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Analysis: Here’s what to watch for as Storm enter final stretch of 2022 season

Two weeks and five games are all that remain in the regular season for the Storm.

Seattle secured a spot in the playoffs last Saturday with a road win against Washington, but there’s still plenty at stake over the next fortnight before the playoffs, which begin Aug. 17.

Here’s a look at what’s ahead for the Storm.

Rounding into playoff form

Over the next few days, you’re going to hear a lot about “momentum” and “sense of urgency” from the Storm, who have spent the past three months ramping up for the all-important playoff games in August, which will ultimately defines the season.

“We have to play better offensively,” coach Noelle Quinn said. “Get back to moving the ball, making teams defend, taking quality shots and playing freely. We have to get back to defending at a high level, making sure we’re clean on our execution.

“And then just mirroring those two things. It can’t be one or the other because when we play at a high level on both ends of the floor, we’re a good team.”

It can’t be understated that Seattle is fully invested in win-now mode considering Sue Bird’s impending retirement, the midseason acquisition of Tina Charles, the prospect of losing Breanna Stewart in the offseason in free agency and the fact that just two players (Jewell Loyd and Mercedes Russell) are under contract next season.

Mathematically, Seattle can still finish with the No. 1 overall seed, but would need at least four wins in its final five games as well as plenty of help around the league.

Due to the WNBA’s new playoff format, a top-two finish isn’t as important as years past when the No. 1 and 2 seeds received a double bye to the semifinals.

Under the current format, the top four seeds host the first two games in a best-of-three first-round series.

“The goal is to win every single game, but getting home-court advantage in that first round is the most important part,” Stewart said. “We’re definitely aware of what’s happening in the standings. It’s just good to know that if we take care of our business, then nothing else really matters.”

Heading into Tuesday’s game, Seattle and Washington are tied at 19-12 for fourth in the standings behind Chicago (23-7), Las Vegas (22-8) and Connecticut (20-10).

If the Storm and Mystics finish the season tied, then Seattle would get the higher seed by virtue of winning the regular-season series 2-1.

“If we can catch one or two of those teams ahead of us, that’s great, but more than anything we don’t want to lose any ground,” Stewart said. “We want to host that first playoff game.”

Stewart’s MVP bid

The 27-year-old Storm star and sixth-year veteran is very much in contention for her second WNBA MVP award. She won her first one of her in 2018.

Stewart is first in the league in scoring (21.1 points), tied for third in steals (1.7), 11th in blocks (1.0) and 12th in rebounds (7.1).

“The goal for these five games is getting wins,” Stewart said. “If that means scoring a lot or not scoring a lot, I just want to get wins.”

Las Vegas’ A’ja Wilson is arguably Stewart’s biggest challenger who is also vying for her second WNBA MVP title after winning it in 2019. However, Wilson might lose votes to Aces teammate Kelsey Plum, the former Washington Huskies star, who is averaging 20.3 points and vying for her first scoring title.

Chicago’s Candace Parker, who averages 13.6 points and 8.9 rebounds, can’t match Stewart, Wilson and Plum in scoring, but the two-time WNBA MVP has a compelling case after leading reigning champion Chicago to what’s likely a top two-finish in what could be her final WNBA season.

Phoenix guard Skylar Diggins-Smith and Los Angeles forward Nneka Ogwumike are also in the MVP conversation.

Saying goodbye to WNBA greats

Before Wednesday’s 7 pm game against Minnesota (12-19) at Climate Pledge Arena, the Storm will honor guard Briann January as well as Lynx star center Sylvia Fowles who are retiring after the season.

And during Sunday’s sold-out regular-season home finale, Seattle will pay tribute to Bird, who is also putting an end to a spectacular Hall-of-Fame-bound career.

“I’ve kind of been in denial about the whole thing,” said the 35-year-old January, a 14-year veteran who won a WNBA title in 2012 and chosen a 2014 WNBA All-Star. “This is just not my style. I love playing basketball and have always gone out there just for that. The focus for me has always been the team, so this is strange and a little much.

“It’s nice. I’ll accept it and take it in. But I do feel a sense of grieving almost. Like I’m losing a part of me. I care about this game so much and love every day of it. Thinking about losing that does affect me. … I couldn’t have asked for a better team or place to end this part of my journey.”

January, to Spokane, Wash. native, estimates 60 family members and friends will be in attendance Wednesday. Several former Storm stars are also expected, including Hall of Famer Lauren Jackson.

“My focus is showing up to the game and being locked in,” she said. “Fingers crossed I keep it together. I’m going to try my hardest. … If the tears do come, it’s tears of joy.”

What’s left for top WNBA teams?

Here’s a look at the remaining games for the top five teams in the WNBA standings.

*Heading into Tuesday’s games

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