There’s an awful lot to cover in the closing days of the regular season for those of us who write about the entire WNBA. While continuing to follow the remaining games, there are end-of-season wrap-ups, playoff previews, and award articles on top of the usual stuff. And the teams aren’t making it any easier. On the antepenultimate day of the regular season we had four games last night, and three of them had at least some influence on the playoff picture. Yet resolved exactly nothing. So we’re going to try to keep the individual game coverage brief(ish), and then detail the remaining issues to be decided at the end of the article. You can skip to the ‘What it all Means’ section if you don’t want to hear about what happened last night.
- Indiana opened the evening in a flat tie with Washington for the #3 seed in the East, with two games remaining. But that was overshadowed by the return of Katie Douglas, who’d missed virtually the entire season with a back problem. As covered in this space before, while getting Douglas back for the playoffs was a very nice boost, by rule they were required to release hardship exception signing Jessica Breland when Douglas returned. This would be the first test of whether the gain of Douglas outweighed being down to Jasmine Hassell as their only backup post. Douglas went straight into the starting lineup, replacing Karima Christmas, while New York were still without star guard Cappie Pondexter. Playing for nothing besides lottery positioning (which could only be improved by losing), there was no need to rush Pondexter back.
- It wasn’t long before the issues around losing Breland were highlighted. Erlana Larkins picked up two fouls in the opening 99 seconds, and had to go to the bench. That brought Hassell in, and in her 10 minutes of action over the course of the evening she did little beyond illustrating why she’s barely played for most of the season. We also saw Tamika Catchings forced to play some center later in the game, and Christmas having to slide over for occasional spells at power forward. When those lineups were in, the Fever looked desperately small. New York had some foul trouble of their own, which kept them smaller than usual in the paint at times, but they still punished Indiana inside for long stretches. Larkins and Catchings have been fighting their tails off all season, and they did most of the work as a pair during the Fever’s eventual run to a title last season. But the likes of Sylvia Fowles and Erika de Souza are likely to be in their way in the postseason, and this game showed how much danger a modicum of foul trouble can cause for Indiana. It’s going to be an awkward balancing act for the Fever in the playoffs.
- On the bright side, Douglas looked pretty good. She seemed to be moving well, which is always a question when someone’s had a back problem. She took a hard spill early on when tripped by Kara Braxton, but popped up quickly and seemed fine. She also drilled her first shot, a three as the ballhandler in the pick-and-roll when the defense sagged away and gave her too much space. Although she didn’t ultimately shoot too well on the night, that’s what she gives Indiana. Another potential scoring option from the perimeter, and someone else who can create a shot with the ball in her hands. It takes some of the pressure of Catchings and other ballhandlers like Briann January and Erin Phillips. It also, frankly, keeps Layshia Clarendon off the floor, where her rookie mistakes can’t hurt the Fever as they have for much of the season. Indiana can only hope that this game helped Douglas shake off some of the rust because they’ll need her to shoot better in the playoffs to really help.
- New York led 38-32 at halftime, with Indiana taking and missing an awful lot of perimeter jump shots. After shutting down Pondexter and finally giving up on the playoffs, rookie forward Toni Young has been given more floor time again, and produced some positive moments. She’s working on a little turnaround jumper from the low block, which seems to be her go-to move, and she converted it more than once in this game (after beating DeWanna Bonner with the same thing a couple of times in the Liberty’s previous game). Developing their youth is a priority for New York at this point, with so many veterans peppering their roster.
- Indiana’s lack of size was highlighted on the offensive end as well as on defense, through the number of layups and driving finishes they failed to convert. Caught amongst the trees, they were missing far too many close-in opportunities. And that was with Larkins playing the entire second half, and Catchings only taking a brief breather.
- Neither team was good enough to pull away, but Christmas drilled an important three from the corner with 90 seconds left in the game, giving Indiana a four-point lead. With both Christmas and Douglas shooting poorly on the night, it made you wonder if Indiana should’ve stuck with what’s become their regular starting lineup and used Douglas as bench energy. But maybe that was just one unfortunate evening. They could use a return to form from Shavonte Zellous as well – her perimeter shooting has been shaky lately as well.
- New York had a chance to tie the game at the death, inbounding the ball with 11 seconds remaining while trailing by three. The play they ran didn’t make much sense. Katie Smith was left on the bench, and the ball ended up in the hands of Toni Young, after never looking like it was going anywhere else. Young isn’t a three-point shooter, and her heave wasn’t even close. The Liberty didn’t bother to foul after the rebound, and Indiana had clung on for the victory.
- DeLisha Milton-Jones had far and away her most successful game so far in a Liberty jersey (although that isn’t saying much), while Catchings carried the Fever offense for much of the night (with a little help from January). Neither of them looked like a team primed to do much damage in the playoffs, but at least the Fever got over the line (and will have the chance to do something in the postseason). As mentioned earlier, the remaining playoff scenarios are discussed at the end of this piece.
- The situation coming into this game was very similar to the one above – a team tied for the #3 seed, against a team which just wants the season to end. Life was made even more difficult for Connecticut by the news that they’d lost yet another player to injury, with Tan White breaking a finger (again). She was in uniform to get the Sun up to the league mandated eight dressed players, but was never going to play.
- Washington did the majority of their damage in this game from beyond the three-point arc. They were driving and kicking to open shooters, or running pick-and-rolls which drew Sun defenders into the paint on rotation help, leaving the easy pass to a wide open shooter instead. Without White, Connecticut lost both a significant scoring option, and one of their better perimeter defenders. Washington led 42-27 at halftime.
- The Sun hung around for much of the second half, and even cut the gap to seven points late in the third quarter. They’re still fighting hard, regardless of which players they have left to put on the floor. And while they were dominating the glass, Washington’s interior scoring was severely limited all night – so they were dependant on actually hitting shots from outside. That tends to lead to dry spells, and allowed the Sun to come back at them once or twice.
- But with Ivory Latta, Monique Currie and Tayler Hill all firing accurately from beyond the arc, and the Sun severely lacking in firepower, Washington pulled away again in the fourth quarter. They iced the game with the return of their ‘Kia & the Kids’ lineup, where four bench rookies are joined by Kia Vaughn at center. It’s a lineup we’ve seen less of in the second half of the season, because Vaughn’s been promoted ahead of Michelle Snow to start at center, breaking up that reserve unit. But with Hill and Emma Meesseman making shots, and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt providing her usual line in hustle plays, they put the game away without much trouble. Potentially getting effective production from 10 players is the one place where Washington could have an edge on Chicago or Atlanta going into the first-round of the playoffs.
- Connecticut have one more game before they can put this ugly season behind them. Washington’s battle for playoff positioning goes to Sunday. Details below.
- Atlanta weren’t playing for much at this point. They’re cemented in the #2 seed in the East, so the only things they had left to decide mathematically were home-court advantage in theoretical WNBA Finals matchups that aren’t very likely. But a little hole had opened up for Chicago. Minnesota’s loss to Los Angeles the night before gave the Sky the chance to steal home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, if they could beat Atlanta in this potential Eastern Finals preview, and then the Lynx themselves on Saturday night.
- Still without Sancho Lyttle due to her broken foot, Atlanta were missing Armintie Herrington as well for this game, presumably due to the combined wrist/shoulder issue she picked up in a collision in their previous game. Hopefully the absence was just a precaution. Tiffany Hayes started in her place.
- After 27 turnovers in their previous game against Connecticut, when they were desperately sloppy against the worst team in the league, the startling statistic at halftime was that Atlanta had just one turnover. The only drawback was that they seemed to have accomplished it by barely passing at all. There was a vast amount of one-on-one basketball from the Dream in the first half, and very limited ball movement. But in fairness, they were pretty successful with that plan of attack. Angel McCoughtry and Tiffany Hayes both created high-percentage shots by barreling to the rim. Then McCoughtry kept the scoring pace up by even hitting the shots Chicago would’ve wanted her to take, like contested threes from deep. Alex Bentley joined them in scoring well from the perimeter when she fired away as well.
- However, between Elena Delle Donne’s shooting, Courtney Vandersloot slicing to the basket for too many easy layups, and Epiphanny Prince actually producing for one of the few times in recent months, Chicago still led 45-44 at halftime. Sylvia Fowles was dominating the glass, but both she and opposing center Erika de Souza had been kept very quiet on the scoreboard.
- There was a frantic pace to much of the third quarter, exactly how Atlanta like to play their basketball, and the Dream pulled out to a nine-point lead. It was Jasmine Thomas’s turn to take on some of the perimeter scoring load, dominating Vandersloot in the third quarter and going past her too easily. But the Sky came back into it behind Delle Donne and Swin Cash, and trailed just 65-62 heading into the fourth quarter.
- Vandersloot’s problems arguably turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Chicago. With just over seven minutes left in the game, Sky head coach Pokey Chatman replaced Vandersloot with Tamera Young, sliding Prince over to the point. It might’ve been intended as merely a brief rest for Vandersloot – Prince has become her primary backup with the release of Sharnee Zoll-Norman – but it turned out to be Chicago’s most effective lineup of the night. With the ball in her hands and the offense under her control, Prince exploded in the fourth quarter, hitting circus shots and deep jumpers, and throwing a couple of nice passes for Fowles to finish inside. This was the Epiphanny Prince we all remember, who was supposed to be part of Chicago’s ‘Big Three’ this season, but has faded badly in the second half of the year. The difference between being probable favourites for the East but vulnerable to an upset, or being a primary championship contender, probably comes down to which Prince shows up for the playoffs.
- The other part of that lineup change which worked – pardon the pun – like a dream, was using Young to defend McCoughtry. Angel spent the fourth quarter firing up contested jump shots rather than getting clean looks or making it to the basket, and bricked everything. The deciding play also came on the defensive end, when with 40 seconds left and the Sky leading by four, Delle Donne came across from the weak side on a scrambling, broken play, and rejected Erika at the basket. There were lots more free throws and an occasional Dream miss still to come, but that was the exclamation mark on another gut-it-out win from Chicago.
- So tonight’s game is alive for Chicago, and becomes essentially a playoff for home-court advantage in the WNBA Finals, should both the Sky and Lynx avoid an upset beforehand. Atlanta won’t be particularly looking forward to facing Chicago in the playoffs, should it come to that, but there are still some positives to take from their games against the Sky this season. Le’coe Willingham has found a way to do a serviceable job on Delle Donne, and Erika can battle with Fowles. They showed an ability to get to the rim for much of this game, despite Chicago’s typically strong interior defense. And based on most of her recent performances, they were beaten by a freak breakout by Epiphanny Prince. They’ve both got the first-round to worry about beforehand, but Atlanta will still feel like they’ve got a decent shot if they see this team again in a couple of weeks in the Eastern Finals.
- Finally, the game that meant least of all on the evening. Phoenix were already locked into the West’s third seed, and looking forward to their clash with Los Angeles. San Antonio continue to lick their wounds after all the injuries that have beset them this year, and would like the season to end quickly, thank you very much.
- Phoenix moved Penny Taylor into the starting lineup in place of Briana Gilbreath, trying to get Taylor into rhythm and ready for the playoffs. She skipped their last game to avoid playing a back-to-back, but there won’t be any of those in the postseason (barring some serious scheduling conflicts).
- Phoenix thoroughly dominated the first quarter. San Antonio were doing nothing besides firing up perimeter jump shots, and hitting very few of them. The Mercury were manipulating San Antonio’s defense however they wanted, leaving Brittney Griner and Candice Dupree to finish inside. Jayne Appel did what she could, but Griner showed off her lovely touch and simply scored over Appel. Dupree found too much space, and did her typical smooth job of converting. Unfortunately for the Mercury, Dupree subbed out after barely five minutes of action, and never returned to the game. She looked fine coming out, but spent the rest of the night with a huge pad strapped to the back of her right thigh, rather than playing basketball. It was probably just precautionary in a game with little meaning that the Mercury could win without her anyway, but it still damaged the night’s entertainment.
- San Antonio came back into the game somewhat in the second quarter, slowing the pace of the game and having a little more success when Phoenix weren’t able to just run past them. Rookie center Kayla Alexander also made a couple of plays against Griner, finding space when Griner did her usual trick of jumping away from her man to try to help elsewhere. Finding the balance between help defense and being able to recover to her own man is still something the Mercury rookie has to work on, but her length and athleticism often allows her to make up for what might be mistakes by anyone else.
- San Antonio continued to hang around within range in the third quarter, with the Mercury missing Dupree as a scoring option, even while Diana Taurasi was starting to step up and take on more of the offensive load. They also had a scare when Appel beat Griner on a baseline drive for a reverse layup, and Griner landed badly after chasing her to challenge the finish. She had her ankle re-taped and came back in, but after the injury issues Griner’s had all season, any time she comes up limping everyone holds their breath. The Mercury led just 59-52 heading to the fourth quarter.
- However, Phoenix didn’t take long to kill the game off in the fourth. The old Taurasi-Taylor combination returned with force, starting with a beautiful one-handed touch pass from Taurasi to kick the ball out for Taylor to drill a three. The barrage from outside continued, with Alexis Hornbuckle joining the superstar pair in taking the game completely away from San Antonio in a matter of minutes. Offensively, there were flashes of the old Mercury, firing away and shooting opponents out of the game. Defensively they did the job, helped out by San Antonio’s dismal shooting and distinct lack of remaining firepower. The Mercury scored the first 21 points of the final period.
- So a nice tune-up for Phoenix, who visit LA on Sunday for their final regular season game before facing the Sparks again in the first-round. Taylor’s starting to look ready, and Taurasi putting up 20 points and 10 assists (on just 9 field goal attempts and with just one turnover) was a nice display as well. The Sparks will be favourites, but the Mercury are rounding into being a dangerous underdog.
What it all Means
As mentioned already, home-court advantage throughout the playoffs will be decided by tonight’s game between Minnesota and Chicago. Whoever wins would hold the edge should they meet in the Finals.
The 3rd/4th seed in the East is more complicated. Indiana hold the two-way tie-breaker over Washington. So if they both lose on Sunday, Indiana are #3 and Washington are #4. Same story, obviously, if Indiana win and Washington lose. But if Atlanta lose to San Antonio on Sunday, while Indiana and Washington both win, it could still create a three-way tie – and the three-way results in Atlanta at #2, Washington at #3 and Indiana at #4. Yes, bizarrely, Indiana and Washington could both have finished their regular seasons and still not know where they’re heading in the first round – because Atlanta play last on Sunday, and the seeding will still depend on them if both the Fever and Mystics win. Atlanta, fortunately, finish above Indiana and Washington in any two-way or three-way tie-break, so cannot drop out of the #2 seed. Otherwise this would be even more difficult to explain.
Last night’s results also had an influence on lottery decisions (assuming the lottery rules remain the same and the draft takes place as usual – all these things are somewhat in flux with the collective bargaining agreement about to expire). Connecticut’s loss confirmed that they would finish alone with the worst record in the league, giving them the highest percentage chance of the #1 pick in the 2014 draft (and the #1 pick should any team cease operations and lead to a dispersal draft in the offseason). New York, San Antonio and Tulsa are currently in a three-way tie for 2nd, 3rd and 4th-worst. For lottery chances, they add them up and split them, so tie-breakers are essentially irrelevant. But if one of those teams wins their final game while the others lose (or two wins, one loss) the percentages change pretty significantly. Playing for pride is one thing, but anyone with the slightest niggling injury will probably be taking the night off.
Saturday September 14th (today):
Chicago @ Minnesota, 8pm ET. Lynx -7.5 is a pretty big line considering it’s a matchup of the two best teams in the league, but includes the aspect that the Sky fought past Atlanta just last night while Minnesota were resting. I like the Lynx to win and cover, and send a message that they’re still the team to beat heading into the postseason. But it’s a fascinating game for both teams to finish with. And Pokey Chatman’s been using her stars for insanely heavy minutes down the stretch, long after the #1 seed in the East was sealed. Is it really worth running Delle Donne and Fowles into the ground after they played 38 and 39 minutes respectively just last night?
Tulsa @ Seattle, 10pm ET. Seattle -5.5 isn’t enough to dissuade me from taking the Storm. Temeka Johnson may well rest her heel again, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see other players get restricted work, but the Shock are shorthanded as well. In Tina Thompson’s last ever regular season game, I’ll take the Storm to say farewell with a win while covering the spread.
Sunday September 15th (tomorrow):
Indiana @ Connecticut, 1pm ET
Phoenix @ Los Angeles, 3pm ET
New York @ Washington, 4pm ET
Atlanta @ San Antonio, 4.30pm ET