It's a virtual certainty that the Seattle Storm (17-13) will clinch their eigth consecutive playoff berth in the next couple of games.
With their magic number currently at one, if they're not able to beat the 3-26 Tulsa Shock tonight, a win in one of their three remaining games or a loss by the fifth place Los Angeles Sparks (13-17) will get them into the post-season. The bid would mark their eighth consecutive playoff berth and would tie Los Angeles (1999-2006) for the longest streak in WNBA history.
Currently tied for second place in the Western Conference with the Phoenix Mercury (17-13), it's looking like they'll end up facing a familiar foe in first round of the playoffs. The 24-6 Minnesota Lynx have already clinched first place and the Storm are 2.5 games ahead of the fourth place San Antonio SIlver Stars (15-15) with four games left in their season.
That leaves the Mercury as the most likely matchup, which puts the Storm in good position, regardless of seeding.
The Storm have beaten the Mercury in 9 of their last 10 meetings, with the Mercury ending the streak with an 81-79 win in Phoenix on August 16. Yet that loss came without both 6-foot-6 center Lauren Jackson (hip injury) and defensive guard Tanisha Wright (personal reasons). Prior to that loss in Phoenix, the Storm had already won once in Phoenix without Jackson this season.
In addition to recent history being on the Storm's side, the Storm have been more fluid offensively in the five games since Jackson's return from injury on August 20 in turning the ball over less often and getting to the free throw line at one of the highest rates in the league. They've been especially strong defensively, holding opponents to under 40% percent shooting prior to Sparks superstar Candace Parker lighting them up for a season-high 27 on Tuesday in Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, the Mercury have continued struggling to stop anyone, forcing the least turnovers in the league since the All-Star break and allowing opponents to outshoot them prior to their big win over the Tulsa Shock on Tuesday.
In other words, the odds would have to be in favor of the Storm in a three game first round series with the Mercury, regardless of who finishes with the higher seed and homecourt advantage.
Seth Pollack of SB Nation Arizonawrote yesterdaythat "home court advantage or seeding in the playoffs is less important than being rested and healthy going into the postseason" for the Mercury; if indeed the standings hold form, the Mercury haven't beaten the Storm with Lauren Jackson in the lineup anywhere since a 101-90 win at KeyArena on August 4, 2009, a little more than two years ago. So indeed being fully healthy will be a priority in the event that they face the Storm.
Nevertheless, the Storm would be in even better position if they were to get the home court advantage that would come with a second seed.
The Storm are tied for the best home record in the WNBA this year, with a 13-2 record at KeyArena, which is a step down from their 17-0 home record last season. Even those two losses came against two of the best teams in the league right now in the Lynx and Atlanta Dream.
The Mercury haven't won a game in Seattle at all since a September 10, 2009 win, which should almost be disregarded since Jackson, Sue Bird, and Swin Cash were out for various reasons. It's since that point that the Storm have won 9 of their last 10 against the Mercury, including the game this year without Jackson.
While each of the next four games will be important to clinch a playoff berth and then fight for second place, the push for second could add importance to their head-to-head meeting with the Mercury on September 9 at KeyArena - by adding another home win against the Mercury in that game, the Storm would win the regular season series and thus have the head-to-head tiebreaker should seeding come down to that.
The Storm could rest on their laurels and coast through the end of the season into the playoffs after clinching a playoff berth. But they'd clearly be better off focusing on home court advantage in the first round If they want the best opportunity to advance and defend their 2010 title in the Western Conference Finals, despite a number of advantages over the Mercury.
So even if the Mercury were to start to resting up, the Storm will still have plenty to play for as the season winds down.