The Wings' road to clinching a playoff game seemed manageable. It's proved to be anything but that. Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball

The Wings Might Miss the Playoffs. Here’s How They Can Pull It Together.

Dallas has three games left to earn their first trip to the postseason since 2018.

Healthy bodies. Rebounding. Transition defense. Making free throws.

That’s it. That’s all.

That’s what will propel the 12-17 Dallas Wings into the WNBA playoffs for the first time since 2018.

Despite numerous opportunities, including a favorable home schedule in the second half of the season, the Wings have failed to secure one of the final two spots that will guarantee them postseason play.

Inconsistency, fluid lineups, not getting back in transition, even bad luck have hampered this very talented but young Wings team, which features a former Rookie of the Year and newly minted Olympic Gold medalist, two All-Stars, and this year’s All-Star game MVP. But it’s getting perilously close to win or go home — and they know it. Especially after an 83-56 routing Tuesday night in front of their home crowd at College Park Center by the league-leading Connecticut Sun, who won their 10th consecutive game.

The loss by the Wings, who have been clinging to the seventh seed for a week or two, was their second consecutive (both coming at home). They are now just one game over the Sabrina Ionescu-led New York Liberty, who will show up in Arlington on Saturday night looking for a fight.

“I have a 24-hour rule,” said Wings’ first-year head coach Vickie Johnson. “We’ll watch the film, and then we have to let it go. It’s basketball. TheWNBA season is a very short season. You have to have the memory of a fish — gotta let it go because if we carry this over into Saturday, there’s no way we can beat New York,” she said. “And we have to beat New York. Period. We have to play great basketball.”

Coming out of the Olympic break, the Wings’ road to the playoffs seemed manageable. Seven of their 11 remaining games were at home, although just three came against teams outside the playoff hunt. Five or six wins figured to be enough to lock up a slot. So far, they’ve gone 3-5, with four of the five losses in Arlington. 

At times, the Wings have looked like a playoff team, most notably when they defeated the currently sixth-seeded Chicago Sky on the road. And they’ve gotten great support from the league’s highest-scoring bench — powered by Most Improved Player candidate Marina Mabrey — at 29.9 points a game. Additionally, the Wings have been the league’s third-best rebounding team per WNBA.com statistics, averaging just under 38 boards per game. 

But overal things have been rocky. They’ve failed to close out manageable games, such as last month’s loss against the last-placed Indiana Fever and Sunday’s defeat versus the Atlanta Dream, who showed up on an 11-game losing streak. Playoff teams win those games.

A certain chain reaction keeps playing out. In-game momentum inexplicably shifts. Scoring stops. Execution stops. The foot is taken off the gas. Effort appears to disappear. Leads are lost. Winnable games get away. And that’s when “hero ball” sets in, with players jacking up jump shots and essentially trying to win the game themselves. It’s understandable, to a point. Athletes want to do what they can to help their team win the game. But it’s not the system Johnson has built.

“I think the last four games, we kind of took a step back as far as chemistry, as far as passing the basketball, sharing the basketball, playing with patience on the half court, which is key for us, especially with a young team,” Johnson said. “No one has to be a hero on this team.”

A bigger issue than that overreliance on individual play has been health — or lack thereof. Starting forward and All-Star Satou Sabally, the team’s leading rebounder the first half of the season, has not played since July 11 on account of what team officials call “Achilles soreness.” Then Gray entered concussion protocol and missed a handful of games. Point guard Moriah Jefferson went down with a hamstring issue in the first half of Sunday’s game against the Dream. She did not return and hasn’t played since.

After Sabally, the most important loss has been Isabelle Harrison, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday and has been placed in the WNBA’s Health & Safety Protocols. Harrison, who is fully vaccinated, is the heart and soul of this team, as well as probably its best defender. Her absence over the past two games has left a monstrous hole on defense. 

Playing without Sabally and Harrison has decimated Dallas’ frontcourt at the worst possible time. They’ve leaned on two of their trio of high-end rookies to pick up the slack: top overall pick Charli Collier and second overall pick Awak Kuier, neither of whom had been significant parts of the rotation. That has had to change. Collier was inserted into the lineup Sunday against the Dream and finished with 10 points and seven rebounds. Awak Kuier played extended minutes Tuesday night, scoring a season-high 10 points while putting up a team-high eight rebounds. She also had a career-high five blocks.

That’s promising work, and, in the long run, the rookies getting some extended minutes is great for their confidence. However, it will take more than a “next woman up” mentality for the Wings to secure the playoff spot. They need everyone back, now, and playing good basketball for a full 40 minutes.

There’s progress on that front: Johnson said Tuesday night that she expects Jefferson to return on Saturday against the Liberty and is hopeful Sabally will join her. No matter who is on the court, however, Johnson’s message remains the same: unity.

“I tell them just keep playing, stay together, don’t fall apart,” she said. “We’ll come up together. We’re a good team. We have great individual players. We just have to put the team aspect together. We can’t go back to where we started.”

If they do, Dallas will end the season in an uncomfortably familiar place: out of the postseason, hoping that 2022 becomes the season when its talented roster finally gels into a playoff team.  

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