, Cloud explained to the broadcast what changed in the second half. "We're fighting for our lives right now," she said.

6. Worn-Out Storm (18-10) Lose Three Straight (↓ 3 Spots)

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    The Olympic fatigue has settled in, and the Seattle Storm are sleepless. In a week that included a loss to the Minnesota Lynx and then two straight losses to the Sky, the Storm only maintained a better offensive rating than the Fever with 88.8 and had the league's third-worst true shooting percentage at 48.0. Also, in their three games this past week, the Storm turned the ball over 18.3 percent of the time—uncharacteristic for the defending champions, who feature players who have been playing together and in this system for close to five years. 

    Offensively, is this a cause for concern? Not necessarily. Jewell Loyd hasn't taken any breaks since Tokyo, and it has shown. Against Chicago on Sunday, she scored 10 points on 4-of-12 shooting. 

    The defensive performance the Storm displayed in their 107-75 loss to the Sky on Sunday might be more worrisome. While head coach Noelle Quinn believes all teams give the defending champs their best effort, the Storm weren't aggressive enough after Kahleah Copper put up 26 points on 10-of-16 shooting in a 73-69 victory by the Sky two days earlier.

    While Jordin Canada was inserted into the starting lineup Sunday to provide an extra defensive punch against Copper, she exited with 6:44 left in the game with a right knee injury. 

    "There's something about us and our defense that players catch fire," Quinn said after Sunday's game. It might be more than that—the Storm's defense may not have been potent enough to begin with. Losing Natasha Howard and Alysha Clark had to have an impact on defense.

5. Have the Sky (14-12) Peaked at the Right Time? (↑ 1 Spot)

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    Photo by Joshua Huston/NBAE via Getty Images

    While the Sky have won three straight, do we take their commanding 107-75 victory over the defending champion Storm with a grain of salt? Can we expect that the Sky will continue to shoot 68.2 percent from three like they did Sunday? 

    What we do know is Candace Parker looked at ease Sunday, which is a positive sign after she missed Chicago's Aug. 21 game against the Lynx. In her postgame press conference, Storm head coach Noelle Quinn stressed how comfortable Parker looked. The two-time MVP was everywhere on the floor Sunday, finishing with 25 points, nine boards, three assists, three blocks and four steals. 

    Has Jay-Z become Parker's new good-luck charm? Should she hang out with him before each of the Sky's final six games?

    All jokes aside, Chicago seems to have figured something out with Parker's ankle healthy enough and a set of solid performances from Kaleah Copper and Azura Stevens, who both put up double-digit points in both games against the Storm.

4. Thanks to Diggins-Smith, Mercury Haven't Lost Since Olympic Break (↑ 1 Spot)

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    Photo by Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

    Skylar Diggins-Smith was on a mission last week in both of her showings against the Liberty at Barclays Center. She finished with 27 points in each game along with shooting 6-of-11 from three-point range and totaling 12 assists. 

    Diggins-Smith's sense of urgency fueled the Mercury, especially in game two against New York when Phoenix was without Brittney Griner, who is nursing a left lateral ankle sprain that she suffered Wednesday against the Liberty. In both showings against New York, she took advantage of mismatches and played downhill. Diggins-Smith noted her confidence is due to her teammates, especially Griner and Diana Taurasi.

    "D [Diana Taurasi] talks to me all the time, and B [Brittney Griner] tells me, you know, just be a killer, just do your thing," she said.

    And do her thing she has. Diggins-Smith has been on a motivated tear. During her postgame presser after the Mercury's 80-64 win Friday, she noted that not playing many minutes in Tokyo not only gave her rest but motivated her as well to ball out once the W returned. Also, after their Twitter spat in June, the opportunity to get revenge against Jazmine Jones and the Liberty could have only helped.

3. Sylvia Fowles Makes a Statement That Lifts Lynx (15-9) (↑ 1 Spot)

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    David Sherman/Getty Images

    While most eyes were on the Aces vs. Sun game Tuesday, the more compelling matchup took place between the Lynx and the Storm where Minnesota came out on top 76-70. This was a statement win for the Lynx, who hadn't beaten the Storm in 10 attempts.

    While they executed their defensive game plan against Seattle's big three of Stewart, Loyd and Bird, the star of the effort was 13-year veteran and future Hall of Famer Sylvia Fowles, who had a career night that included 29 points, 20 boards, four steals and three blocks. Fowles had zero fouls and turnovers in the win.

    On her podcast The Cheryl Reeve Show, Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve hinted that Fowles might have returned from the Olympic break with a will to win after not playing as much in Tokyo as she expected. "Syl's will to be successful with the Lynx is really, really strong," she said.

2. The Aces (19-7) Are Dealing with Their Own Post-Tokyo Fatigue (No Change)

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    In this past week, A'ja Wilson shot a field-goal percentage of 36.8 (14-of-38), second-lowest behind Kelsey Plum at 20.7 percent. While the Sun have one of the most consistent and lethal defenses in the league, the Aces faced the Dream and Fever following their loss at Mohegan Sun.

    Las Vegas picked up wins against two of the WNBA's weakest teams, but the Aces continue to struggle with starting strong, which can be a problem against more competitive teams like the Sun.

    It was a problem Tuesday. The Sun's defense stifled the Aces as Vegas scored a season-low 62 points. The most jarring number besides Wilson's field-goal percentage was the Aces' performance on the offensive and defensive glass. Las Vegas finished this week with the fourth-worst offensive rebounding percentage at 20.9 and in the middle of the pack with a defensive rebounding percentage of 75.8.

    The good news is that the issues for the Aces are based on intangibles. The bad news, however, is that coming out with more effort and energy doesn't have a quantifiable timetable.

1. Being Home Matters for the Sun (20-6), Who Are Nearly Unbeatable (No Change)

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    Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    The Sun made a statement Tuesday when they defeated the Aces decisively, 76-62, at home. The Sun's defense—in conjunction with Olympic fatigue—held A'ja Wilson to four points on 1-of-15 shooting. Post partner Liz Cambage had a better statistical night (13 points) but was gassed come the second half.

    It wasn't only the defensive talent of the Sun that slayed the Aces, but their effort as well. This week, they finished with a league-best 83.7 defensive rebounding percentage, while the Aces dropped to fifth with 75.8. When both teams have size and talent, it comes down to effort, and the Sun had more of it Tuesday.

    Flashing forward to their two-game set (also at home) against the Sparks, Connecticut struggled initially with the physical defensive play from L.A.'s backcourt. But the issue for the Sparks was their lack of size and skill defensively in the frontcourt to challenge not only Jonquel Jones and DeWanna Bonner but also Brionna Jones. Brionna Jones scored a combined 39 points and hauled down 21 rebounds in the two-game set against the Sparks, earning Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors.

Must-See Matchups Coming Up

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    Noah K. Murray/Associated Press

    New York Liberty at Minnesota Lynx, 8 p.m. ET Tuesday on Amazon Prime

    Los Angeles Sparks at Minnesota Lynx, 8 p.m. ET Thursday on NBA TV 

    Washington Mystics at Minnesota Lynx, 8 p.m. ET Saturday on NBA TV

          

    The Lynx control their destiny along with that of the three teams in the race for the eighth seed in the playoff race. While the Liberty hold the No. 8 spot, New York has the fewest games left. The Sparks and the Mystics have six and seven games remaining, respectively.

Off the Court and On Another Court

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    The players of the WNBA are continuing to learn about how they can be on the forefront of all levels of sociopolitical change. Dream forward Elizabeth Williams reminded us that 2020 was just the beginning. On Monday, she provided an update on the voting rights education that WNBA players continue to receive in-season so they can educate not only themselves but also their in-market communities.

           

    Nneka Ogwumike celebrated Women's Equality Day on Aug. 26 by being a part of a major campaign sponsored by Michelob Ultra to create more tangible visibility for women in sport. Alongside the Save It, See It campaign, which asks people to save Instagram posts that include women in sport rather than just like them, Michelob Ultra has committed $100 million over the next five years to support gender equality in sports. 

    "I think it puts other people on notice," Ogwumike told B/R about the impact of the campaign. "For a company so big to say, 'Hey, we're investing this much,' you know, it's going to hold others accountable, so either you're in this or you're not."

         

    Speaking of more visibility for women in sport, Naomi Osaka entertained quite a crossover while warming up for her first U.S. Open match Monday. After watching her first WNBA game in Barclays on Friday to support her friend Sabrina Ionescu, Osaka decided to bring a part of the Liberty with her to Flushing. When Liberty teammate Betnijah Laney was about the impact of Osaka wearing the seafoam jersey, she said it’s all about "women supporting women."

    "The fact that she chose one of our own to represent on that stage, it just means a lot, and so, you know, it just means that we have eyes on us and that we need to continue to just be our best," she said. "So that way when people are watching or they're looking at us, they just want to do the same thing, represent us and see everything that we have to offer."

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