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WNBA playoff race: Aces, Liberty vie for No. 1 seed, while multiple postseason berths still at stake

The New York Liberty could take a significant step at pulling a shocking leap of the Las Vegas Aces atop the standings in the super-teams’ final regular-season meeting at Barclays Center on Monday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2).

More would have to happen than a Liberty victory, but it would bring them in easier striking distance and take away the Aces’ head-to-head tiebreaker advantage. Las Vegas (30-5) is 2-1 in the regular-season meetings while New York (27-7) defeated the Aces in the Commissioner’s Cup championship on the Aces' home court.

The Liberty trail the No. 1 seed by 2.5 games with five to play for Vegas and six for New York. The magic number for Las Vegas to clinch the top seed is any combination of four Aces wins and four New York losses. The tiebreaker, if they split their head-to-head regular-season meetings and have identical records at season’s end, is which team has the better winning percentage against all teams with a .500 or better record at the end of the season. The next tiebreakers are ones dealing with point differential.

The Aces’ sputtering August outings have caused concern, but they and the Liberty are still solidly leading the league with Connecticut (24-11, 6 GB) a strong third. The Sun are 3.5 games back of New York and can still contend for a No. 2 seed. Their chances took a dive after letting go of the win against New York in a wild ending Thursday, but they meet again on Friday. Connecticut’s other final four games are all against teams with a losing record (a combined 49-89), whereas New York has a tougher final stretch.

The Aces are a tough out after losses. The most crushing one was a 20-point thrashing of Dallas after losing to New York by 38 points. The 16-point margin given up to Washington on Saturday is their third-largest of the season (they lost to Connecticut by 17 in June), and reigning MVP A’ja Wilson isn’t going to take that easy. Head coach Becky Hammon pulled almost all of the starters late in that one, citing their compact schedule and the need for rest.

New York Liberty forward Breanna Stewart is guarded by Las Vegas Aces guard Chelsea Gray during their game on Aug. 17, 2023. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
New York Liberty forward Breanna Stewart is guarded by Las Vegas Aces guard Chelsea Gray during their game on Aug. 17, 2023. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The schedule is a mix for Las Vegas to end the season. After New York, Aces will have to face a fully healthy Washington squad that could be hitting its stride. The Mystics were the best defensive team in the league before injuries. But after that are three games against Seattle and Phoenix, the only two teams mathematically eliminated from the postseason.

The Liberty are coming off their highest offensive output of the season in a 111-76 thrashing of Minnesota that was decided by the half after a 37-point second quarter. New York has won nine of its last 10. Its only loss was to Las Vegas.

It has a tougher end to the schedule than either of the other two. Like Vegas, it will have a tough follow-up game at home against Connecticut on Friday. Its final road trip is to Chicago and Dallas, currently a No. 4 seed, then home against Los Angeles and Washington, which gave the Liberty fits in June. Three of their six opponents have winning records, plus Washington is healthy.

While the Aces-Liberty matchup will receive top billing to start the penultimate week of the season, there is plenty down the standings to watch out for as teams in the rest of the playoff positions shuffle around nightly. Here’s what to watch in the final games of the 2023 season.

Who is in and who is out?

Las Vegas clinched a spot with about a third of the season to play and were followed by New York and Connecticut.

That’s it.

The only teams eliminated from contention are Phoenix (9-25, 20.5 GB), which lost to Dallas on Sunday night, and Seattle (10-25, 20 GB), which lost to Chicago.

It ended the Mercury’s streak of 10 consecutive playoff appearances, which was the longest active streak in the league and included the 2014 championship. It was also the second-longest streak in the league’s 27-year history behind the Minnesota Lynx (11 from 2011-21). Awkwardly, this is how it ended:

The Storm’s streak of seven consecutive playoff appearances, which included title wins in 2018 and 2020, also ended. The longest streak now belongs to Connecticut, which has made every postseason since its run began in 2017 (seven years).

The middle: Dallas (19-16, 11 GB), Minnesota (17-18, 13 GB), Washington (16-18, 13.5 GB), Atlanta (16-19, 14 GB), Los Angeles (15-19, 14.5 GB), Chicago (14-21, 16 GB) and Indiana (11-24, 19 GB).

Each team has about six games remaining and are within eight games of each other; five if omitting Indiana. The Fever could have been eliminated with a loss to Atlanta on Sunday, but kept the math alive. The only team with a winning record over the past 10 games, outside of the top three, is Los Angeles.

Can anyone compete with the top three?

The Dallas Wings are the “best of the rest,” holding onto the No. 4 seed, but trailing the top three by five games. The Wings (19-16, 11 GB) are the only team to defeat Las Vegas, New York and Connecticut at least once.

On July 5, they upset Vegas by a bucket, but dropped two more games to the Aces by a combined 35 points afterward. On July 19, they defeated New York by 10 and will meet again at home on Sept. 5. And earlier this month they completed the most impressive feat of back-to-back wins against Connecticut by 10 and 20, respectively.

Dallas Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale celebrates during a game in July at College Park Center in Arlington, Texas. (Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports)
Dallas Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale celebrates during a game in July at College Park Center in Arlington, Texas. (Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports)

Dallas, led by first-year head coach Latricia Trammell, played some of its best offense in the wins against the Liberty and Sun, but against the Aces it was their season-high 13 steals and 46-22 advantage in the paint. The Wings are the best at cleaning up the boards (38.7 per game), led by 6-foot-7 center Teaira McCowan (9.1, fifth), Satou Sabally (8.4, eighth) and Natasha Howard (8.0, 11th). They can bring Kalani Brown (also 6-7) off the bench for McCowan.

Offensively, they rank third (86.5 ppg), led by Arike Ogunbowale’s 20.9 points per game with a career-high 4.4 assists per game. Sabally is averaging a career-best 17.8 points over 33 games, more than the previous high of 17 she played in 2021. The fourth-year All-Star has been healthy (and available from overseas commitments) for the first time in her career, but injured her ankle last week and missed the previous two games.

The better contender for “best of the rest” might actually be Washington, which is 2.5 games back from Dallas and back to full health.

Can the Mystics get healthy enough to make a run?

Current seed: 6th (16-18)
First-round matchup would be: Connecticut (0-4)
Remaining games: vs. Minnesota; at Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix; vs. Atlanta; at New York

A fully healthy Mystics team showed what it’s capable of with a 76-62 win against the Aces on Saturday. It was the second-fewest points scored by the Aces in a game this season, trailing the 61 that New York held them to earlier this month.

It was the second time since June 25 that Elena Delle Donne (ankle, hip), Shakira Austin (hip) and Ariel Atkins (knee) were all able to play for Washington, a stretch that consisted of 20 games and resulted in their plummet from 8-4 to 15-18. Veteran guard Kristi Toliver (plantar fasciitis) has also missed most of the season, with varying other mini absences from starters.

The matchup was the first time Washington had its full starting lineup against Las Vegas. The Mystics lost, 113-89, on Aug. 11 and will meet a final time in Vegas on Thursday. They still have one game against New York in the season finale. The Mystics won the season opener, 80-64, and lost their two other matchups — including the overtime contest in which Austin was injured late.

A healthy squad playing deeper minutes than the restrictions they’ve been on in their returns is a danger to anyone who pulls them in the playoffs. And they could still move up the standings with a handful of games left. Their defense is their calling card, anchored by Austin (89.9 defensive rating ranks fourth of players averaging at least 10 minutes). They had a league-best 91.6 defensive rating in the first month of the season that rose to 100.9 (fifth) before the starters’ return. Because of that, the Mystics were the most intriguing matchup for the offensively star-studded Las Vegas and New York rosters.

It’s reminiscent of the Sky and Mercury getting hot at the right time ahead of the 2021 Finals that was the first to feature a 6 and 5 seed. They can easily move into a more beneficial seeding, especially if they seal wins against the Aces and Libert

What’s going on with the Dream’s nightmare plummet?

Seed: 7th (16-19)
First-round matchup: New York (1-3)
Remaining games: vs. Phoenix, at Minnesota, vs. Seattle, at Washington, vs. Dallas

Tanisha Wright did not sugarcoat what she views has been the Atlanta Dream’s most troubling problem amid its recent plummet from a winning record (14-11) to a losing one (16-19).

“We’ve been a team that turns the ball over all year,” said Wright, in her second season as head coach, after blowing a 16-point lead to the Sparks on Friday. “And all year I’ve asked this team to value possessions. Value the basketball. And today was no different. When things got tough, instead of settling in, we turned the ball over at bad times, which gave them more opportunities.

“This team has to grow up. I’m sorry, I come here every night [and] y’all know me well enough now to know I always take the brunt of it. This team, [it] needs to grow up. It is playoff basketball time. If you watched any of the games yesterday, they all were amazing. Amazing, if you had the opportunity to watch the games. That’s how it’s going to be for the rest of the season. And so, this team needs to grow up.”

Atlanta Dream guard Allisha Gray dribbles the ball while defended by Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas on July 20, 2023, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. (Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Atlanta Dream guard Allisha Gray dribbles the ball while defended by Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas on July 20, 2023, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. (Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Dream are 10th in turnovers (14.9 per game), ninth in turnover percentage (18.0) and ninth in turnover-to-assist ratio (1.23). They have single-digit turnovers in only three games. In June, they looked like a solid upset pick with back-to-back wins against New York and Connecticut, but the Liberty were still figuring themselves out. Their victories have almost exclusively come against teams currently in the lottery section of the standings, plus a few against Minnesota, Los Angeles and Washington before it was healthy.

Atlanta is on a three-game losing skid and has lost six of its last seven and eight of its last 10. It includes losses to Seattle and a 20-point loss to Phoenix, both were eliminated Sunday. And the blown lead against the Fever that kept Indiana’s hopes alive on Sunday.

Even if the Dream can make a decent seed in the playoffs, they’re heading in with the wrong momentum. A coach publicly calling out something she said she’s spoken to them privately about consistently isn’t the sign of a deep playoff run forthcoming.

Is Los Angeles the real deal for an upset?

Seed: 8th (15-19)
First-round matchup: Las Vegas (1-3)
Remaining games: vs. Chicago, Seattle, Washington; at Connecticut, New York, Seattle

If the season ended today, the Sparks would draw the Aces in a tantalizing 1 vs. 8 matchup. Los Angeles had the best August showing after the top three, going 6-3 with a significant 78-72 victory over the Aces on Aug. 19. If the Sparks could steal a game against the Aces on the road in the best-of-three first-round series, the deciding Game 3 would go to Los Angeles in the new playoff setup.

They’ve done it with a defensive rating (95.9) that ranks second in August behind New York (93.8) and in front of Connecticut (99.6) and Las Vegas (100.0). The Aces’ 72 points against the Sparks was their third-lowest offensive output of the season.

Los Angeles is only 2.5 games clear of ninth-place Chicago and has arguably the toughest final stretch of games with New York and Connecticut, plus a healthy Washington squad. They’ll also finish out with a three-game road trip that would be extended if they reach the playoffs. But their chances to hold are better than Chicago overcoming them.

Do Chicago, Indiana have a realistic chance?

The Sky and Fever are no longer fully in control of their postseason chances as the No. 9 and No. 10 seeds, respectively. So how realistic is it for them to jump into the top eight?

It’s a long shot for either. Chicago, which has had a strong offensive showing in August (105.2, fourth) has five games left and three are against New York (1-2), Minnesota (1-1) and Connecticut (0-3). Their wins against New York and Minnesota were within the first month of the season.

Indiana’s chances stand at 0.1%, per ESPN Analytics. The Fever’s remaining schedule includes back-to-back games against Dallas beginning on Thursday, plus a road trip to Connecticut and a home finale against Minnesota. The Fever have pieces for the future beginning with No. 1 overall pick Aliyah Boston. Their chances are made even more slim since Boston injured her right thumb in the game on Sunday. Though the Fever won, they struggled without her.

Who’s the MVP?

The MVP race is still a three-player competition between the Aces’ Wilson, Liberty’s Breanna Stewart and Sun’s Alyssa Thomas. Since this breakdown at the Commissioner’s Cup break, Wilson tied the WNBA single-game scoring record with 53 points in 33 minutes against the Dream (64.2 points per 40 minutes). Stewart scored 38 points in 26 minutes against the Lynx on Saturday (58.5 points per 40).

A lot of voters deciding between Stewart and Wilson might turn to their regular-season head-to-head matchups. Stewart scored 52 points in their three meetings so far, shooting 34% overall (6-of-20 from 3). She added 18 rebounds, 12 assists and seven blocks. Wilson scored 46 points shooting 41% with 18 rebounds, six assists and three blocks.

Meanwhile, Thomas continues to track for a historic season. She’s averaging 15.9 points (ranking 21st), 9.9 rebounds (first) and 8.1 assists (first) per game. No player has averaged even 7-7-7 over a full season, and no player has averaged at least 10 points and 10 rebounds with more than six assists.

Nneka Ogwumike (Sparks) and Jewell Loyd (Storm) are having career years, but are on teams struggling to make the playoffs and likely out of voters’ minds.

Games with playoff considerations

With so little determined in the seeding, most games will have playoff implications in these next two weeks. But here are some of the big ones to circle in the upcoming week. All times ET.

Monday

Las Vegas at New York, 7 p.m. on ESPN2 — Chase for the No. 1 seed. Also would help New York keep distance from Connecticut.

Tuesday

Minnesota at Washington, 7 p.m. NBA TV — The Mystics could move up into the No. 5 seed over Minnesota with a win, which would pull them out of a first-round matchup with Connecticut.

Sky at Sparks, 10:30 p.m. on CBS Sports — The Sky need a win to keep a chance at sliding into the playoffs over the Sparks.

Thursday

Washington at Las Vegas, 10 p.m. on Prime Video — The Mystics know how to defeat Las Vegas, and could make the top of the standings more interesting.

Friday — All games on ION

Connecticut at New York, 8 p.m. — If New York loses to Las Vegas, it would open a slight crack in the window for the Sun to move up over the course of the week.

Atlanta at Minnesota, 8 p.m. — The two head into the week one game apart. The Dream surely want to move up out of a first-round meeting with New York.

Sunday

Washington at Los Angeles, 7:30 p.m. League Pass — A lot could change by Sunday, but with one game currently separating them this one could also determine the middle of the standings. They went 1-1 so far this season.