Five things to look forward to
It was a festive All-Star weekend for the WNBA in Connecticut, with a game that showcased some of the league's brightest stars.
And now it's time to get back to the business of chasing a title.
The first half of the league's season was characterized by the arrival of dynamic rookies and the injuries that have already done damage to the ambitions of some teams. What will the second half bring as the dog days of summer lead into a push for the playoffs?
Time to get healthy: During Saturday's All-Star telecast, Brittney Griner said she should be back on the floor for Phoenix "soon," which should shore up the Mercury's weakness when it comes to competing inside with some of the powers in the Western Conference.
In Chicago, Elena Delle Donne is expected to be back on the floor as soon as she recovers from last week's concussion. The Sky need the stellar rookie on the court to reach the postseason for the first time in franchise history.
Other teams are going to have to wait longer for some of their key components to return. Atlanta isn't going to get Sancho Lyttle back for at least another month after she underwent mid-July surgery to repair her broken foot. And the same goes for Phoenix, which was just getting good minutes from Penny Taylor when she went out with a knee injury that will keep her out six to eight weeks.
Surely a team like San Antonio, which lost Sophia Young and Becky Hammon to season-ending injuries, would happily take that timeline.
2. Losing steam: Atlanta had such a quick and impressive start that perhaps there was nowhere to go but down. Which the Dream did, losing four of their last five games heading into the All-Star break and falling into second place in the East behind Chicago.
Lyttle's injury was a setback for the Dream, who are now relying on Angel McCoughtry to play an even larger role in their offense. Defensively though, Atlanta is one of the toughest matchups in the league and can make up for a lack of scoring punch by swarming the basketball. The Dream want to be considered serious title contenders, which they were after the first month of the season. Can they get that magic back?
3. How the West is won: Minnesota has the league's best record at 14-3 and is currently riding a seven-game winning streak. However, Los Angeles is right at the Lynx's heels with seven wins in its past 10 games. Phoenix sits at 9-9 but, seemingly, is waiting to bust out when Griner gets back. It can be argued that these are the three best teams in the WNBA this season, and they will be battling down the stretch for a conference title that will prove to be a huge advantage.
The No. 1 seed in the playoffs will get a first-round matchup with the No. 4 seed. Right now, Seattle sits in that spot, but none of the bottom three teams in the West look, on paper, like true threats. However, the other first-round battle will pit the No. 2 and 3 seeds against each other in a matchup of league powers. You can bet that the Lynx, Sparks and Mercury will be desperate to finish with that No. 1 seed.
4. Eastward ho: The teams in the Eastern Conference would surely take exception to the idea that the road to the title goes through the West, but the East is much more bunched and its playoff picture much more muddled at this point. Half a game currently separates first-place Chicago and second-place Atlanta. Fifth-place New York is only 5½ games behind the Sky and only a game and a half behind fourth-place Indiana.
The defending champion Fever, with a healthy Tamika Catchings, are putting things together after a 1-7 start and have won seven of their past 10 games. While Washington is 9-9 heading into the final 16 games, Mike Thibault's team has a great chance to get back to the postseason after being a cellar dweller for the past few years.
5. Farewell tours: Tina Thompson -- the only player in the league who has played every WNBA season -- and Katie Smith, who is the No. 2 scorer in league history behind Thompson, are playing the final games of their WNBA careers over the next two months. Pay tribute and clap loudly. These two players, whose teams are on the cusp of the playoff picture, are pioneers of the game, WNBA champions, future Hall of Famers, Olympic gold medalists and classy individuals who have never given their teams any less than their best.