With the top three spots settled, the WNBA regular season is down to just a few games left of varying significance, and some jockeying for playoff position.
Minnesota, Los Angeles and New York are going to finish 1-2- 3, but the fourth place team will, like New York, avoid a first-round single-elimination games. L.A. and Minnesota, on the other hand, will first jump into action in the best three-out- of-five semifinals. (To clarify: The fifth-place team will host the eighth-place team and the sixth-place team will host the seventh-place team for a one-game playoff, and the winners will advance. The highest remaining seed will travel to the fifth-place finisher for another one-game playoff, the fourth-place finisher will host the lowest seed.)
The battle for the fourth spot, then, is pretty important, because any single-elimination game is always dangerous — especially with Seattle and Phoenix, the too likely seventh and eighth place finishers, both quite capable of pulling a single-game upset. For example, if Diana Taurasi decides to have a great game and put 35 on the board, there’s really not much anyone on the other team can do about it.
Going into the final week of play, three teams are tied for fourth place with 16-15. That said, however, Indiana has a big edge as the Fever hold the tiebreaker over both Atlanta and Chicago. In a scheduling quirk, all three will play Minnesota, the league’s best team, down the stretch, but only Chicago plays another one of the top three teams.
So it comes down to this for that crucial fourth spot: If one of the three teams does better in these final three games – Atlanta, for example, winning all three while the other two each lose one–that team will get the fourth spot. If there is a three-way tie, Indiana wins. Two-way ties are a little more complicated, but if Indiana is involved, the Fever win. If both Atlanta and Chicago manage to finish ahead of Indiana, and with the same record, Atlanta will get the fourth spot thanks to the tiebreaker edge.
All this paints a pretty bleak picture for the Sky getting that fourth spot and avoiding the first-round single-elimination game — and what makes it worse is the Elena Delle Donne has not been playing due to a thumb injury, and starting forward Tamera Young has also been out.
Those injuries, in fact, may open the door for Seattle and Phoenix, the likely seventh and eighth place qualifiers (Washington must win out to make the playoffs while Phoenix goes 0-3). Seattle does have an outside chance to move into the sixth position, as the Storm hold the tiebreaker over Chicago, but the most likely scenario is that Seattle and Phoenix wind up playing on the road in the first round.
As Seattle only needs one win in the final two games to clinch the seventh spot index — and one of those games is at Phoenix – expect the Storm to wind up ahead of the Mercury.
That really won’t make that much difference, most likely, as there’s not much to choose between playing Indiana, Atlanta and Chicago, the fourth, fifth and sixth place finishers, though if Delle Donne is still out, obviously playing the Sky is going to be the most favorable of the three matchups.
In the end, though, it will be a huge surprise if anyone aside from Minnesota, Los Angeles or New York winds up winning the WNBA title. Digging even deeper, one has to conclude that the edge goes to Minnesota at this point. New York has struggled offensively, and Epiphanny Prince has yet to show any of the form that has made her an NBA All-Star in the past (she’s coming off a knee injury), and Los Angeles has not played well for the past month.
But the playoffs, as everyone knows, are a different beast and who knows? Seattle could suddenly catch fire and pull off a string of upsets, as my San Francisco Giants have can happen, and it only takes one hot-shooting game to upset the apple cart in those single-elimination games.
Winning three out of five against Minnesota, though, looks like it would be a different story — but again, you never know. That’s what makes its fun …