While the Minnesota Lynx clinched a playoff berth with their big 87-68 win over the Los Angeles Sparks tonight, it might not even be the most intriguing news in the Western Conference tonight.
In a Seattle Storm win decided by only one point against the New York Liberty tonight, it's hard to dispute that center Lauren Jackson's return from injury had a significant impact and might continue to have a significant impact on the standings moving forward.
"She got a lot out of her minutes, didn't she? She played well," said Storm coach Brian Agler after the Storm's 63-62 win tonight. "We're a different team, obviously. I've got to give everybody credit for keeping us competitive without her, but we can be much better with her. She was a factor tonight."
And given the Storm's remaining schedule, Jackson's timing was perfect.
The Liberty were one of the toughest remaining matchups for the Storm, who entered the night in fourth place in the Western Conference. But even if they had lost tonight's game, they would have had a good shot at making the playoffs and even moving up in the standings.
"I'm sure as a unit they're 60 percent of what they'll be in three or four more games," said Liberty coach John Whisenant. "They'll be awesome in three or four more games. I just wanted to steal this one before they get that much better. Lauren was amazing."
So this win could be considered a nice bonus for the Storm that could give them a little more breathing room as the 2011 WNBA Playoffs draw near. With the win, the Storm improve to 14-12 and move up to third place in the Western Conference with the San Antonio Silver Stars' 87-81 road loss to the Phoenix Mercury.
Yet while a road loss to a second place team wouldn't normally be a big deal, the Silver Stars' loss tonight was somewhat discouraging for their playoff hopes and perhaps ironically the most significant outcome of the night.
As reported by Odeen Domingo of the Arizona Republic, Mercury star and WNBA leading scorer Diana Taurasi was a game-time scratch tonight due to back spasms; in a way, it was a great opportunity for the slumping Silver Stars to pick up a win. But having lost seven of their last nine, losing to a team missing its starter is not particularly encouraging with one more road game against the Mercury remaining.
"Obviously, Diana is a big part of their team and they won without her tonight, so that says a lot about their team," said Silver Stars forward Sophia Young, who had 11 points and eight rebounds. "But for us, it just says we need to work harder and we can't send them to the free-throw line like that. It's the little things we can and have to do to
Counter to what the final scores suggest, that Silver Stars loss actually makes the beating the fifth place Sparks took in Minnesota look mild: even though the Sparks do have to rack up a number of wins to make the playoffs, their remaining schedule could still offer seven or eight more wins and it would've been a stretch to assume that they would beat the first place Lynx on the road to begin with.
The Sparks are now three games behind the fourth place Silver Stars after tonight's loss, but they're also done with the Lynx for the regular season. In contrast, the Silver Stars have back-to-back games against the Lynx after playing the Storm at KeyArena, which was the scene of one of their worst losses of the season just before the All-Star break.
After those three games, it's not unreasonable to think that the Silver Stars might end up having lost 10 of 12 games. With the Sparks looking considerably better with Candace Parker in the lineup, tonight's blowout notwithstanding, it's not hard to imagine that it's the Silver Stars who are most in danger of falling out of the playoffs.