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A Chaotic Sprint to the Finish for the W.N.B.A. Season

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The Chicago Sky, the reigning champions, are assured of one of the top two spots in the upcoming W.N.B.A. playoffs. The rebuilding Indiana Fever are the only team out of contention. Everything else is up for grabs.

The final week of the W.N.B.A.’s regular season should be a showcase of the parity and chaos the league has seen all season. Six of the league’s 12 teams are battling for the final three playoff spots, and the teams that have already clinched are still jockeying for seeding.

At the top of the standings, the Sky are 25-8 and hold a two-game lead in the race for the No. 1 seed. Chicago can fall no further than a No. 2 seed after a win Sunday over the Connecticut Sun, but it will still need to hold off the Las Vegas Aces, who spoiled Sue Bird’s final regular-season game at Climate Pledge Arena with a win over the Seattle Storm. Chicago and Las Vegas face off Thursday in their final regular-season meeting.

The Sun are solidly in the third spot but could still overtake the Aces for the No. 2 seed. A bigger battle is brewing below them, though, as Seattle and the Washington Mystics fight for home-court advantage in what is nearly certain to be the playoff matchup between the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds. The Storm are at a scheduling disadvantage, with games on the road against Chicago and Las Vegas around a trip to Minneapolis. The Mystics, meanwhile, finish with two games against the last-place Fever and play their final regular-season game at home.

Of the teams hoping to clinch one of the final playoff spots, the Dallas Wings were in the best shape entering Monday, holding a 16-16 record with four games remaining — all against teams that sit below them in the standings. Marina Mabrey’s 31 points helped Dallas clinch a berth with an 86-77 win Monday night against the Liberty.

Below the Wings, though, the race is wide open. With three games left for each, the Atlanta Dream and Phoenix Mercury are tied at 14-19, though the Dream own the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Liberty are now 13-20 with three games left, and the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks are also hanging on at 13-20.

The Dream, the Mercury and the Liberty have all been without key players down the stretch. Atlanta guard Tiffany Hayes has missed three games with an ankle injury, while Phoenix announced Monday that Diana Taurasi would miss the rest of the regular season with a quad injury. For Saturday’s game with Phoenix, the Liberty had finally gotten healthy as Betnijah Laney returned to action two months after knee surgery, but forward Natasha Howard went down with an ankle injury.

Those injuries could leave the door open for the ninth-place Lynx: They hold the season tiebreakers over Phoenix and the Liberty, and they play the Mercury in a must-win game Wednesday. But the rest of Minnesota’s schedule is daunting, with games at home against Seattle and on the road against Connecticut. In its favor is the comeback of Napheesa Collier, who returned Sunday less than three months after giving birth. (A motivating factor for her was the chance to play again with Sylvia Fowles, who is retiring at the end of the season.)

Finally, the Sparks may face the most difficult path to a playoff berth, for reasons on and off the court. Los Angeles had been in position for the No. 6 seed after a July 21 win over the Dream. But with drama swirling as the four-time All-Star Liz Cambage left the team, the Sparks dropped six games in a row to fall to 11th place.

A win Sunday against the Mystics kept their hopes alive. But they must play back-to-back games this week against the third-place Sun before finishing up against the surging Wings. And making matters worse, the Sparks were caught up in a travel nightmare while trying to leave Washington.

After their flight was delayed and then canceled, some members of the Sparks spent the night in the airport when there weren’t enough hotel rooms for all players. Nneka Ogwumike, a former league M.V.P., said in a video posted on Twitter, “It’s the first time in my 11 seasons that I’ve ever had to sleep in the airport.”



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Knicks vs. Bulls prediction: NBA picks, odds

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The NBA’s longest win streak is finally over after the Knicks suffered their first loss in nine games on Wednesday. Expect New York to start a new streak Friday against a team it dominated the last time they faced off.

The Knicks were playing like the best team in basketball during their lengthy win streak, posting the league’s best net rating (+17.3) with six double-digit victories in that eight-game run. That included a 23-point beat-down of the Bulls exactly a week ago, when New York drained 17 3s and saw three players score at least 22 points in an easy win.

Knicks vs. Bulls (7:30 p.m. Eastern) prediction: Knicks -5.5 (Caesars Sportsbook)

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That game marked the worst offensive showing of the season for Chicago (91 points), which has struggled with chemistry and spacing issues all year long. The Bulls rank dead last in 3-point attempts per game (28.8) and third-worst in offensive rebounding rate (23.6%), which leaves very few easy scoring chances for one of the NBA’s worst offenses.

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It’s the opposite story for the Knicks, who boast three legitimate shot-creators and also rank among the league leaders in points in the paint. Julius Randle (31 points) relentlessly attacked this Chicago defense in their first meeting before allowing RJ Barrett (27 points) to lead the way in the second affair — his fourth of five straight games with at least 22 points. 

I don’t see this Knicks attack slowing down against one of the league’s most inconsistent defenses. And until Zach LaVine returns to his All-Star form, I’m skeptical of the Bulls’ offense showing up on Friday, too.

Knicks vs. Bulls pick: Knicks -5.5 (Caesars Sportsbook)

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Devils vs. Bruins prediction: Bet on New Jersey to end slide on NHL Friday

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After starting the season 21-4-1, it looked like the New Jersey Devils were going to run away with the Metropolitan Division as one of the very best teams in the NHL.

Not only were the Devils cruising, but their underlying metrics were elite. New Jersey was the best 5-on-5 team through the first quarter of the season.

Three weeks and one six-game losing streak later, and the Devils have fallen back to earth and are now two points behind the Carolina Hurricanes in the Metropolitan Division. 

The Devils were able to get off the schneid with a win over Florida on Wednesday, but the task doesn’t get any easier with the league-leading Boston Bruins in town.

New Jersey is a slight +102 home underdog against Boston starting at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN+ and the NHL Network.  

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Tomas Tatar #90 of the New Jersey Devils
Tomas Tatar #90 of the New Jersey Devils
NHLI via Getty Images

Bruins vs. Devils prediction

Even though the Devils have struggled to get results over their last 10 contests, their underlying numbers don’t suggest there’s all that much wrong with how they’re playing. New Jersey isn’t posting the pace-setting numbers it did through Thanksgiving, but it’s still skating to the fifth-best expected goals rate and high-danger scoring chance rate in the league over its last 10 contests.  

Those numbers should help ease any sense of panic that New Jersey could continue to fall back further into the pack as we head toward the New Year. 

So if New Jersey is still tilting the ice in the right direction, what is the issue for the Devils? 

For one thing, the Devs are struggling to find the back of the net like they did when they were rolling. New Jersey has scored just nine goals in its last five games, and four of those tallies came in a 4-2 victory over Florida on Wednesday. Over their last 10 games, the Devils rank 25th in the NHL with a 6.56% shooting percentage. 

Additionally, the Devils are not getting the goaltending needed to stabilize them. New Jersey’s netminders were always thought to be the team’s biggest weakness, and that has started to show lately as the Devils rank 23rd in the NHL in 5-on-5 save percentage over the last 10 games.

Hampus Lindholm #27 of the Boston Bruins
Hampus Lindholm #27 of the Boston Bruins
NHLI via Getty Images

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The Bruins, meanwhile, continue to roll. Boston is 7-1-2 over its last 10 contests and ranks third in the league over that span in expected goals rate and fourth in high-danger chance percentage. The Bruins pace the NHL with a +54 goal differential, which is 25 goals better than the team in second (Toronto). 

But as impressive as Boston has been over its first 31 games of the season, the Bruins are playing on a back-to-back on Friday, while the Devils were off on Thursday night. 

The Bruins are the better team in a vacuum, but this is a good buy-low spot on the Devils, who are still playing solid hockey but are just not getting the results.

Devils vs. Bruins pick

New Jersey Devils +102 (FanDuel)

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At the Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, a Female Crew of Two

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Kathy Veel has come a long way since 1989, when she first sailed in the Sydney Hobart Yacht Race with an all-female crew on the Belles Long Ranger.

“It started off with four of us women — we figured, let’s give it a shot,” said Veel, 70, a retired teacher who lives in Bullaburra, about 60 miles west of Sydney, Australia. “We didn’t have a boat. We didn’t have any money. It was a real start from scratch. No one took us seriously.”

Not anymore. Veel is now back for her third Sydney Hobart, which starts on Monday, this time also breaking ground. She will be part of the only all-female crew competing in the race’s two-handed division on the Currawong, at 30 feet long the second smallest boat in the fleet. She will be sailing with Bridget Canham, 62, of Sydney, a veteran of several Sydney Hobart races.

Veel said that in 1989, there were doubts the crew of women could handle the grueling conditions of the race.

“We were kind of a token gesture,” she said. “There were a lot of people who didn’t think we were up to it. They would ask, what we were going to do when it’s blowing 30 knots and the boat is swamped? We’ll be doing pretty much what they’ll be doing — putting up sails and racing the boat.”

Their goal was to simply finish the race, which they did. “It opened the door for us,” Veel said.

“Women in sailing have come so far,” she said. “Most boats these days have got women on them. And that’s great.”

Canham, a retired nurse who volunteers as an emergency boat pilot, said sailing had indeed changed.

“Sailing is more of an integrated sport now,” she said. “Now, it’s just by coincidence that we are just two women on a boat. We’re just sailors. We don’t think of ourselves as anything different.”

The two-handed division, where a boat is raced by two sailors — as opposed to a large crew ranging from 6 to 25 — is now in its second year at the Sydney Hobart. For Veel and Canham, the draw of two-handed racing is access.

“Having a fully crewed racing yacht was way outside of my resources,” Veel said. “I’m retired. But now that they have the two-handed, we can do the race. It gives people the opportunity to sail in the race who aren’t on a fully crewed yacht.” Yearly maintenance on two-handed boats might be $10,000, while much larger yachts require millions of dollars to maintain.

Canham also said the sailors in the two-handed division were a tightknit group. “The two-handed community is just so supportive; it’s like we are all on the same team,” she said.

Veel and Canham generally split duties on the boat, taking turns on the sails and at the wheel, with Canham focusing on sails and Veel on navigation and race tactics.

“Bridget knows the wind and is good at getting the best out of the boat,” Veel said. “She’ll have every sail tweaked and tuned. She never takes her eye off the ball. She’s also extremely gutsy and strong-minded and determined.”

Veel and Canham have prepared for the event by sailing in four other races this year. Over that time, they realized the boat, a Currawong 30, built in 1974 with beaten 20-year-old sails, needed upgrades, but they’ve accepted its limits.

“We’ve been able to test out our boat in these previous races, but it really has felt that 90 percent of this race has been just getting to the start line,” Veel said. “We’ve just been focused on getting the boat ready. Now that we are there, and there are no more obstacles between us and the race, that’s when I’m starting to wonder what have I got myself into. Now it’s real.”

Canham heads into the race committed, but knows their limitations.

“No one is expecting us to do anything,” she said. “But I don’t think they realize just how determined we are.”

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