The WNBA’s Last Week
Interesting but not compelling.
by Clay Kallam
Not so long ago, the East was where all the action was.
Six good teams battling for four spots seemed like the perfect recipe for a crash-filled rush to the checkered flag.
The West? Well, there was one great team, and then a horde of mediocrity, bottomed by Tulsa. It really didn’t matter much what teams aside from Seattle made the playoffs, or didn’t. The Storm would wash them all away.
Well, things haven’t changed much in the West, but it does seem more likely that a rested, healthy Phoenix can make the Western Conference finals at least interesting. This recent spate of Mercury losses can be attributed to the absence of key players (DeWanner Bonner for two games, Penny Taylor for one) and the poor play of Diana Taurasi.
At the same time, Seattle has sputtered, not surprisingly. Brian Agler has had to balance the unquestioned need to rest his starters with retaining some kind of momentum, and so far it hasn’t worked out all that well. The Storm are 3-4 over their last seven games, including a loss to Tulsa, and now really need to finish with a rush.
As for San Antonio, Chamique Holdsclaw’s torn Achilles’ tendon erases whatever advantage three season-ending home games might have granted, though Phoenix could decide to tank Sunday’s finale if it would put the Silver Stars into third. A Holdsclaw-less San Antonio, to one way of thinking, would be the perfect playoff opponent, not even as threatening as Minnesota or Los Angeles.
And speaking of Minnesota, the Lynx finish with three on the road, including a make-or-break at L.A. Friday. They also have Seattle Tuesday, which will presumably against a Storm team that’s getting ready for the playoff run. If Minnesota wins both, though, and finishes 14-20, the Lynx will get to postseason.
The Sparks also need two wins, so beating Minnesota is pretty crucial – especially since the other two games are against Phoenix and Seattle, both better teams that can’t really afford to relax any more. At a certain point, playing well is more important than resting, and that point has arrived.
But it is unlikely that it makes much difference which two teams fill out the bottom of the playoff bracket. Even if one of them knocks off Phoenix, it only smooths Seattle’s path to the Finals – where the Storm will meet, um, well, someone.
Indiana has the best record and has to be the favorite, but the maddening inconsistency of Ebony Hoffman and the scattered point guard play of Tully Bevilaqua and Briann January are serious concerns. In a three-game series, one off night can be enough to derail a dream, and none of the Eastern playoff quartet needs much of an opening.
Red-hot New York will cool off at some point, but if Nicole Powell has truly located her jump shot – which has spent most of the summer sunning itself in Guadalara – the Liberty might be able to get one more deep playoff run from Taj McWilliams-Franklin and roll into the Finals.
Atlanta and Washington seem to be a half-step behind the other two, but the bipolar Dream are a favorite’s nightmare. If Iziane Castro Marques and Angel McCoughtry get hot, it doesn’t matter whether they’re at home or on the road, or whether they’re guarded or wide open – they’re going to score, and score a lot. Two games in which Izzy and Angel both have the magic are pretty much guaranteed Atlanta wins, and there’s not too much the opposition can do about it.
The Mystics don’t carry that kind of manic club, but they are more than capable of knocking off a team that isn’t playing at peak efficiency. And if it comes to the shot that needs to be made, there aren’t many better choices than Katie Smith.
But this week, all those four teams are doing is jockeying for home court advantage, which history has shown is not nearly as important in postseason as which is the better team. And, like Agler, the Eastern coaches must all try to make sure their players aren’t so burnt after the regular season that they have nothing left for the playoffs. (New York, for example, has four games this week – so how much does Anne Donovan play Cappie Pondexter when there’s very likely only one home game at stake?)
So what had promised to be a very interesting final week of the WNBA regular season really isn’t any more – even for fans of San Antonio, Minnesota and Los Angeles. After all, any playoff stay is likely to be brief, and beckoning in the lottery is a shot at Maya Moore, and bigger and better things in 2011.