Late in the regular season, playoff-bound teams should be positioning themselves for long postseason runs and getting everyone healthy.
However, injury questions surround Minnesota and Phoenix as the regular season winds down. Some of those questions might be answered when the Mercury take on the Lynx on Tuesday at Excel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.
The postseason is in sight for Minnesota, which still has the best record in the league at 22-6 despite having lost four of the past six games. The Lynx hold a 1 1/2-game lead over the second-place Los Angeles Sparks.
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The Mercury (15-14) are entrenched in the sixth playoff spot with an outside shot at climbing into the coveted fourth postseason slot, which would ensure a first-round bye. There is also an outside shot they finish out of the playoff mix, but that would take a total collapse.
The key for the Mercury is keeping Brittney Griner healthy after her recent return from knee and ankle injuries.
The league’s leading scorer at 21.5 points per game missed eight games and got back in action three games ago. She totaled 19 points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots in 21 minutes in a home loss to the Seattle Storm on Aug. 12. Then she had 13 points and 10 rebounds on Friday in a win at Washington.
On Sunday, Griner scored 18 in a blowout loss to Connecticut.
“It was great to have the big girl back,” Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello said last week after inserting Griner back in the rotation. “She gives us another dimension at both ends of the court for us.”
Unfortunately for the Mercury, Griner didn’t make a difference in a 28-point loss to the Sun on Sunday.
“They just kicked our (tail). I mean, that is just the bottom line,” Mercury guard Diana Taurasi told swishappeal.com. “They kicked our (tail) in the second half in every aspect of the game.”
The Lynx know the feeling.
Since veteran point guard Lindsay Whalen broke a bone in her left hand, the Minnesota offense has struggled in four losses, scoring a season-low 61 points twice.
Coach Cheryl Reeve thought the Lynx had turned the corner on Friday after setting a WNBA record for margin of victory with a 111-52 rout of Indiana.
Then the offense laid another egg against New York in a 70-61 loss Sunday. Without Reeve’s “security blanket” and the team’s “head of the snake,” the Lynx have lacked the look of a champion.
“(Whalen)’s so good for us in the third quarter,” Minnesota’s Rebekkah Brunson told MinnPost.com. “This year especially, she’s been a player that gets (us) going in the third and gets our wills going.
“It’s unfortunate we don’t have her right now, but we still have all the pieces that we need to go out and make runs and do great things. We just have to get it done.”
One of those pieces, Brunson, also will miss a few weeks after spraining an ankle in the loss to Seattle.
The Lynx can normally rely on Maya Moore and Sylvia Fowles to carry the load, but without Whalen to get the offense in position, Minnesota has proved beatable.
Renee Montgomery has tried to fill Whalen’s shoes but has struggled.
“Any time you move up the depth chart, your accountability goes up,” Reeve told reporters. “While Renee doesn’t have to be Lindsay Whalen in terms of her game, she has to bring us some intangibles in her own way — toughness, focus on what it is we’re trying to get done on a possession, and discipline.”
Montgomery has yet to prove that consistency, leaving Reeve to find some combination of Montgomery, Seimone Augustus and Jia Perkins to handle the ball.
Whalen is expected back sometime during the final week of the regular season.