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. In addition to providing a ranking of all 12 WNBA teams, we will be examining where each team is in its respective postseason race. Games are all must-win for 10 of the league's 12 teams. But what about the two teams that have officially been eliminated from the playoffs; how can they play spoiler? Well, read more and find out.
With less than a week, which includes 11 games, remaining of the 2021 WNBA season, the playoff picture is still incomplete. In the past week, the Wings clinched a postseason berth in their 76-75 win over the New York Liberty, but one spot still remains. The Washington Mystics, the Liberty and the Los Angeles Sparks still remain in contention for that final No. 8 seed.
In the 12 games played since our latest installment, inconsistencies were revealed across the board, aside from the Connecticut Sun. A foot injury to Breanna Stewart, in addition to the still-sidelined Jordin Canada, left the Storm depleted defensively. They fell to the usually offensively challenged Sparks last Sunday 81-53. Without Diana Taurasi available since Sept. 6 because of an ankle injury sustained against the Fever, the Mercury's win streak came to an end last Sunday. While Shey Peddy's late-game heroics against the Dream kept Phoenix's streak going for a game longer, the Sun were too much for a Mercury team without one of their stars.
While the Aces found a way to beat two playoff teams in the Lynx and the Wings, they've missed center Liz Cambage since the beginning of the month, who's been in league health and safety protocols after testing positive for COVID-19. Vegas struggled against the Wings defensively in the first half, giving up 29 points to Dallas in the first quarter.
And then the Lynx, who came out incredibly flat defensively against the Aces last Wednesday, are still in the running for a double-bye.
The only ounces of certainty right now in this playoff race are the Sun's hold on one of the double-bye spots and the Atlanta Dream and Indiana Fever's official elimination.
What needs to happen for all of the pieces in the playoff puzzle to finally come together and settle? I'll run through the various scenarios that we could see play out by the time Sunday, Sept. 19 is all said and done.
Playing spoilers while keeping an eye on the draft lottery
12. Indiana Fever (6-24) — No change
11. Atlanta Dream (8-22) — No change
Since both teams have been officially eliminated from the playoffs, expect them to take their role as postseason spoilers very seriously. The Fever play the Lynx and then the Chicago Sky this week with the Lynx still in the running for a double-bye. The Dream could throw a wrench in the Sparks' chances at the postseason with a win Sept. 16.
But before the teams can play spoiler, they played each other on Tuesday night with lottery positioning on the line. The Dream came away with the victory 85-78 over the Fever at home. Looking at where each teams' two year cumulative record now stands, the Fever still have the best shot at the number one overall draft pick in 2022 with a 12-40 cumulative record. While the Liberty are currently a full game out at 13-39, the Dream can hop into a two-way tie with New York for the second-best draft lottery odds if it loses its final two games and the Liberty wins out against the Sun and the Mystics.
Race for the Final Playoff Spot
10. LA Sparks (11-19) — No change
9. New York Liberty (11-19) — Down 1 spot
8. Washington Mystics (12-18) — Up 1 spot
The heat is on for the Sparks, Liberty and Mystics. One game separates these three with two games apiece left to play. After the Liberty's last-second loss to the Dallas Wings on Saturday night, their chances at the postseason plummeted after the Mystics defeated the Sky on another 30-plus-point performance from Tina Charles, her 10th of the season.
FiveThirtyEight gives the Mystics a 69 percent chance of advancing while the Liberty now only have 26 percent chance of making the postseason. The Sparks are still alive, but their chances at the postseason are now down to 9 percent. All Washington must do to lock up that No. 8 spot is defeat New York in Brooklyn on Friday night or the Lynx on Sunday afternoon.
While the Mystics are the clear favorites to advance, certain chaotic scenarios still exist that could put either the Liberty or the Sparks into that final spot.
If the Liberty win out against the Sun and the Mystics, they make it to their first playoffs since 2017.
If the Liberty go 1-1 and beat the Mystics in their final regular season game at home, the Mystics must also lose to the Lynx for New York to make the playoffs.
If the Sparks win out against the Dream and the Wings, the Liberty would have to fall to the Sun and defeat the Mystics; and the Mystics would also have to lose to the Lynx on the road for the Sparks to make the playoffs.
If the Sparks go 1-1, the Liberty go 1-1 and the Mystics lose out, the three teams will finish the season in a three-way tie at 12-20. According to the official WNBA tiebreaker procedure, the way to break a three-way tie involves compiling the Sparks, Liberty and Mystics' head-to-head records. In this situation, with the Liberty defeating the Mystics, the Liberty would have a 3-2 head-to-head record, followed by the Mystics' 3-3 record and the Sparks' 2-3 record.Then the Sparks would be eliminated and the Liberty and Mystics' head-to-head records would be assessed. New York would advance to the playoffs with a 2-1 record against Washington.
Ending the season with momentum and an opportunity to spoil
7. Dallas Wings (13-18) — No change
6. Chicago Sky (15-15) —No change
Both the Wings and the Sky have an opportunity to be an albatross for the playoff teams they play in this final week. They are also too far back in the standings to try to compete for a single bye.
In the Wings' 85-75 loss Monday to the Aces, Satou Sabally and Moriah Jefferson, who came back from injury in limited minutes against the Liberty, didn't make the trip to Las Vegas. After securing their first playoff berth since 2018, the Wings wanted to give two ailing starters a little bit of extra rest. The Wings play the Sparks at home Sunday in a game that could keep LA's playoff chances alive.
The Sky finish the season against the Aces and the lottery-bound Fever. If the Sky can beat the Aces on Friday, that prevents Las Vegas from clinching the No. 2 seed, keeping the Lynx's chances for the second double-bye still alive.
A single-bye benefits teams with injured stars
5. Seattle Storm (20-11) — Down 1 spot
4. Phoenix Mercury (19-11) — Up 1 spot
The defending champions have one game remaining after getting embarrassed against the Sparks last Sunday night. While they'll still be without Breanna Stewart, the Storm should be fired up not only because they scored 53 points against L.A., but also because their final contest against the Phoenix Mercury means something more.
Whoever wins in Seattle on Friday night is guaranteed the No. 4 seed and a first-round bye. But the Storm still have a shot at the No. 3 seed if the Lynx lose to either the Fever or the Mystics. If the Mercury fall to Seattle, the No. 5 seed, which features home-court advantage, but no bye, is theirs. Receiving a bye matters to both teams that currently have two of their superstars in Stewart and Taurasi out with injuries. Both teams could use that extra time to get Stewart and Taurasi healthier.
Who secures the final double-bye?
3. Minnesota Lynx (20-10) — Down 1 spot
2. Las Vegas Aces (22-8) — Up 1 spot
Both teams play two more games that will determine who walks away with the coveted double-bye that greatly increases the chances of making the WNBA Finals. Since the new playoff format was introduced in 2016, at least one of the top two seeds has made the Finals.
While the Aces remain two games up on the Lynx, here's how the race for the final double-bye could play out:
If Aces beat the Sky on Friday, the No. 2 seed is theirs.
If the Aces lose to the Sky but defeat the Mercury, they'll also clinch the No. 2 seed.
If the Lynx win out, defeating the Fever and the Mystics, and the Aces lose their remaining games against both the Sky and the Mercury, the Lynx would earn the double-bye because they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Aces.
The Sun haven't lost in over a month and Alyssa Thomas' return is imminent
1. Connecticut Sun (24-6) — No change
Jackie Powell @ClassicJpow
So I asked @CurtMillerWBB to clarify this and he said: "It's day-to-day, but she had a good practice again today but put it this way, we are very optimistic." Bri Jones also is very confident about adding in Alyssa Thomas and said that she'll "fit in seamlessly." https://t.co/KI3otIgDgr
Wait, what? Alyssa Thomas?
Yes, Alyssa Thomas appears ready to assist the Sun on their upcoming playoff run.
During a post-practice press conference Tuesday afternoon, head coach Curt Miller explained that he was pleased with the practice she had and that they are very optimistic that Thomas could return to the court as soon as Wednesday night against the Liberty. The Sun's most recent injury report has listed her as probable.
Let's also remember that the Sun still haven't lost since the Commissioner's Cup. That's exactly 34 days of only winning regular-season games, including the majority of a 12-game winning streak that began before the Commissioner's Cup.
Connecticut will take on two teams under .500 at home before ending its regular season and getting some rest before the semifinals.
The question remains for the Sun in the two final games against the Liberty and the Dream: Do they rest any of their starters, especially when the No. 1 seed will remain theirs no matter what? When asked about that, Miller replied that they are going "to be smart" and not try to push players too hard, but their goal is to continue improving their style of play. Although if it were up to him, he'd put his starters in bubble wrap.
"We want to keep peaking, we want to worry about ourselves and so we want to play good basketball," he said. "Unless we completely sat down players and didn't play players at all, there's a risk if you play five minutes or you play 25 minutes, so I think, the less you think about that and we just play, the better off we're going to be."
12. Indiana Fever
11. Atlanta Dream
10. Los Angeles Sparks
9. New York Liberty
8. Washington Mystics
7. Dallas Wings
6. Chicago Sky
5. Seattle Storm
4. Phoenix Mercury
3. Minnesota Lynx
2. Las Vegas Aces
1. Connecticut Sun
Before I introduce the must-see matchups in the W's final week, I'd like to bring to your attention something that Brittney Griner said postgame following her team's loss to the Connecticut Sun last Saturday.
Griner was frustrated by the loss, but she appeared even more annoyed by the fact that a game between the two hottest teams wasn't broadcast on a major Network such as ESPN or NBA TV.
A game the Mercury played against the Dream was switched off ESPN in favor of a better matchup between the Lynx and the Aces. Griner understood this, but thought that regardless of who won, the game she just played deserved more attention.
"This is a great game to be on TV," she said during the postgame presser Saturday night. "These are the games we need to show. ESPN where are you? NBA TV where are you? Figure it out. Get these games on TV."
While one of the following final must-see regular-season matchups is scheduled to air on NBA TV, the one with a playoff spot on the line won't be on a major network. Instead, it will be available to stream live on Twitter or on WNBA League Pass.
Washington Mystics at New York Liberty, 7 p.m. ET Friday on Twitter
The race for the final playoff seed comes down to this game, where Tina Charles and the Mystics return to Brooklyn to seek revenge on the Liberty. This will be the second time Charles returns to her home city to play as a member of the Mystics. Charles put up a 31 and 16 double-double the first time, but Washington had no other player reach double-digit scoring. The Liberty were down by as many as 20 points but came back to beat the Mystics 82-79 on a team performance that featured five players in double figures, including Jazmine Jones, who flew into the stands to corral a loose ball. Both Charles and the Liberty are equally hungry to reach the postseason, a feat both haven't achieved since 2017. Will Charles, who was "fired on her day off" by New York, drive a group with more seasoned veterans to the playoffs? Or does the scrappiness and competitiveness of a team led by Sabrina Ionescu and Betnijah Laney succeed in putting the Liberty on the map for years to come?
Phoenix Mercury at Seattle Storm, 10 p.m. ET Friday on NBA TV
The defending champs play their final game of the regular season against the Mercury, which will determine if the Storm finish as high as the third seed or as low as the fifth. The Mercury also have a chance to clinch a first-round bye with a win against the Storm. Both teams are looking to bounce back after losses to the Sparks and the Sun. The Storm have a lot to prove after getting embarrassed by the Sparks on Sunday night. Playing without Breanna Stewart comes with more risk in 2021 than it did in 2020. A year ago in the Wubble, Seattle could rely upon Natasha Howard, Alysha Clark and Sami Whitcomb to fill in some of the gaps. But now with that trio gone and Jordin Canada still injured, the Storm need to figure out how to win without their star, and fast. The Mercury, who have had a season plagued with injuries to their stars in Taurasi and Griner have found a way with Brianna Turner and Sophie Cunningham stepping up. Who will that be for the Storm?
One more thing
On Monday during halftime of the Aces matinee against the Wings, Las Vegas honored WNBA legend Becky Hammon, who technically didn't play for the Aces but played for a former incarnation of the organization, the San Antonio Stars. The Aces officially retired her jersey, raising her number up into the rafters at the Mandalay Bay Michelob ULTRA Arena.
She thanked the crowd, thanked the Aces organization for inviting her and noted how humbled she was at that moment. "I was undrafted, played 16 years, and I wasn't supposed to be here, but here I am," she said during halftime.
Following her moment at center court, she spoke to Aces broadcasters Carolyn Peck and Anne Marie Anderson about her legacy and how she impacts people, especially young women who might be told no more often than yes. She explained what her key to battling adversity has always been.
"[It] doesn't matter what other people think about yourself, it matters what you think about yourself," she said. "When you believe in yourself, others start to believe in yourself, as well, and even on those days where everybody goes through, where, you know, you do have doubts, having those voices next to you, those people that support you, that can encourage you to get you through those days."
Hammon's story has deeply impacted Kelsey Plum, the front runner for Sixth Woman of the Year, who scored 30 points on Monday. When Hammon was in Las Vegas for the NBA Summer League, she took time out of her day to work with Plum on scoop shots and other tricks to help confuse shot blockers.
"She's obviously a really hungry player, somebody who wants to be great," Hammon said of Plum. "And you know obviously she had a great college career and she's turning herself into a real pro."