With only a little over a week left in the WNBA regular season, teams are jockeying for playoff position. Only two teams -- the Indiana Fever and San Antonio Stars – are out of playoff contention.
But the Los Angeles Sparks and Phoenix Mercury are in the middle of a close end-of-season playoff push. The Sparks will play the Mercury on the road Thursday in Talking Stick Resort Arena at 9 p.m.ET on ESPN2.
And both teams will need a win, albeit for different reasons.
The Mercury is on a two-game losing streak, falling to the Connecticut Sun and Minnesota Lynx. The Sun and the Lynx are two of the best teams in the league, and the Mercury lost by at least 25 points to both.
For a team that hasn’t clinched a playoff spot yet, Phoenix possesses the right attitude: focused on improving, with a side of optimism.
"I think at the moment, I'm just looking for us to be playing a little bit more consistent basketball than what we have the last two games," Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said.
The Mercury hasn’t played well recently, failing to eclipse 70 points in the past two games. Phoenix (15-15) had a stretch in July in which they were solid, winning four straight games.
The longest losing streak this season though, was four games as well, which took place right after the winning streak.
Being without Brittney Griner for four weeks certainly didn’t help. Griner suffered a left knee bone bruise and right ankle sprain July 15, when the Mercury was in the middle of the losing streak. Griner has averaged 21.0 points per game and 7.8 rebounds per game this season – a player that cannot be replaced.
Griner has played in the past four games for the Mercury, her first game back against the Seattle Storm on Aug. 12. In those four games, she has averaged 14.7 points per game.
With the playoffs approaching, Griner is ready to help the team – whether she’s injured or not.
“Each game I'm getting better," Griner said. "I'm feeling stronger. It's going well."
With a win over the Sparks, the Mercury would clinch a playoff spot. And after that, seeding would be the challenge ahead. Phoenix is currently the No. 6 seed, but they are 2.5 games behind the New York Liberty from taking the No. 4 seed.
On top of that, the Storm is only one game behind the Mercury for the No. 6 seed. The Storm is the No. 7 seed, and they are on a four-game win streak.
While the Mercury is focused on clinching a playoff spot, the Sparks just need to maintain their cushion over the Sun.
Connecticut, the league’s No. 3 seed, is currently 2.5 games behind the Sparks for the No. 2 seed. Earning the No. 2 seed would give Los Angeles a double-bye in the playoffs.
The Sparks have played well lately, as they are on a three-game winning streak. They defeated the Stars 75-55 on Tuesday. Perhaps the best defensive team in the league, Los Angeles leads the WNBA in steals per game (9.0).
The Sparks’ stifling defense could pose problems for the Mercury -- a team that struggles to take care of the ball. Phoenix is ranked fifth in turnovers per game (14.1).
With Los Angeles playing solid basketball, the Mercury will have a challenge ahead of them Thursday. But it’s a challenge that they’ll need to overcome. Who will come out on top?