After Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird led Team USA to a historic seventh straight gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics last month, the trio helped Seattle Storm restart the 2021 WNBA season with a dominant victory over the Connecticut Sun in the Commissioner's Cup championship game.
Since that statement win, however, the Storm have not looked like their usual selves. Even after squeaking out a win over the collapsing New York Liberty on Thursday night, the Storm are just 3-5 since play resumed. Two of those losses did come without Stewart and Bird, but that doesn't explain everything, especially considering they were in the lineup when the Storm suffered a 32-point loss to the Sky, which was the worst home loss in franchise history.
As a result of this recent downturn, the Storm have dropped into third place, and their chances of getting a top-two seed are pretty much gone. They're now two games behind the Aces, who own the tiebreaker between the two clubs. That means the Storm would have to finish above the Aces to claim the spot -- a tall task considering the Storm have three games left and the Aces have five.
Once one of the best offensive teams in the league, they've struggled to knock down shots, and have been especially cold from the 3-point line, where they've made just 31.9 percent of their attempts since the restart. And on an individual level, Stewart, Loyd and Bird are all shooting below 40 percent in that stretch. With all of the talent they have, however, you'd expect the offense to come around.
What's more concerning is they have just the eight-ranked defense in the league since coming back from the Olympics. While they haven't been a complete disaster -- 100.6 defensive rating -- on that end of the floor, they have been markedly worse than in the first half of the season. Again, they have the ability to shut teams down, as we saw for the first few months, but they haven't been able to reach that level on a regular basis lately.
The Storm are clearly still one of the best teams in the league, but they have some things to fix heading into the playoffs, and will likely be forced to get through a single-elimination round where anything can happen. Defending their title is not going to be easy.
1. Connecticut Sun (21-6) -- Last week No. 1
The Sun simply cannot be stopped right now. With Jonquel Jones and an elite defense leading the way, they've won nine in a row, including all seven games since the Olympic break, and are all alone in first place. With a little over two weeks remaining, they're closing in on securing a top-two seed, which would give them an automatic bye to the semifinals.
2. Las Vegas Aces (20-7) -- Last week No. 2
Three wins in a row now for the Aces, who have lost just once in their last seven contests. That run means they've opened up a two-game lead over the Storm in the race for the No. 2 seed with five games to play. With Liz Cambage (tested positive for COVID-19) and Dearica Hamby (ankle), currently sidelined, getting that bye to the semifinals would be crucial for the Aces.
3. Seattle Storm (19-10) -- Last week No. 3
It's been ugly at times for the Storm since the Olympic break. Even with a win over the Liberty on Thursday, they're just 3-5 since the return and suffered a 32-point defeat to the Sky that was the worst home loss in franchise history. They're still a contender, but their chances of getting a top-two seed are pretty slim at this point considering they're two games back of the Aces and have lost that tiebreaker.
4. Phoenix Mercury (16-10) -- Last week No. 4
At the Olympic break, the Mercury were under .500 and struggling to hold on to a playoff spot. Since play resumed, they've gone 7-0, winning six of those games by double digits, and have clinched a playoff berth. Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith are playing at an extremely high level, and the Mercury all of a sudden have a top-four seed within sight.
5. Minnesota Lynx (17-9) -- Last week No. 5
This has been a really impressive stretch for the Lynx, who have now won four games in a row despite being short handed at various points along the way. Not only have they now clinched a playoff spot, but this hot streak has helped them hold off the fast-charging Mercury for a top-four seed. They also still have three games left with the Fever somehow -- all of them in a row -- so they should continue to close strong.
6. Chicago Sky (14-14) -- Last week No. 6
It's been pretty hit or miss lately for the Sky. They beat the Storm in back-to-back games, and handed them the worst home loss in franchise history, but then followed that up by getting crushed by the Mercury and falling apart down the stretch against the Aces. We know they have the talent to compete with and beat anyone, but save for one run in the middle of the season it just hasn't all come together in the way everyone hoped.
7. Dallas Wings (12-15) -- Last week No. 9
The Wings have been trading wins and losses for a few weeks now, which isn't ideal but has been enough to keep them in playoff position. For the most part, it's been the same story with them all season long. They're young and have a ton of offensive talent, but just aren't consistent enough, especially on the defensive end.
8. Washington Mystics (10-16) -- Last week No. 10
Tina Charles, who is still leading the league in scoring at 25.4 points per game, is the latest Mystic to hit the injury report. She's missed the last four games due to a glute strain, continuing a brutal season for Washington in regards to health. Nothing has gone right for the Mystics this season and, at this point, it's fair to wonder if it ever will.
9. New York Liberty (11-18) -- Last week No. 8
After a strong start to the season, the Liberty are now in danger of missing out on the playoffs for a fourth straight time. They've now lost six games in a row, and nine of their last 10. Granted, they've had a brutal schedule in that time, but seven of those losses have been by double digits. They're only half a game behind the eighth-place Mystics, though, so all hope isn't lost. When those two teams meet on the final day of the season it could determine the final playoff spot.
10. Los Angeles Sparks (10-18) -- Last week No. 7
There was a stretch coming out of the Olympic break where it looked like the Sparks were going to put their poor first half behind them and surge into the playoff race. And to be fair, they still could make the postseason, but it will be a lot tougher now that they've lost five games in a row and have the Storm and Sun coming up next. Their fourth-quarter collapse against the Fever earlier this week might end up being a game they think about all winter.
11. Indiana Fever (6-19) -- Last week No. 12
The Fever have now won two of their last three games, thanks in large part to strong play from Kelsey Mitchell and Teaira McCowan. But while it's nice to see those young players performing well, the truth is the Fever are probably better off losing at this point. Because the WNBA lottery odds are calculated on the previous two years, they're currently locked in a tight battle with the Liberty for the best odds.
12. Atlanta Dream (6-20) -- Last week No. 11
The last time the Dream won a basketball game was June 29. It's now Sept. 3. Obviously, the Olympic break makes that sound much worse, but it's still a good indication of how poorly things have gone in Atlanta this season. After their loss to the Wings, they've now dropped 11 games in a row, and have fallen into last place at 6-20.