Shining a Light on the East
First place is anything but a given.
by Clay Kallam
In the nasty WNBA East, a three-game losing streak can change playoff plans to lottery dreams – and a three-game winning streak could transform a last-place team into a first-place contender.
Though that reality may put a lot of pressure on coaches and players, it will make the final month of the season a whole lot of fun for fans, as every game is crucial, and no team can afford to take a night off. It also makes it tough to predict anything, as injuries, slumps and hot streaks will change everything down the stretch – most likely several times.
Unfortunately, the ESPN2 national TV schedule features only one all-Eastern match-up the rest of the way, so now’s the time to upgrade the cable and pick up NBA TV, where we can all watch how the East will be won.
Indiana (13-7, tied for first): The one-two punch of Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas has lifted the Fever into first place in the East, but to stay there, Ebony Hoffman has to keep playing well, and Tammy Sutton-Brown has to break out of her slump. When the two frontcourt players are at the top of their games, everything opens up for Catchings and Douglas; but when they’re not, Indiana becomes much easier to guard. Lin Dunn had hopes that Shavonte Zellous would be an off-the-bench spark after coming over from Tulsa, but she has yet to find her groove in Indiana. If she does, and Briann January and Tully Bevilaqua can be adequate at the point, the Fever are the best bet to host the Eastern Conference finals – but there’s not much margin for error, and third place is a distinct possibility as well.
Washington (13-7, tied for first): Where have you gone, Monique Currie? The veteran small forward’s hot start was a big part of the Mystics’ playoff push, but she has cooled off in recent weeks. Luckily, Crystal Langhorne (17.2 ppg (on 58.7 percent shooting), 10.0 rpg) has just gotten better and better, and Katie Smith still has enough left in the tank to pick her spots, so Washington is in position to finish strong. It would help if Lindsey Harding would turn the ball over less, and either Matee Ajavon or Marissa Coleman emerged as a legit WNBA wing, but really, it comes down to Currie. If she plays as well at the end of the season as she did at the start, the Mystics are a playoff lock, and could even finish first; if she doesn’t, though, Washington’s just a short slump from fighting for its playoff life.
Atlanta (14-9, third): Angel McCoughtry is the star (21.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2.9 apg, 1.9 spg), but the key to a sweet Dream is Iziane Castro Marques. When the erratic Brazilian plays well, Atlanta is almost impossible to guard; but when she has one of those 4-14, 5-turnover games, as she did against Washington Wednesday, the Dream’s offense is much easier to control. Also a factor is the schedule: Atlanta is in the midst of six games out of seven on the road (and has lost the last four away from the friendly confines), but finishes with six of eight at home. If Castro Marques plays well, the bigs pound the boards, and McCoughtry’s sometimes abrasive personality doesn’t become a factor, expect the Dream to take advantage of the schedule and host the first round of the Playoffs.
Connecticut (12-9, fourth): Mike Thibault made the right call on Tina Charles, sacrificing local fave Lindsay Whalen to get a shot at the UConn rookie – and Charles is now the focus of the Sun. She’s good for 16 and 12 each night, and has the look of a long-time Olympian. Unfortunately, Connecticut has not found a replacement for Whalen, as Renee Montgomery has not quite lived up to expectations. The injury to Anete Jekabsone-Zogota has hurt as well, forcing Tan White into a starting role – and, though improved, she’s still better suited to coming off the bench. But none of this would matter that much if Asjha Jones was playing as expected. Jones is coming off an injury, but the Sun need her to do better than 8.0 ppg and 4.4 rpg. If she can’t rediscover her game, Connecticut, a pre-season favorite for many, could wind up missing the Playoffs for the second-straight season.
Chicago (11-11, tied for fifth): Though Sky fans love to hate on coach/general manager Steven Key, the primary issue for Chicago is the play of the backcourt: When both Jia Perkins and Dominique Canty play well, the Sky are as good as anyone; when one plays well, Chicago’s got a chance; but when both veterans struggle, the Sky will fall. At the same time, don’t sleep on the vastly improved Sylvia Fowles, who has a much better feel for what to do with the ball in her hands this year, and is averaging 18.0 ppg, 9.8 rpg and 2.8 bpg. Still, there is some blame for Key, as acquisitions Cathrine Kraayeveld and Shameka Christon have both played much worse than they did in New York – either Key overestimated their talent, or has not been able to coax their previous production out of the two ex-Liberty players.
New York (10-10, tied for fifth): Yes, Cappie Pondexter has been that good. The Chicago native demanded a trade to New York from Phoenix, and with 21.2 ppg (on 48.2 percent shooting), 4.8 rpg and 4.9 apg, she’s lived up to every expectation. Unfortunately, Nicole Powell has lost her shooting touch (32.8 percent from the field), and the Liberty have struggled to find another scoring option. Plenette Pierson, stolen from Tulsa, started fast in New York but has slumped a bit, and Janel McCarville has yet to rise to her 2009 levels of production. That’s made the contributions of 39-year-old Taj McWilliams-Franklin even more important, but she’s a 6-1 post on the downside of her career, and if the Liberty have to rely on her to make the Playoffs, the lottery may be a more likely destination.