Ostensibly much more than the No. 1 and No. 2 playoffs seeds is on the line when the WNBA’s top two teams clash in the regular-season finale.
For the procrastinating WNBA postseason awards voter, Sunday’s noon matchup between the Storm (18-3) and Las Vegas Aces (17-4) possibly offers one last look at the two leading MVP candidates Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson.
However, Stewart is listed as questionable for the second consecutive game after sitting out Friday for the first time this season due to left ankle tendinitis.
Las Vegas is playing its first back-to-back games this year and it remains to be seen how much Wilson will play after logging 28 minutes during Saturday’s 84-70 win over Los Angeles.
In many ways, Sunday’s much-anticipated showdown between the Storm and Aces doesn’t really matter considering both teams are guaranteed a double bye and a spot in the WNBA semifinals, which is a best-of-five series.
There isn’t a home-court advantage at the WNBA bubble where all games are played at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
Barring any major playoff upsets in the single-elimination first and second rounds, conceivably Sunday’s game will decide which team avoids No. 3 Los Angeles (15-7) and plays No. 4 Minnesota (13-8) in the semifinals.
And that may not matter as much either considering Seattle and Las Vegas swept the two-game regular-season series against Los Angeles and Minnesota.
Still, bragging rights is at stake as the Storm seeks a regular-season split after falling 82-74 to the Aces on Aug. 27.
Since then, the Storm has ripped off six consecutive wins and Las Vegas has won five in a row.
Sunday’s rematch may have been considered a WNBA Finals preview, if the Storm were at full strength.
Perennial All-Star point guard Sue Bird (left knee) is also listed as questionable and is likely to miss her second straight game.
Without its two stars, the Storm had more than enough firepower to throttle Phoenix in an 83-60 blowout Friday.
The Storm’s 23-point victory and Stewart’s likely absence on Sunday most likely tilts the MVP race toward Wilson.
Las Vegas center Liz Cambage and point guard Kelsey Plum, the former Washington Huskies standout, sat out this season and Wilson supporters argue the Aces would be a .500 team if the third-year forward hadn’t produced an elite season of superlatives.
Wilson is the only player to rank among the league’s top seven in points (20.3, 2nd), rebounding (8.7, 7th) and blocks (2.0, 2nd).
Stewart has been just a productive while averaging 19.7 points (fourth in the league), 8.3 rebounds (10th), 1.3 blocks (6th) and 1.7 steals (9th).
The fourth-year Storm star may not receive her second MVP award, but she’s one of the favorites in the Comeback Player of the Year category after sitting out last season with an Achilles injury.
In terms of postseason awards, a few other players in today’s game can make one last impression with the voters.
Las Vegas forward Dearica Hamby, who averages 12.5 points and 7.1 rebounds, is a near shoo-in to win a second straight Sixth Woman of the Year award.
Storm forward Alysha Clark is receiving support from teammates for Defensive Player of the Year consideration.
“She sets the tone for us,” Jewell Loyd said during a Zoom call. “She doesn’t get enough credit for what she does. She does it every year, and that’s why, in our eyes, she’s the Defensive Player of the Year.”
Clark, who averages 4.1 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 0.5 blocks, isn’t going to win the traditional statistical battles against DPOY challengers including Los Angeles’ Candace Parker, Minnesota’s Napheesa Collier and Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas.
Clark is favorite among analytic aficionados while ranking first in the league by wide margin in plus/minus ratio (12.4) and defensive win shares.
But Storm coach Gary Kloppenburg summed up Clark’s candidacy best when he said the 5-foot-11 forward is the defensive leader on the league’s No. 1 scoring defense (75.5 points per game) that also ranks first in opponent’s field-goal percentage (39.9) and steals (10.3).
“From (Diana) Taurasi to Arike (Ogunbowale) and you can throw some big forwards in there too, she guards the best player on each team,” he said. “She does everything for us on the defensive end.”
In notable performances, Clark held Connecticut’s DeWanna Bonner, Washington guards Ariel Atkins and Aerial Powers and Taurasi to fewer than 10 points.
Clark also received the endorsement of last year’s Defensive Player of the Year winner Natasha Howard.
“I would definitely give her the Defensive Player of the Year,” Howard said. “I don’t know why her name isn’t being pushed like everybody else. She does so much.
“She does the little things that you probably won’t see other great players do. Those things go unnoticed, but I see it as her teammate.”