The Olympic break is over and it's time for the WNBA to get back to the second half of the season.
When the league went on a monthlong hiatus in mid-July, Connecticut was rolling through the Eastern Conference and San Antonio and Los Angeles had tightened things up on defending champion Minnesota atop the West.
The season resumes Thursday with three games. Most teams have between 15 and 17 games remaining over a 5 1/2-week stretch before the end of the regular season on Sept. 23.
The Sun (15-4) went into the break with a four-game lead on second-place Indiana (10-7) in the East. Atlanta (9-10) and Chicago (8-9) are tied for third, two games behind the Fever.
"We like where we ended before the break for sure," Connecticut's Kara Lawson said on a national media conference call. "We feel good about the second half of the year, understanding that everybody got healed up over the break and everybody feels like they're ready for a good second half. I don't think there's a team out there that doesn't think they're going to improve."
In the West, the Lynx (15-4) are one game up on Los Angeles (15-6) and 1 1/2 games on San Antonio (13-5), which won nine straight heading into the break to move percentage points ahead of the Sparks.
Several teams should be improved after getting key players back from injuries or absences in the first half. Seattle (9-10) and Phoenix (4-15) will likely benefit the most while adding their biggest stars.
The Storm's Lauren Jackson missed the entire first half of the season while training with the Australian national team, which won the bronze, and the Mercury's Diana Taurasi missed the last 16 games with a hip flexor and ankle injury. Taurasi averaged a team-high 12.4 points in London to lead the U.S. to its fifth consecutive gold medal.
"You're talking about the greatest players in the world," Minnesota's Taj McWilliams-Franklin said. "They proved it in the Olympics. Bringing back Lauren Jackson and Diana Taurasi full speed, it's just going to be harder and harder for the Minnesota Lynx in the West."
Phoenix visits Seattle to highlight the "re-opening night," with Indiana hosting Washington and Connecticut visiting New York in the other games.
Minnesota was rolling along with 13 wins in its first 14 games before losing three straight to open July. It was the longest skid in nearly two years for the Lynx, who lost consecutive games just once en route to winning the WNBA championship last season. They rebounded by sweeping league-worst Tulsa in a home-and-home set before the break.
"A lot of the things we did towards the end - after the little bump of the losing skid that we endured during the first part of the season - I think that as a team we found a lot more cohesion in our defense than we had even when we were winning previously," McWilliams-Franklin said.
After a slow start, Seattle won eight of its last 11 and is looking forward to having Jackson, a three-time MVP, back for a playoff push.
"Lauren is a big part of this team ... so having her back is great," the Storm's Tina Thompson said. Everyone is just kind of excited for her return and just kind of getting her acclimated with the offense and working on our cohesion."
The Sun, just 6-11 away from home last season, were a league-best 8-1 on the road before the break - answering coach Mike Thibault's call for maturity after his young team gave up late leads on the road a year ago.
"We have the bulk of our rotation that's third-year players and that came in as rookies and got a lot of experience in their first two years in the league," Lawson said. "So we've made some huge strides, probably bigger strides from year two to year three than we did from the first year to the second year."
The Sky also figure to get a boost from the return of a healthy Epiphanny Prince. The third-year guard was averaging a league-leading 22.3 points per game when she broke a bone in her right foot on June 16. Chicago, which was 7-1 before her injury, struggled in her absence.
Now, thanks to the Olympic break, the Sky get her back for the second half.
"If it was a regular year, Piph might have been out the whole season," Sky center Ruth Riley said. "But because it's an Olympic year we had the rare opportunity for her to get healthy and to rejoin us; and we're a much better team with her on the floor."
The fifth-place Liberty, losers of three straight, are only 2 1/2 games out of a playoff spot and nearly as close to second-place Indiana as the Fever are to the Sun.