PHF Playoff Preview: Isobel Cup Final
Previewing the 2023 Isobel Cup Final between the Premier Hockey Federation's Minnesota Whitecaps & Toronto Six.
This time last year, four WNBA teams were already in their offseason while the other eight prepared for a condensed postseason. The stakes were high then, and they're just as high now – if not higher – with the schedule back to normal.
With three weeks left in the regular season, teams have between six (Seattle) and nine (Los Angeles) games left to prove themselves worthy of a playoff spot. Three of the eight coveted berths are already claimed for the postseason; the Washington Mystics, Connecticut Sun, and Las Vegas Aces all clinched spots over the weekend.
As of press time, no teams have yet been eliminated from playoff contention, but with a 5-21 record (and an 11-game losing streak), it's likely that the Atlanta Dream will be the first to be eliminated in the coming days. You can follow the standings for all 12 teams at the WNBA's website here. The bottom four teams – those who don't make the postseason – will enter the WNBA Draft Lottery later this year. Right now, 3.5 games separate the ninth place team (Indiana Fever, 9-17) from the eighth place team (Minnesota Lynx, 13-14).
While the standings have loosened a bit in recent weeks, every single game is still important for every single team. The three squads already moving on to the postseason will look to compete for the two double-byes, while the four teams likely out of the postseason will look to play spoiler to their opponents, specifically the five teams still in the hunt for a playoff berth.
For this notebook, I'm going to take a quick look at all 12 teams and how their schedules this week can impact the league standings. After all, enough outlets have covered the now-infamous fight between Phoenix's Brittney Griner and Dallas' Kristine Anigwe, so I’m not going to mention that here.
(Why just cover the WNBA when there's a fight though? Why not cover it all season – or better yet, all year?)
(This article about the WNBA needing a mental health program is important, though.)
(Okay, I'm done.)
The Mystics are currently on a six-game winning streak. They have only two games this week, so I imagine the players and staff are enjoying some well-deserved time off. The past week for DC included clinching the first playoff spot with a come-from-behind win over the Lynx (August 16) and setting a WNBA record for 3-pointers in a win over the Indiana Fever (August 18).
A big part of the Mystics' success comes from Elena Delle Donne, who won approximately her 82nd Player of the Week award (give or take) on Monday after averaging 17.7 points per game and 7.3 rebounds per game. She currently ranks second in the league with 19 points per game; only Griner (19.4 ppg) ranks higher. The honors have surely been well-deserved, but luckily for Washington, EDD isn't the only player lighting up the stat sheet. Mystics teammates Kristi Toliver (#19, 13.0 ppg) and Aerial Powers (#28, 11.0 ppg) also rank in the top 30 for scoring averages, while sophomore Ariel Atkins (10.9 ppg) sits outside at #31.
The Mystics will want to keep their dominance on both sides of the ball up this week. They travel to Chicago on Friday, August 23 (8:00 PM Eastern) to visit Delle Donne's former team the Sky, who are looking to get a first-round bye in the postseason. Washington then hosts New York two days later (3:00 PM Eastern, NBA TV / SN1), and this could be an upset win for the Liberty if the Mystics don't play their cards right. But something tells me they will.
The Connecticut Sun are on a three-game winning streak after a forgettable loss to the Lynx earlier this month. Most recently, the Sun survived a close contest with the Dallas Wings at home (August 18) to clinch the league's second playoff berth. Now, the focus should be on avoiding their downfall from the past two seasons, when Connecticut clinched a first-round playoff bye only to lose their one and only postseason game. But if they keep up their current play, I can see things changing in Uncasville.
The Sun have a league-best 13-1 record at home. On the flip side, they are only 6-7 away from Mohegan Sun Arena. Both records will be put to the test for Connecticut this week in its two-game slate. The Sun host Las Vegas on Friday, August 23 (7:30 PM Eastern, NBA TV / NBA TV Canada) in a contest that could easily be a playoff preview. Connecticut will also honor former WNBA star Lindsay Whalen during the game, in part by putting her #13 in the rafters just as Minnesota did earlier this season. The Sun then travel to Los Angeles to take on the Sparks on Sunday, August 25 (5:00 PM Eastern, NBA TV / NBA TV Canada). Connecticut will especially have to keep up their play on the road if they want to secure a double-bye.
It's fair to say that the Las Vegas Aces will not win the WNBA Draft Lottery this year as they have the past two seasons. Instead, they're in the playoffs for the first time since 2014, when the team was still known as the San Antonio Stars. A'ja Wilson came back with a vengeance over the weekend, scoring a team-high 25 points in the Aces' feisty win over Chicago (August 18). And the team provided the best press release beforehand:
Las Vegas has three games this week, beginning with a trip to Phoenix to take on the Mercury tonight (10:00 PM Eastern, Twitter). They then travel to Connecticut on Friday before going to Minnesota to take on the Lynx on Sunday, August 25 (7:00 PM Eastern, NBA TV / TSN). Two of the Aces' three opponents this week are still in the playoff hunt (more on that later), so it's important for Vegas not to rest just because they've clinched a playoff spot. But I don’t think they will, especially now with Wilson and Liz Cambage back.
The Sparks are on a two-game losing streak with the highest number of games left in the regular season (nine). They play a third of that schedule this week, hosting the Lynx tonight (10:30 PM Eastern, NBA TV / NBA TV Canada), the Fever on Thursday (10:30 PM Eastern, CBS Sports Network), and the Sun on Sunday. While the home cooking and the shrinking injury/out list should help the Sparks, they will need to step it up to avoid an upset loss mid-week.
The Sky kick their schedule off tonight with a visit to the Atlanta Dream (7:00 PM Eastern, Twitter). While the rest of Chicago's slate this week includes a home game against Washington on Friday and a trip to Phoenix on Sunday (6:00 PM Eastern), it’s tonight's contest that I'm most worried about for the Sky. The Dream find themselves playing the role of spoiler this year, and I expect them to excel in that role – so the Sky will have to bring it if they want to secure their first playoff berth since 2017.
The couple lovingly known as Vanderquigs will be a big factor either way (props to the WNBA for actually showing off one of their queer couples!).
The Storm have played the highest number of games among all teams at 28. They got back in the win column with a close win over Minnesota (August 18). As the website Her Hoop Stats pointed out Monday, the Storm are just 1.5 games back from the 4-seed, which would give them a first-round bye in the playoffs. With the second easiest schedule left based on opponents' winning percentages, it looks possible. But, as I've said all year, you can't rule any team out in any game – especially with the playoffs looming. Seattle has just one game this week, a home contest against Indiana on Sunday (4:00 PM Eastern). If the Storm stay competitive and use their home court to their advantage, they will pull out the win.
The Mercury went 2-1 in the games where Brittney Griner was suspended for her role in the aforementioned fight earlier this month. She's back now, and still leading the WNBA with 19.4 points per game. They're also getting Diana Taurasi back this week – after she serves her suspension during Phoenix's game in Vegas tonight (10:00 PM Eastern, Twitter). The team says Taurasi will be eligible to play in Sunday's contest against Chicago (6:00 PM Eastern). With both big returns and the numbers their supporting players have put up in their absence, I expect the Mercury to surge at the right time once again this year.
The Lynx are hanging on to the final playoff spot despite a two-game losing streak. It doesn't get any easier for the team, as they only face three teams with worse records in their seven remaining regular season games. And Minnesota embarks on a busy week ahead starting tonight at Los Angeles (10:30 PM Eastern, NBA TV / NBA TV Canada) before hosting Dallas on Thursday (8:00 PM Eastern) and Las Vegas on Sunday (7:00 PM Eastern). There have been a few bright spots in this new-look Lynx team this year, including the improved play of Odyssey Sims and likely Rookie of the Year candidate Napheesa Collier. Still, Minnesota will have to bring its A-game to every single contest ahead if the Lynx want to guarantee their spot in the postseason.
The Fever might just miss out on the playoffs this year, but it doesn't mean they won't finish the season strong. Things are starting to click for Indiana despite its record. The Fever also have a chance to shake up the playoff standings, as six of their eight remaining games feature an opponent in the postseason or looking to get in. Indiana begins the week with a match against New York tonight (7:00 PM Eastern, NBA TV / NBA TV Canada).
Another likely Rookie of the Year Candidate is Dallas Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale, who has been putting up stellar numbers in her debut season. Her 16.4 points per game puts her seventh among the entire league – not just rookies. Ogunbowale received her first of likely many Player of the Week awards after averaging 25.3 points per game en route to a 2-1 record for the Wings. But she's not the only one stepping up for Dallas, which plays all but one of its remaining games against playoff-bound or likely playoff-bound teams. Expect the Wings to be a spoiler too when they resume play Thursday at Minnesota.
The Liberty are on an eight-game losing streak that could not have come at a worse time. New York bookends the rest of its regular-season schedule with games against fellow likely lottery teams Indiana and Atlanta, which could give the Liberty fuel for potential upset wins against Washington (Sunday), Phoenix, and Connecticut. Still, despite their lackluster record, there are good things happening for the Liberty, and I hope we get to see more of that in the future.
The Dream have not won in more than a month; their last victory came July 12 against Minnesota. While a handful of Atlanta's 11 losses in a row have been close, they are still defeats, which is sad for a team that had a lot of promise at the beginning of the season. But again, nothing is guaranteed in the WNBA. Veteran Angel McCoughtry made news today when she said she will be back for Atlanta's final home game against New York on September 8th.
Hopefully that's a sign of good things to come.
(Photo credit: @WNBA / Twitter)