Only a third of the way into the Seattle Storm's 34-game regular season, they're already confronted with a game that could end up having playoff implications.
The fourth place Seattle Storm (5-4) are confronted with an opportunity to not only create some space in the standings between themselves and the fifth place Los Angeles Sparks (4-5) tonight, but also even the season series with superstar forward Candace Parker out for a few more weeks.
With Storm center Lauren Jackson out as well, Kevin Pelton of StormBasketball.com describes how today's opponents are actually on somewhat even footing, narratively.
STORM: Insider Preview - Storm vs. Los Angeles
Without their star post player, the veteran team has relied heavily on one of the WNBA's assist leaders, an all-time leading scorer and a forward nominated for the Top 15 Players in WNBA History while moving an undersized post player who started during the 2009 WNBA Finals into the lineup to fill the hole. That assessment could apply to both the Seattle Storm and the Los Angeles Sparks.
However, If their first meeting in Los Angeles is any indication, the Sparks have at least one significant advantage over the Storm: bench play.
The Sparks' bench outscored the Storm's bench 40-7 in L.A. and that's not necessarily an unfair representation of the two teams' change in fortunes this season: while the Sparks are second in bench scoring at 30.78 points per game, the Storm are last in the WNBA at 11.22 points per game. Considering that Le'coe Willingham's 7.4 points per game have since moved from the bench to the starting lineup in Jackson's absence, it has to be considered an even greater area of concern now.
So at the very least, this is a chance to get a win from the Sparks with one less thing to contend with.
Having lost Parker in the second game of their current four game losing streak, the Sparks have fallen from the top of the Western Conference standings down to just behind the Storm. They will unquestionably recover once Parker returns as they were 5-2 with her healthy, but for now it gives the Storm a chance to pick up a win without the Sparks' star in the lineup - Parker could well be back for the Storm's home-and-home with the Sparks in late-August.
Obviously, no true competitor is going to say that they look forward to picking up a win against a team that is without their superstar, especially given the outcome of the first contest. But in a 34-game season against the team just behind them in the playoff race, there's added significance to games like today's - at the end of the season, a head-to-head tie-breaker with the Sparks could loom large.