The sprint to the WNBA championship begins in earnest for the Storm.
Seattle, which is third in the league standings at 15-8 and 1½ games out of first place, plays 13 games over the final five weeks of the regular season.
It’s important to remember the WNBA revamped its playoff format. The league eliminated byes, single-elimination games and reseeding in favor of a bracket-style structure in which the top eight teams participate in three rounds using a best-of 3-5-5 format.
In the first round, the higher seed will host Games 1 and 2 and the lower seed will host Game 3 if necessary.
The semifinals and WNBA Finals will follow a 2-2-1 format whereby the higher seed hosts Games 1, 2 and 5 if needed.
“Personally, I actually don’t really follow the standings all that closely,” guard Sue Bird said. “I always have an idea of where we are, but I’m not really chasing. If we’re in fourth, I’m not trying to chase third. … I’m not overthinking it, but it starts to register more.”
If the season ended today, No. 3 seed Seattle would host No. 6 seed Atlanta in one half of a bracket that would include No. 2 seed Las Vegas and No. 4 seed Los Angeles.
Finishing among the top two in the league isn’t as important this year as it was in 2018 and 2020 when Seattle received double byes en route to winning WNBA titles.
However, since the start of the season, coach Noelle Quinn has stressed the importance of developing chemistry during the regular season and gaining momentum heading into the playoffs.
Quinn didn’t panic when the Storm stumbled to a 5-5 start, which was partly to blame for COVID-19-related absences. Since then, Seattle has the best record in the league at 10-3.
“We’re right where we want to be,” guard Jewell Loyd said following Thursday’s 106-69 win at Los Angeles. “Obviously, there’s things that we want to work on and get better at. … We’re moving in the right direction. We feel confident about that. We’re excited. The hunger and the focus is to get better every day and work on our goals to win a championship.”
The Storm hope to avoid a repeat of last year when they were on top of the league standings at 16-5 heading into an extended break, which included the WNBA All-Star Game, the Tokyo Olympics and the inaugural WNBA Commissioner’s Cup title game.
Seattle staggered to a 5-6 finish, fell to fourth place and was ousted from the playoffs after an upset overtime loss in the second round without star Breanna Stewart, who missed the final three games, including the playoffs, due to a left Achilles tendon injury.
“No excuses, … but there were a lot of things that happened that correlated to physical and mental fatigue,” Quinn said. “We were playing so well up until that break and just couldn’t find our chemistry toward the end of the season and obviously Stewie got hurt.
“What I took most from last season is not wanting to overtax our starters. Up to this point, we’ve done a good job of not playing them 35-plus minutes.”
Stewart and Loyd rank 20th and 21st in the WNBA while averaging 30.4 and 30.2 minutes, respectively.
“After the All-Star Game, you definitely feel the sense of urgency as things start to ramp up,” Stewart said. “You hate to say the games mean more now, but in many ways they do because things are winding down.
“We’re playing good basketball and want to not only keep that going, but keep improving.”
Here’s a look at the WNBA postseason awards the Storm players are vying for with an eye toward how things might shake out.
MVP OF THE YEAR: For the second straight year, Stewart is in position to win a second WNBA MVP. The Storm star leads the league in scoring (21.0 points per game) and her advanced stats are even better than 2018 when she won the award. Stewart’s main competition comes from a pair of Las Vegas Aces stars, A’ja Wilson and Kelsey Plum, the former Washington Husky standout. Las Angeles’ Nneka Ogwumike and Dallas’ Arike Ogunbowale are deserving of consideration if they can lead their respective teams to strong finish.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Stewart and Ezi Magbegor are the centerpieces of a Storm defense that allows the second fewest points in the WNBA (76.2 per game). Stewart is second in the league with 1.9 steals per game and seventh in rebounds (7.1) while Magbegor averages a league-leading 2.5 blocks and 6.6 rebounds.
SIXTH PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Connecticut Sun forward Brionna Jones is the clear-cut favorite considering she’s a tentpole on a championship contender and the only reserve voted to the 2022 WNBA All-Star Game. However, keep an eye on Charles. She was dominant in the past two games off the bench (15.5 ppg and 5.5 rpg.) and a continuation of that dominance over the final weeks of the season makes her a dark-horse candidate.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER: Most years, Magbegor would be a strong candidate considering her 11.7 scoring average is a five-point improvement from last year. But Las Vegas Aces guard Jackie Young, who made her first WNBA All-Star appearance Sunday, is a virtual lock.
COACH OF THE YEAR: Tanisha Wright is the front runner considering the Atlanta Dream (10-12) have already compiled more wins since 2018 and are poised to snap a four-year playoff drought. Chicago’s James Wade, Las Vegas’ Becky Hammon and Quinn should also be in the running.