Commentary

Lynx closing in on postseason berth

Playoff race in West will come down to pivotal matchups in final three-plus weeks

Originally Published: August 19, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

Minnesota will have to wait a bit longer to really celebrate its first playoff berth since 2004. The Lynx are in the all-but-wrapped-up category and can make it official-official Saturday when they face visiting Los Angeles.

[+] EnlargeCandace Parker
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Sparks are 2½ games out of the final playoff spot in the West. But with Candace Parker back, L.A. is already making waves.

Which might have seemed like close to a foregone conclusion until recent results from the Sparks. Last Friday, L.A. defeated visiting Phoenix. On Tuesday, Candace Parker returned to action and nearly helped L.A. beat Atlanta. That game ended in a Sparks' defeat as the refs hit the ejector button for a letting-off-some-steam Parker, but notice had been served: L.A. had some mojo again.

Enough mojo to make a comeback all the way into a playoff spot? That will be a tall order, even for Parker and the apparently revitalized Sparks. But by beating Eastern Conference-leading Indiana on Thursday, L.A. got a much-needed win and kept the Lynx from mathematically clinching a postseason spot.

The Sparks (10-14) are not going to catch up to the Lynx (19-6). But this past week has highlighted that there is more uncertainty in the West than we might have thought when August began.

And "uncertainty" is a very unwanted feeling for WNBA defending champion Seattle (13-12) and San Antonio (13-11). At this point, they have to knuckle down to make sure the Sparks don't somehow creep up and catch them from behind.

You might say Phoenix (14-10) should feel that way, too. However, the Mercury did get an emotional lift this week when they finally beat Seattle for the first time since 2009. Phoenix went 0-7 against the Storm last season, then lost the teams' first two meetings this summer.

[+] EnlargeLauren Jackson
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinWhen Lauren Jackson returns, the Storm -- who have lost four of their last five games -- will get an immediate boost.

But Tuesday in Phoenix, Diana Taurasi stole a pass from Sue Bird and made the winning layup in the Mercury's 81-79 victory. That sequence by itself told a story. Bird -- having carried so much weight for Seattle with Lauren Jackson out since late June with a hip injury -- seems to have shown some of the strain in the past two weeks.

Not that the Storm could have foreseen it, but … maybe last weekend wasn't the best time for Seattle to remind Bird she'd been in the league for 10 seasons. The celebration of her decade with the Storm came in the midst of a stumble for Seattle.

On Aug. 5, Bird hit another of her famous buzzer-beaters as the Storm edged Connecticut. But since then, Seattle has lost four of five, with only hapless Tulsa giving the Storm some relief.

Two of those losses were by just two points apiece and came when two of the best players in the league beat Seattle. On Aug. 9, New York's Cappie Pondexter made the winning basket in the last minute. On Tuesday, it was Taurasi. But the Storm's other two losses in that stretch were both blowouts to Atlanta, the team Seattle swept in the WNBA finals last season.

The Storm need for an ill wind to blow some good, and maybe that's about to happen. The weather report out of Seattle is indicating that tropical storm "Lauren" has been building up strength and might even be upgraded to hurricane status any day now. (OK, we know they don't actually have hurricanes in the Pacific Northwest, but play along here.)

And unlike hurricanes, which begin to weaken as they make landfall, Seattle hopes that once center Lauren Jackson returns to action, she will get stronger and stronger as the season ends.

Having LJ back will change everything for Seattle, even if she is less than 100 percent. The Storm start a four-game homestand Saturday -- the games are against New York, San Antonio, Tulsa and Los Angeles -- and that span could be the time when the Storm solidify and head into the stretch run and postseason feeling much more confident.

[+] EnlargeSue Bird and Diana Taurasi
Barry Gossage/Getty ImagesSue Bird's Storm (13-12) and Diana Taurasi's Mercury (14-10) both trail the first-place Lynx (19-6) in the West.

(By the way … if LJ does come back as expected, you have to wonder if Seattle wouldn't be tempted to not take her to Tulsa on Sept. 2. Last year, she got sick on one trip to Oklahoma, and this year she suffered her hip injury there. Maybe the Storm should allow her to "accidentally" miss the flight this time.)

Meanwhile, San Antonio doesn't have a former league MVP about to make a return, as Los Angeles and Seattle do, but the Silver Stars are hoping to get Danielle Adams back. She was having a rookie-of-the-year type season before suffering a foot sprain July 26.

The prognosis was she would be out four to six weeks, which means it's still possible for Adams to return before the regular season ends. In the meantime, the Silver Stars must work with what they have -- and the rest of their schedule is challenging.

San Antonio is coming off another frustrating loss: 65-63 at home to Indiana on Tuesday, a game in which coach Dan Hughes was tossed after being driven crazy all night by the officiating.

Since the All-Star break, the Silver Stars have lost two games to the Lynx on last-second shots. Lindsay Whalen beat them July 31; Taj McWilliams-Franklin did it Aug. 4. And San Antonio still has two games left against the Lynx.

The Silver Stars also have to face Phoenix and Seattle twice, plus they travel to Los Angeles on Sept. 6. Depending on how the Silver Stars and Sparks play until then, that has the potential to be a big game.

So in these last three-plus weeks of the WNBA regular season, there's still the potential for a lot of intrigue to play out in the West.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.