Sept. 1 WNBA Preview — Phoenix Mercury (15-15) at Chicago Sky (18-13)

A potential first-round playoff matchup is on schedule for Sunday when the Chicago Sky host the Phoenix Mercury.

The Sky (18-13) are fifth and the Mercury (15-15) are tied with Seattle for seventh, owning the final two spots in the eight-team postseason field. The WNBA playoffs use a step-ladder format in which the top two teams get byes into the semifinals and the third and fourth-place teams automatically advance to the second round.

Chicago is still fighting for a top-four spot but running out of schedule to make a move. The Sky are 1 1/2 games behind Las Vegas for third and one game behind Los Angeles for fourth with three games remaining but must finish with a better record than both teams since they lost the head-to-head tiebreaker.

They also close the season with road games against the top two teams in the WNBA – Connecticut and Washington – which means there is the potential to enter the playoffs on a five-game losing streak if they fail to defeat Phoenix for the third time this year.

Chicago has lost back-to-back games after a surprising 88-83 home loss to Dallas on Thursday night in which rookie of the year candidate Arike Ogunbowale torched the Sky for 35 points. Sky point guard and MVP hopeful Courtney Vandersloot had 19 points and seven assists – extending her single-season WNBA record in the latter category – but had a tone of concern after the listless performance.

“We didn’t bring it tonight, and this is a huge lesson for us,” she told the Chicago Sun-Times. “It doesn’t matter what the other team is, you have to bring it every single night and we didn’t. And it starts from me. And I have to be better, especially down the stretch, this one hurts.”

“I do think we all could’ve put more effort in,” added center Stefanie Dolson after her 15-point, 11-rebound effort went for naught. “But I think we need everyone. We need all 12 of us to play as hard as we possibly can every possession.”

Phoenix — which is one-half game behind Minnesota for sixth — is playing its final road game of the year but has a difficult season-ending three-game homestand that includes games against playoff-bound Seattle and Las Vegas. The Mercury, though, are trying to complete a sweep of their three-game road swing after grinding out a 65-58 victory at Atlanta on Thursday night that assured them of a seventh consecutive postseason appearance.

Brittney Griner continued her MVP push with 21 points and eight rebounds, and Diana Taurasi’s lack of scoring production also continued as she missed all six of her shots and went scoreless.

Taurasi, who did have eight assists, has gone 2 for 26 in the last three games and played only four contests this year following offseason back surgery and a hamstring injury, but Griner values the other ways the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer can impact the game as Phoenix will get a chance to win its fourth title in club history.

“It never gets old, it’s always great having her on the court,” Griner told The Athletic recently. “It never gets old playing with her, honestly. It never gets old watching her either. I found myself just watching her on the court sometimes.”

The Sky spoiled Taurasi’s most recent return with a 94-86 victory in Phoenix last Sunday. Vandersloot finished one point and one rebound shy of a triple-double while Allie Quigley had 24 points. Taurasi had 12 points while Griner rang up 34 on 12-of-17 shooting.

(Courtney Vandersloot photo courtesy Chicago Tribune Sports official Twitter account)

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