- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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The Eastern Conference has once again been the "other" conference in the WNBA this season as Western powerhouses Phoenix and Minnesota dominate the league.
Only one team in the East -- which has produced only one WNBA champion (Indiana) since 2008 -- has a winning record.
Atlanta has clinched its playoff spot. But with a handful of games left, there is a mosh pit of teams contending for the other three, and only 2½ games separate the five teams behind Atlanta in the division standings.
We handicap the Eastern Conference race as we head into the stretch run.
Status report: The Dream clinched their playoff spot late last week, despite losing five of their past seven games. Still, they've earned their sixth postseason appearance in a row, and instead of worrying about whether they'll get in, the relevant question now is: Can Atlanta again be the team that represents the East in the WNBA Finals? The early answer is only if they find a way to pull out of the midseason slump that followed the difficult news that coach Michael Cooper was diagnosed with cancer.
Cooper is back on the bench and that could be a rallying point for a team that played so well early in the season. Atlanta has been successful at home this season and has put itself in a position to be a No. 1 seed out of the East for the first time. But closing the regular season is going to be a test of the Dream's ability to win on the road, with five of eight games away from home, including two contests against Phoenix. If that doesn't tell you how far along you are, nothing will.
Playoff prospects: The Dream are in. For how long remains to be seen.
Status report: The Mystics were playing as well as anyone in the East, winning four in a row, before dropping the past two games, including Sunday's listless loss at Chicago. But Washington still has its destiny in its own hands, with all six of its remaining games (three at home and three on the road) against teams in the Eastern Conference.
Tayler Hill will be active for the first time all season this week, but it remains to be seen how much she will contribute late to a team that's being led by Ivory Latta and Bria Hartley.
Coach Mike Thibault says his team needs to play with greater energy and limit turnovers.
Playoff prospects: Very good. The Mystics look like a playoff team, if not yet a title contender.
Games back: 3½
Status report: With Elena Delle Donne back in the lineup and three straight wins as a slingshot, the Sky are going to try to make a playoff push and get back to the quality play they demonstrated at the start of the season. Delle Donne's 21-point performance against Washington on Sunday, along with a stout defensive effort (forcing 19 turnovers), has to give Chicago more than a little hope that it can earn a second consecutive playoff berth.
The Sky won at Connecticut on Tuesday and now plays at Minnesota on Thursday (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET). Chicago has the best record within the conference at 12-7, providing reason for optimism.
Playoff prospects: Decent. Delle Donne's return -- even in limited minutes -- gives Chicago a huge lift.
Games back: 4½
Status report: The Fever -- who are in the stretch run of Lin Dunn's WNBA farewell tour -- are the only team in the Eastern Conference with a winning road record. But Indiana has been alternating wins and losses over the past three weeks, hasn't won two in a row since early July and can't seem to capture any momentum, even with Tamika Catchings back in the lineup.
The Fever must take advantage of opportunities at home as the postseason approaches. Indiana finishes the schedule with four of six games at home; three of the remaining games are against New York.
Catchings had an uncharacteristically tough day over the weekend, going 0-for-10 from the floor in Seattle, but leads the Fever in scoring since her return at 15.1 points a game. And Erlana Larkins is 15 rebounds short of the team's single-season record.
Playoff prospects: Pretty good. The Fever have the talent and the experience to return to the postseason, and in fact, might be the dark horse as the team that emerges out of the East.
Games back: 4½
New York (12-16)
Status report: The Liberty are finally figuring things out and are vying for the No. 4 playoff position. They briefly held on to fourth place before a loss Tuesday.
New York plays five of its final six games against East teams. The one exception is a regular-season finale against Phoenix.
Last week could be chalked up as a success, with wins over Washington and Atlanta and Tina Charles turning in a player-of-the-week effort with three 20-point-plus scoring efforts, including 29 points in a win over the Dream. Before Tuesday's loss, Charles averaged 22.7 points and 12.7 rebounds in the past six games.
But the Liberty don't play well on the road -- as a 4-11 record indicates -- and three road games in the final seven games of the regular season will certainly pose a challenge.
Playoff prospects: Shaky. The Liberty haven't played consistently enough to assume they can win big games down the stretch and finish among the division's top four.
Games back: 5
Status report: This is a young team that still looks young at the end of a long season. The Sun, who have lost 13 of their past 16 games, have shown flashes, including building a lead late against Los Angeles on Sunday before falling in the game's final seconds. It is a loss that might have realistically ended their chance to get back into the playoff race.
Connecticut finishes with the most favorable schedule in the East, playing three of four at home, all against Eastern Conference foes. But their last home win was June 25.
Playoff prospects: Dimming. The Sun aren't far out of the final playoff spot, but haven't played like a team that has one last burst in the tank.
Games back: 7