WNBA Today, 09/16/2011: And they’re off!

So last night, the real stuff got underway in the WNBA. You play the whole regular season to make the playoffs, and now they’re here. Screw it up now, and you might as well not have bothered. It’s time to put up or shut up, go hard or go home, and any other cliché you can remember that I’m forgetting. This is what it’s all about.

The first game saw Indiana hosting New York in the #1-#4 matchup out East, which you’d think ought to make the Fever strong favourites. But the Eastern Conference has been so tight this year, and the Liberty finished just two games behind their first round opponents – in reality this was arguably the most unpredictable playoff series of the four. For what it’s worth, Indiana lost five of their final seven regular season games, and New York two of their last three, but you can typically throw form out the window going into the playoffs. Everyone starts 0-0, and history doesn’t count for much.

Indiana were back to what’s become their regular starting five, with Tamika Catchings returning after sitting out the final regular season game and point guard Erin Phillips back after recovering from her ankle sprain. The only player out was reserve guard Shavonte Zellous, who sprained her own ankle in the last game against Atlanta. New York had their standard five out to open the game as well, with Cappie Pondexter reportedly still rehabbing her ankle but ready to play regardless. It’s the playoffs – if you can walk, you can play.

The early stages of the game belonged to Indiana. Continue reading

WNBAlien Playoff Previews – Eastern Conference Semi-Finals: Connecticut vs. Atlanta

#2 Connecticut Sun (21-13) vs. #3 Atlanta Dream (20-14)

 

Regular season series: Tied 2-2

@ Con. 07/31: Sun 99-92

@ Atl. 08/19: Dream 94-88

@ Con. 08/21: Sun 96-87

@ Atl. 09/06: Dream 85-74

 

This time last season, things were very different for these two teams. Atlanta had just about held on to their playoff spot despite losing six of their last seven games, while Connecticut finished a place below them and missed the playoffs entirely for the second straight season. What a difference a year makes. The further development of Tina Charles, improved health of Asjha Jones and better support from the surrounding pieces has seen a much improved Connecticut team challenge Indiana for the Eastern Conference crown. Meanwhile, after an awful 3-9 start to the season, Atlanta have come charging back into the reckoning led by their own MVP candidate in Angel McCoughtry. After the seasons they’ve had, neither is going to be happy with just making up the numbers in the postseason.

While the matchup wasn’t decided until the final day of the regular season, the home-and-home games that these teams played in mid-August felt like playoff encounters, so it almost seems like this series was destined to happen somewhere along the way. Continue reading

WNBAlien Playoff Previews – Eastern Conference Semi-Finals: Indiana vs. New York

#1 Indiana Fever (21-13) vs. #4 New York Liberty (19-15)

 

Regular season series: Tied 2-2

@ Ind 06/10: Liberty 81-80

@ N.Y. 06/11: Fever 86-80

@ Ind 08/13: Fever 82-71

@ N.Y. 09/09: Liberty 83-75

 

The strange thing about this series is that both teams might well have chosen to play the other, given the options available in the Eastern Conference. Going into the final day of the regular season, Indiana could’ve ended up with New York or Atlanta in the first round. With an 0-4 record against the Dream this year, and with Atlanta coming off a late-season tear, there was a definite feeling that Indiana were comfortable losing on Sunday to create a matchup with New York instead. For the Liberty, while their first choice might’ve been to sneak into the #2 seed for home court advantage, they probably weren’t too disappointed to drop below the Dream into fourth. Instead of having to deal with Tina Charles and Connecticut’s formidable home record, the Liberty get Indiana, whose form has been almost as inconsistent as their own in the final weeks of the season.

These teams know each other so well that the series is likely to be very, very tight. When the Fever and Liberty meet it’s usually a slugfest of a game, very physical and intense throughout. Both teams build their identity from their defense, but play systems that are visibly very different on the floor. Continue reading

WNBAlien Playoff Previews – Western Conference Semi-Finals: Seattle vs. Phoenix

#2 Seattle Storm (21-13) vs. #3 Phoenix Mercury (19-15)

 

Regular season series: Seattle 3-1

@ Sea 06/04: Storm 78-71

@ Pho 07/26: Storm 83-77

@ Pho 08/16: Mercury 81-79

@ Sea 09/09: Storm 85-70

 

Well this one feels like it’s been coming for a while, doesn’t it? Since Minnesota started pulling away at the top of the West and San Antonio and LA fell away, it became increasingly likely as the season progressed that these two would be running headlong into each other in the first round. It’s become an oft-repeated fact that the Storm have beaten the Mercury in nine of their last ten meetings, including the game that essentially decided home court advantage for this series last Friday. But most of those games came in 2010, when the Storm were a significantly more dominant force than they have been this season. Do the Mercury have what it takes to turn the tables and upset the team that dumped them out of the Western Conference Finals just last season?

While they ended up right next to each other in the standings, these teams are an exhibition in contrasts. The league’s slowest-paced team (and Seattle took it by a mile this year) faces its second-fastest (Atlanta once again finished just ahead of Phoenix in possessions per game). Seattle’s #1-ranked defense faces Phoenix’s #1 offense (it’s #9 offense vs. #10 defense at the other end, but that doesn’t sound nearly as impressive). And if you’ve watched these teams play in recent years, you really don’t need the numbers. The Mercury don’t change. They will charge up and down the court at every opportunity, looking for breakout chances and ideally layups before the defense can get set. They will then proceed to play some fairly lackadaisical, pathetic defense at the other end. The likes of LA and Tulsa have shown just how terrible defense can be in the WNBA this season, but the Mercury weren’t much better and they’ve been at this for years now. They’re experts in the art of playing barely any defense.

The Storm, on the other hand, will play physical, tough, hard-nosed defense. Continue reading

WNBAlien Playoff Previews – Western Conference Semi-Finals: Minnesota vs. San Antonio

#1 Minnesota Lynx (27-7) vs. #4 San Antonio Silver Stars (18-16)

 

Regular season series: Minnesota 4-0

@ S.A. 07/31: Lynx 70-69

@ Min. 08/04: Lynx 62-60

@ Min 08/26: Lynx 85-75

@ S.A. 08/28: Lynx 72-61

 

So after all that work to make it into the postseason, San Antonio have earned the dubious pleasure of facing the 2011 Minnesota Lynx. The positive angle is that the Silver Stars won five of their last six games of the regular season. The problem is that they won’t be seeing Washington, Tulsa or LA in the playoffs. They’ll be travelling north to face a Lynx team that has finally pieced all their talent together and stayed healthy, losing only seven games all season en route to wrapping up the best record in the WNBA with weeks to spare. It’s a formidable prospect, and at first glance the signs don’t looks good for San Antonio.

Remember how good the all-conquering Seattle Storm team were last year? The group that swept every round in the playoffs? This Lynx team finished just one game worse than the 2010 Storm, and has put up some remarkably similar numbers. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 09/12/2011: East finally shakes out as regular season comes to a close

Sunday was the final day of the WNBA regular season, and there were still issues to be decided. Most importantly, the seeding and resulting first-round matchups in the Eastern Conference were still up for grabs, but the remaining games all carried some level of interest. Records were broken, a scoring title was won by the narrowest of margins, and we finally discovered who the hell would be facing whom in the postseason. Not a bad way to finish out the preamble before the real fight begins on Thursday night.

The opening game of the day, tipping off four hours before anyone else, was in Connecticut. Both the Sun and their visitors, New York, had every reason to go all out for the win. A Connecticut victory would confirm them as the #2 seeds, bringing with it the first round home court advantage that was vitally important to a team coming into this game with a 14-2 home record (and just 6-11 on the road). A New York win would’ve given them a chance to sneak into second place as well, although they would then be reliant on Atlanta beating Indiana in the game later in the afternoon. A loss for the Liberty would mean third or fourth, again depending on the later result. Regardless of the winner here, at least one team would be hanging on what happened in Indiana, but ignoring the permutations it was essentially like any other sporting event – win good, loss bad.

After a long ceremony to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, which can’t have helped the concentration levels of the players, the standard starting fives took the floor. Maybe the teams cooled down after such a long gap was created between their warm-up and the tip-off, because the first quarter wasn’t pretty. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 09/11/2011: First Round Playoff Schedule Set

Okay everybody, my apologies, but it’s been a very long week. And your WNBAlien chief writer is very tired. So we’re going to wrap everything from the final day of the WNBA regular season in tomorrow’s column. From the struggle for positioning in the East, through the battle for the scoring title and Sylvia Fowles’s efforts to be the second player in WNBA history to average 20 points and 10 rebounds for a season, it’ll all be there. For now, here’s the entire first round playoff schedule:

 

Western Conference

 

#1 Minnesota Lynx vs. #4 San Antonio Silver Stars

Friday Sept.16th         San Antonio @ Minnesota, 9pm ET

Sunday Sept. 18th    Minnesota @ San Antonio, 5pm ET (ESPN2)

Tuesday Sept. 20th  San Antonio @ Minnesota, T.B.D. (if necessary)

 

#2 Seattle Storm vs. #3 Phoenix Mercury

Thursday Sept 15th   Phoenix @ Seattle, 10pm ET (ESPN2)

Saturday Sept. 17th  Seattle @ Phoenix, 10pm ET

Monday Sept. 19th    Phoenix @ Seattle, 10pm ET (ESPN2, if necessary)

 

Eastern Conference

 

#1 Indiana Fever vs. #4 New York Liberty

Thursday Sept. 15th  New York @ Indiana, 8pm ET (ESPN2)

Saturday Sept. 17th  Indiana @ New York, 4pm ET

Monday Sept. 19th    New York @ Indiana, 8pm ET (ESPN2, if necessary)

 

#2 Connecticut Sun vs. #3 Atlanta Dream

Friday Sept. 16th       Atlanta @ Connecticut, 7pm ET

Sunday Sept. 18th     Connecticut @ Atlanta, 3pm ET (ESPN2)

Tuesday Sept. 20th   Atlanta @ Connecticut, T.B.D. (if necessary)

WNBA Today, 09/10/2011: Liberty keep Sunday interesting and assorted other contests

Before the excitement of the Western Conference home court decider between Phoenix and Seattle last night, the East had some fun of its own. Considering I’ve already printed the resulting playoff scenarios, I’m sure you already know the result of Indiana’s trip to New York. But after covering every single game of the WNBA regular season for its first 97 days, I’m certainly not going to skip any with only three days remaining. Which means you not only get the Fever’s clash with the Liberty in this piece, but the three completely meaningless games that have also taken place over the last couple of days. If nothing else, I’m at least a completist.

Indiana seemed primed for New York to take advantage of last night. The Fever had nothing to play for, having sealed the #1 seed in the East days earlier. They’d lost their starting point guard to a nasty-looking ankle sprain in their last game (that’s the second starting point guard, after the first one blew out her knee a couple of months ago). They had no real reason to care about this game. New York, on the other hand, still had plenty to fight for. Opening the game in fourth place in the East thanks to Atlanta’s recent winning habit, two wins in their last two games had the potential to bump the Liberty as high as 2nd in the conference. That would obviously come with the added bonus of home court advantage in the first round, and after a slow start in their new home out in Jersey, the Liberty have settled in and entered this game 11-5 at the Prudential Center. After spending practically all year chasing after Indiana and Connecticut in the standings, sneaking into second on the final day of the regular season would be a nice bonus heading into the playoffs.

Third-string point guard Shannon Bobbitt took Phillips’s place at the point for Indiana – Phillips is expected to be ready for the playoffs, but there’s no point risking that ankle until then. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 09/09/2011: Taurasi terrific, but Smith helps Storm survive

The battle for playoff positioning in the WNBA’s Eastern Conference is heading to the final day of the season (see all potential scenarios here), so tonight’s Indiana-New York contest is relegated to tomorrow’s column along with the Tulsa-LA game that only a mother could love. Tonight, we look at the crunch matchup between Phoenix and Seattle out West, the game that would likely decide who had home court advantage for their impending playoff series.

After Phoenix beat Tulsa last night, nearly everything was sorted in the Western Conference. We knew the matchups, we had dates for every game, we even had tip-off times and TV channels. The only thing we didn’t know was who would have Games 1 and 3 at home, and who would be left with just Game 2. The Mercury pulled level with Seattle in the standings after last night, and a win tonight would’ve evened the season series, but the Storm held a far superior conference record. That meant that a Phoenix win tonight wouldn’t have completely sealed matters – they’d still need either a win over Minnesota on Sunday or a Seattle loss to Chicago the same night. For the Storm it was simpler – win tonight, and home court in the first round was theirs.

Bad news for the Mercury before the tip, as Penny Taylor remained on the sidelines due to back spasms. She was warming up before the game, but presumably didn’t feel ready to go. It’s the smart play if she was still hurting. Considering Seattle were 13-2 at home coming into this game, 6-11 on the road, it obviously would’ve been huge to take home court away from the Storm for the playoffs. But far bigger than that is having Taylor in one piece. At some point, the Mercury were going to have to win in Seattle, either tonight or in the playoffs. If Taylor wasn’t ready, you leave her on the bench and try to pull a game out in the postseason if the rest of the squad can’t manage it without her. DeWanna Bonner continued to start in Taylor’s place, while Seattle went with their established starting five.

The early stages of the game were ugly for everyone, as practically nothing would drop through the hoop. Still, the signs seemed reasonably positive for Seattle because they were working to produce offense in the paint, not just firing up jump shots. Phoenix, on the other hand, were almost exclusively jacking up shots from outside. Continue reading

WNBAlien Special: Eastern Conference Playoff Scenarios

No, I haven’t covered tonight’s games yet, but anyone who cared probably just saw New York beat Indiana to keep everything nice and complicated in the East. So I thought I’d try to explain what remains in the Eastern Conference playoff chase.

Two relevant games remain, both on Sunday: New York @ Connecticut (1pm ET), and Atlanta @ Indiana (5pm ET). Indiana have sealed the top seed, regardless of what happens. Here’s every remaining possibility:

 

If Connecticut beat New York, then Atlanta beat Indiana: #2 Conn, #3 Atlanta, #4 New York

If Connecticut beat New York, then Indiana beat Atlanta: #2 Conn, #3 New York, #4 Atlanta

If New York beat Connecticut, then Atlanta beat Indiana: #2 New York, #3 Conn, #4 Atlanta

If New York beat Connecticut, then Indiana beat Atlanta: #2 Conn, #3 New York, #4 Atlanta

 

So bizarrely, if New York beat Connecticut, they’ll know that they’re playing each other in the first round of the playoffs – but have to wait four hours for the result from Indiana to find out who has home court advantage. That’s because Connecticut win the two-way tie-breaker with New York (2-2 season series record, superior conference record), but come second in the three-way tie-breaker with New York and Atlanta (Connecticut were 2-2 with both the others in the regular season, but New York’s 3-2 season series record over Atlanta gives them the edge).

That’s the way my maths reads the situation, anyway.

Hope that made things clear. Or left you completely confused, but able to work out what might happen on Sunday regardless.

Back later with true daily update, featuring the Phoenix-Seattle game about to start.