Playoff implications emerging as season approaches halfway point

Candace Parker and Sue Bird battle for the ball. No foul was called on the play and the Storm got possession. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.
Candace Parker and Sue Bird battle for the ball. No foul was called on the play and the Storm got possession. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.

The calendar hasn’t yet turned to July, but a condensed schedule in the WNBA this season means that games are becoming laden with potential postseason implications.

That was the case Thursday night at KeyArena, with both the Seattle Storm and Los Angeles Sparks parked near the top of the league standings as the season inches toward the halfway point.

And though it may not seem like much now, an 81-72 Storm victory gave Seattle the head-to-head tiebreaker over Los Angeles in any potential ties in the standings at season’s end. Both Candace Parker and Breanna Stewart led their teams with a game-high 27 points each.

But beyond the seeding implications that came with the win, Storm head coach Dan Hughes was happy with his team’s resilience down the stretch.

“As we get into the second half of the season and as you get yourselves in the playoffs, [the games] are going to be like this,” he said. “And you are going to be staring at a game where you’re in the fourth quarter, it’s a tie score and whether it’s a nine minute game, a five minute game or a three minute game, you got to have the poise to finish, and I thought we showed good poise today.”

Seattle led by as many as 13 in the first half — and ultimately never trailed — but saw the Sparks battle throughout to keep the gap within reach. Yet, after an Essence Carson jumper tied the score at 61 with less than eight minutes to play, the Storm outscored Los Angeles 20-11 from that point forward.

“We didn’t play with as much poise and composure down the stretch as I thought we needed to,” said Sparks head coach Brian Agler. “We had our opportunities and didn’t
take advantage of it. Seattle made some timely shots and got some timely rebounds. That was the difference down the stretch.”

That run in the game’s final minutes was in no small part due to Seattle’s defensive effort against Parker, held to just three points (all from the free-throw line) in the fourth after scoring 24 through three quarters.

“I thought it started with Natasha Howard trying to keep the ball out of her hands,” Hughes said. “And if you noticed, we congested her, there were double teams on Parker, there were people in the area when she played isolation to that.”

With the Sparks falling to Las Vegas on Friday night, four teams are now tied in the loss column with five (Phoenix, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Washington), with two more just a game behind them (Connecticut and Minnesota).

Only the top-two are guaranteed a best-of-five playoff series, and the next four at least one single-elimination home-game.

And while Seattle is happy to take whatever extra edge it can get, there’s no overlooking the work left to be done for the tiebreaker to even matter.

“We can’t get ahead of ourselves,” said Sue Bird. “We may be winning but we still have a lot of work to do.”