July 22, 2014

With a little under a month left in the WNBA regular season, the scramble for the playoffs is underway.

While Phoenix and Atlanta are solidly sitting atop the two conferences, only 2 1/2 games separates second through sixth place in the East. Three games is the margin between third and sixth in the West. Most teams have about a dozen games left.

''One game at a time, that's not our priority to catch Atlanta, our priority is to get the fourth or the third seed, if we get ourselves there, then we can look towards trying to catch somebody,'' New York center Tina Charles said. ''We're just trying to get in there.''

The Liberty are in fifth place in the East.

Here's five things to look for as the season resumes Tuesday after the All-Star Break.

SIZZLING MERCURY: Phoenix has won 12 straight games and sits six wins from tying the Los Angeles Sparks' record of 18 straight victory set in 2001. The Mercury also have a chance to have the best record in league history for a 34-game schedule. Seattle went 28-6 in 2010. At 18-3 the Mercury need to win 11 of 13 to break that mark.

The Houston Comets have the best winning percentage ever when they went 27-3 in 1998. The Mercury have seven of their final 13 games on the road.

COACHING CHANGES: Dream coach Michael Cooper is taking a temporary leave of absence and will have surgery this week in Atlanta to deal with early stage tongue cancer. The Dream say a full recovery is expected. He is expected to miss about two weeks, and assistant coach Karleen Thompson will fill in.

Carol Ross is out in Los Angeles, replaced by general manager Penny Toler.

''Our goal is to make the playoffs first,'' Toler said. ''This is a very tough league. We still have 12 games to go. We're going to take it one game at a time and try and secure a playoff spot. With the way season is going we can't assume we're in the playoffs. We have to win.''

INJURIES: Minnesota's getting healthy with the return of Rebekkah Brunson and Seimone Augustus expected this week. Chicago's still unsure when Elena Delle Donne will return to the team as she's dealing with a recurrence of Lyme Disease. Cappie Pondexter has been banged up all season for New York with an Achilles injury. She recently also suffered a groin injury but has been battling through it. Atlanta traded for Delisha Milton-Jones and she is now sidelined for the year with a ruptured Achilles tendon.

THE SCHIMMEL EFFECT: Shoni Schimmel had an All-Star game to remember, scoring a WNBA record 29 points en route to earning MVP honors in the contest which the East won 125-124. The rookie guard has a huge following of fans across the country so it's no surprise that she had the highest selling jersey so far this season.

She's only started two games this year and is averaging 7.2 points in nearly 20 minutes a game.

''Hopefully, (the All-Star game) will give Shoni a big boost to help us out in the second half,'' Dream teammate Angel McCoughtry said. ''I think we really put the Atlanta Dream on the map tonight so I am glad about that.''

MVP RACE: The stars have been shining in the WNBA this season with a host of candidates for the league's MVP. The Western Conference leading Mercury have two in Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner. Taurasi is averaging 17.8 points and 5.9 assists for the top team in the league, who have won 12 straight games. Griner has been a force on the defensive end, blocking 80 shots so far, which is more than half the teams in the league have reached. Maya Moore is the league's scoring leader and has carried the Lynx while her teammates have been getting healthy. Angel McCoughtry is doing everything for the Dream to get them to the top of the East.

Reigning MVP Candace Parker is having another strong season despite her team's sitting in fourth place in the West.


AP Freelancer Al Bravo in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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