5 things to watch for in the final week of the 2020 WNBA regular season

Playoff seedings, who tries to avoid facing Diana Taurasi in Round 1, awards beef, and more.

Hello, it’s me, Matt Ellentuck.

Good morning, and welcome to the final week of the 2020 WNBA regular season. It’s wild that we’re saying this just six weeks after tip-off, but a shortened 22-game bubble year has gone QUICK.

For those new to the WNBA, the playoff format is WILD. Out of 12 teams, eight make the playoffs, but the bottom four will have to win two single-elimination games to advance to a five-game semifinals series. The No. 3 and No. 4 seeds — despite being the freaking No. 3 and No. 4 seeds — will still have to win one single-elimination game, too. So yeah, that means a team as good as the Sparks could have to play against Diana Taurasi’s Mercury in a do-or-die game that could end their whole season in 40 minutes. A shortened season has only made each win or loss feel that much more extreme, so get ready for a chaotic last few days here.

Right now, the playoff race looks like this:

  1. Storm, 16-3 - clinched

  2. Aces, 14-4 (1.5 games back) - clinched

  3. Sparks, 14-5 (2 games back) - clinched

  4. Lynx, 13-6 (3 games back) - clinched

  5. Mercury, 12-8 (4.5 games back) - clinched

  6. Sky, 11-9 (5.5 games back) - clinched

  7. Sun, 10-10 (6.5 games back) - clinched

  8. Wings, 7-12 (9 games back)

  9. Mystics, 5-13 (10.5 games back)

  10. Fever, 5-14 (11 games back)

  11. Dream, 5-14 (11 games back)

  12. New York Liberty, 2-16 (13.5 games back) - eliminated

The top seven seeds have clinched, but there’s movement to be had. Plus, the fight is on for the final spot.

But first, a quick reminder that Here’s Basketball is sponsored by the good college apparel t-shirt makers at Homefield! If you use the code below, and click on thiiis link, you can snag a sweet deal!

Ok, thank you, brand. Now back to the writing.

Here’s what we’re waiting to find out in the final few games.

Which two of the top 4 teams will have to play in a single elimination game?

This might be the biggest question of all, because in the bubble, anything is possible. Currently, the Storm lead the Aces by 1.5 games, and are the team most likely to clinch a double-bye thanks to Jewell Loyd’s buzzer-beater over the Sparks on Saturday night. But just 1.5 games separate the No. 2 seed Aces from the No. 4 seed Lynx, with the No. 3 seed Sparks in-between.

Here are their schedules to end the season …

Storm

9/9 - vs. Wings

9/11 - vs. Mercury

9/13 - vs. Aces (!!!)

Aces

9/8 - vs. Fever

9/10 - vs. Lynx (!!!)

9/12 - vs. Sparks (!!!!)

9/13 - vs. Storm (!!!!!)

OOF!

Sparks

9/8 - vs. Liberty

9/10 - vs. Mystics

9/12 - vs. Aces (!!!)

Lynx

9/8 - vs. Mystics

9/10 - vs. Aces (!!!)

9/12 - vs. Fever

Every single one of these games is important. Buckle up.

Who might have to play against Diana Taurasi’s Mercury in round 1? And will anyone try and escape?

This is the matchup everyone wants to avoid in the first round of the playoffs. Diana Taurasi is 13-1 all-time in do-or-die games, and the Mercury are 6-1 in their last seven games, even without Brittney Griner and Bria Hartley. The Mercury are fast-paced, run a ton of pick-and-rolls with elite guards (Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith), and Brianna Turner is breaking out as a versatile small-ball big. They’re dangerous if they catch fire shooting. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to play them.

The question is … will any team opt to bench players in the last game or two if it means dodging the player who demanded to meet a referee in the lobby?

The answer is maybe. There’s still, of course, a chance that the Mercury can snag a top-4 seed and get a single-bye, but they can also drop as low as the No. 7 seed and still have to play in two single-elimination games. That’s how close the standings are in a 22-game season.

There’s multitude to this, too. Even if the Mercury are poised to play a first-round do-or-die game, the WNBA playoffs are sneaky, because in the second round, playoff teams are re-seeded. The team with the worst record who wins the first single-elimination game will play against the No. 3 seed, and the team with the better record will play against the No. 4 seed. That could be the difference between playing the short-handed Lynx or Candace Parker’s Sparks. So trying to dodge Taurasi could backfire. Nobody’s path is clear until the first round is finished.

But still, watching teams try and dodge Taurasi would be hilarious.

Who will grab the final playoff spot?

Right now, the final spot in the playoffs is the Wings’ to lose. They have a 1.5 game lead over the Mystics, plus tie-breaker rights (thank you, Arike Ogunbowale’s 39-point performance on Sunday).

They also have a two-game lead over the Fever and Dream. (The Wings own the tie-breaker over Indiana,. They split one game apiece with Atlanta, meaning if they tie, whoever has the better record against teams .500 or better would win that head-to-head.)

The Wings’ final three games are against the Storm (yikes), Sky (winnable) and Liberty (a gimme.) But again, anything is possible.

The last playoff spot in the WNBA also matters a heckuva lot more than the NBA. Remember, it’s a win-or-go-home game for the No. 5 seed as much as it is for whoever snags this last seat. And there’s no longer any homecourt advantage.

Right now, Taurasi’s Mercury are the No. 5 seed. But the Sky, who’ve lost Azura Stevens and Diamond DeShields for the season and lost five out of their last six games, are just one game back. Should Chicago edge them out for the No. 5 seed, that game feels winnable for Dallas. And even if it is Phoenix, all it takes is one good shooting night from Arike Ogunbowale to move on to the second round.

SHEESH I love the WNBA playoffs.

(Also, a fun note here. Remember that the Wings own the rights to the Mystics’ first-round draft pick in 2021, so even if they make the playoffs, they’ll have a choice in the top-4 next year.)

The final push for MVP

It feels like this year’s MVP is going to come down to Breanna Stewart winning her second in three years, or A’ja Wilson winning her first. Both deserve recognition, and I’m willing to hear arguments from both sides.

As of today:

  • Stewart is averaging 19.5 points per game (45/37/89 shooting splits), 8.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.3 blocks and 2.6 turnovers. The Storm are 16-3.

  • Wilson is averaging 20.3 points per game (48/0/81 shooting splits), 8.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.8 blocks, and 1.7 turnovers. The Aces are 14-4.

Stewart has three games left, and Wilson has four including games against the current No. 1, 3 and 4 seeds. So yeah, Wilson and Stewart have one last matchup left on the final night of the regular season.

Will that game make a difference? (eyes emoji af)

The final push for Rookie of the Year

This year’s Rookie of the Year battle is nothing like what we thought it’d be. Sabrina Ionescu only played two games this year, so she’s out. Satou Sabally and Chennedy Carter, the next-two most popular picks, both missed games this year (Sabally’s played in 15 of 19 games, and Chennedy Carter’s played in 13 of 19). Both players have been a bit up-and-down all year long, too.

That’s opened room for the Lynx’s second-round pick, Crystal Dangerfield, and the Fever’s 2016 third-round pick, Julie Allemand, to enter the conversation.

To say that any player in this group of four is the clear favorite to win would be a lie. I think all four are worthy of consideration.

  • Chennedy Carter is averaging 16.5 points per game (45/35/80 shooting splits), 3.5 assists, 2.2 rebounds, .9 steals, .4 blocks and 2.9 turnovers.

  • Satou Sabally is averaging 13.1 points per game (35/18/89 shooting splits), 2.5 assists, 7.8 rebounds, .9 steals, .9 blocks and 2.2 turnovers.

  • Crystal Dangerfield is averaging 15.6 points per game (46/35/91 shooting splits), 3.4 assists, 1.8 rebounds, .9 steals, .1 blocks and 2.4 turnovers.

  • Julie Allemand is averaging 8.1 points per game (45/45/74 shooting splits), 5.6 assists, 4.4 rebounds, 1.3 steals, .4 blocks and 2.6 turnovers.

Is there anything one of these players could do to convince voters to pick them? Hell, I still don’t know who I’m choosing.

Please, someone make my decision easier.

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If you have any leads, please email: mellentuck10@gmail.com or DM me on Twitter: @mellentuck. I miss doing this as a full-time job. All of my previous work can be found at SB Nation, where I worked for the past four years before being laid off due to the pandemic. I uhh also wrote for the New York Times, which you can read here.