Sunday saw the conclusion to the WNBA’s 2013 regular season, with a surprising amount still to be decided. There were some minor questions around home-court advantage in theoretical WNBA Finals matchups, but the main issue remaining was in the Eastern Conference playoff race. With the #3 and #4 seeds still to be decided, the matchups in the first-round were also still up in the air. And there was still a chance that Indiana and Washington could finish off their games, and be left waiting around for the Atlanta result to decide their fate. It was a strange state of flux to be sitting in, heading into the final day of the season.
- Playing in the first game of the day, the Fever made the first conspicuous move in relation to deciding the seeding for the Eastern playoffs. If you want to be generous, you could say that their decisions suggested that they didn’t mind whether they faced Chicago or Atlanta in the first-round. After all, neither a win or a loss would definitively decide their opposition. But more accurately, it seemed like they wanted the Sky. Tamika Catchings took the day off to rest a sore back (I’ll resist making the standard joke about how it was caused by having to carry this team all season); Briann January sat out to rest a sore shoulder; and Shavonte Zellous was excused to attend a funeral. The Zellous issue was presumably legitimate, but if they really wanted to win this game, Catchings and January undoubtedly would’ve played. It left the Fever with just seven healthy bodies, and a distinctly makeshift lineup.
- The moves made plenty of sense for Indiana. While Chicago have clearly been the best team in the East this season, the Fever have a great record against them over the years and went 3-1 against them this season. It also made sense in planning for the future, because a loss would give them a strong chance of the #5 overall pick in next year’s draft, while a win might move them down that order. If they were happy to play the Sky instead of the Dream, you could argue the players should’ve ‘rested’ for more than just this one game.
- Of course, Indiana had a decent chance to win anyway. All of Connecticut’s injuries had them down to seven players as well, with Tan White the latest casualty due to a broken finger. And while you can rest as many players as you like, once you take the court instincts tend to kick in. No one’s going out on the floor playing to lose.
- The reason I didn’t expect Indiana to rest so many players was the return of Katie Douglas. This was just her second game back after missing almost the entire season with a back problem, and it seemed like they’d want her to rebuild chemistry with the other key players on the roster. Clearly they didn’t think that was a big deal, presumably due to the number of years Douglas has already played with most of these teammates. There were some communication issues during this game, most noticeably between Douglas and Karima Christmas, where switches and defensive rotations weren’t particularly smooth. While she’s been watching from the sidelines all season, turning that into movement on the floor is very different, and Douglas needs to get up to speed very quickly. It’s a transition for Christmas right now as well, because she’s being asked to play some power forward after Indiana were forced to release Jessica Breland due to Douglas’s return. Christmas has been playing small forward all season, and while the amount of switching within Indiana’s defense means she’s had practice sliding inside, it’s not quite the same thing. Her help instincts and rotation moves aren’t quite those of a player used to playing in the paint.
- It was a pretty ugly game, as you’d expect with reserves getting heavy minutes and only seven players available on either side. Connecticut led 34-32 at halftime, with Mistie Bass having some success inside even when Indiana’s regular starting center Erlana Larkins was on the floor. The Sun held a narrow lead through most of the first three periods, but the Fever pulled away to lead by as many as six early in the fourth quarter. Christmas led the way in that sequence, attacking off the dribble. That could be useful in the playoffs because teams will try to hide weaker defenders on her when she’s on the floor. If she can do more than hit an occasional three to punish that, it would be distinctly useful. Especially considering Douglas is still searching for her shot.
- In a game where no one wanted to play any longer than necessary, it seemed almost inevitable that we’d end up in overtime. With the game tied, Renee Montgomery committed a mind-bogglingly stupid eight-seconds violation by walking the ball upcourt too slowly, giving the Fever the ball back with under 24 seconds remaining in regulation. Connecticut were either trying to trap aggressively, or they fouled in an effort to force a result and prevent OT. Unfortunately, Douglas hit a pair at the line, and after Christmas ran Kelsey Griffin off the three-point line, she hit a pullup jumper at the elbow to send the game into an extra period.
- Even with rookie guard Layshia Clarendon on the floor, Douglas played point guard for much of the fourth quarter and overtime. It didn’t work all that well, partly because Douglas couldn’t hit a perimeter shot all afternoon. Clarendon took over the ballhandling for two possessions in OT, and immediately produced two driving layups. While just her reputation and threat will stretch opponents in the playoffs, Indiana need Douglas to start hitting shots, or having her back won’t help much.
- Douglas was heavily involved in the deciding moments of overtime, too. She was the one double-teaming down in the paint when the ball was kicked out to a wide open Iziane Castro Marques to put Connecticut up by three with 90 seconds left. Then Clarendon kicked the ball to Douglas in transition, and she had her first perimeter make of the day to tie the game. Then after a series of offensive rebounds kept the Sun possession alive, Castro Marques drove on Douglas, missed, but grabbed the rebound and was fouled on the putback attempt – again by Douglas. Castro Marques made the foul shots, Larkins missed a turnaround at the buzzer, and everyone got to go home happy. The Connecticut crowd saw a home win to end the season, and the Fever had enhanced their chances of finishing 4th in the East.
- We’ve been through all the issues around the Sun before, and there’s not much point rehashing them again. Several of these players probably won’t be back next year, and even if they are they’ll be coming off the bench. It’s the merciful end to a painful season for Connecticut. They’ll have the top odds of the #1 pick in the draft lottery.
- While all the resting players obviously limits what we can take from this game for Indiana, there were still some worrying signs. Jasmine Hassell looked as mediocre as always as a backup post, and Lin Dunn will be hoping that Catchings and Larkins stay out of foul trouble throughout the playoffs and don’t mind averaging close to 40 minutes a night. Douglas hasn’t hit much from outside in her two games so far. Erin Phillips played 22 minutes and did virtually nothing, before sitting out the fourth quarter and overtime entirely. But they got the loss that they seemed to want. It still didn’t confirm the #4 seed, but everything was now pretty simple. If Washington won their final game, they were the #3 seed. If they lost, Indiana would stay at #3 whether they liked it or not.
- It wasn’t next chronologically, but it seems to make sense to go here next. As mentioned above, everything had been made simple for the Mystics. A win, and they could avoid Chicago and create a matchup with Atlanta (along with finishing at .500, which always looks nicer in the record books). A loss would see them face the Sky team that’s been atop the Eastern Conference for most of the season. New York were playing for nothing besides lottery balls. A win would hurt their odds a little, and would be a surprise considering they’d lost nine of their previous ten games. Cappie Pondexter was once again out due to her knee bruise (and the general pointlessness of the game for the Liberty). The one real reason to pay attention to New York in this game was that it was Katie Smith’s last appearance as a professional basketball player. Unlike Tina Thompson the night before, we knew this would definitely be Smith’s last appearance, and while her team was on the road it was still a last chance to say goodbye to a legend.
- The bright spots for Washington in the first half were some perimeter shooting from Ivory Latta, and a couple of positive moments from their young bench crew. For New York, rookie forward Toni Young elevated for her baseline jumper a few times again. But it was a desperately scrappy half of basketball, with a pile-up of missed shots. All kinds of shots – both teams found a way to miss them all. Washington led 33-27 at the break despite shooting 32% in the first half. New York were at 27%.
- The Mystics were very, very static on offense for much of the first half, something that’s been an issue for them in several games this year. To be honest, they weren’t always that much better in the second half. But New York were still shooting poorly, and rookie guard Tayler Hill heated up from outside. Three-point bombs from Latta and Hill took Washington into a double-digit lead, and the fourth quarter ended up being relatively comfortable for the Mystics. New York didn’t have the energy, interest or talent to make any kind of comeback.
- There were a couple of interesting aspects to the second half for the Mystics, beyond the result. They opened the fourth quarter with their old ‘Kia & the Kids’ lineup, where Vaughn joins their four bench rookies on the floor. The group still has good chemistry, but with Vaughn now the starting center it’s had less opportunity to see the light of day. Vaughn can’t play 40 minutes. It’s awkward with the rotations, but Mike Thibault may have to find a way to get that unit on the floor in the playoffs. They just seem to play well together. One of those rookies, Emma Meesseman, played the vast majority of the second half ahead of Crystal Langhorne at power forward. One of the few disappointing aspects of this season for the Mystics is the relatively quiet year Langhorne has had. She used to be easily this team’s best player, and their focal point on offense, but that’s faded away this season and she hasn’t been her usual self in the paint. They’ll need her to show up in the playoffs.
- So this result finally completed the postseason matchups. Washington finish in third, and will face Atlanta, while Indiana drop to fourth on the final day and get the matchup they apparently wanted with Chicago. Everyone’s happy, apart perhaps from the Sky, who’d probably have preferred the Mystics rather than the reigning champs from Indiana.
- For New York, like Connecticut, it’s the end of an ugly season. Despite offseason optimism after Bill Laimbeer took over, their record ended up being worse than in any of the seasons under Anne Donovan or John Whisenant. In fact, 11-23 ties the worst record in franchise history, from 2006. Injuries didn’t help, but performances were disappointing even taking that into account. They’ll be hoping for much better when they return to Madison Square Garden for next season. At least this loss helped them maximise their odds in the draft lottery.
- The main intrigue here was that these teams were already well aware that they’d be facing each other in a first-round playoff series four days later. So neither team would want to give anything away going into those vastly more important games, but some would argue there was also the chance for a mental edge going into the postseason. Los Angeles stuck with their usual lineup, not resting anyone, while the only player taking the day off for Phoenix was Candice Dupree. Considering she’d spent most of their previous game on the bench with a big pad strapped to the back of her right thigh, it wasn’t a surprise to see Dupree sit out. It was much more important to have her ready for Thursday night.
- The absence of Dupree messed with a lot of the matchups we’ll see in the playoff series, which lessened the usefulness of this game as a preview even further. Replacing her in the lineup with wing Briana Gilbreath shifted everyone over. We probably won’t see Candace Parker guarding DeWanna Bonner much in the postseason (assuming Dupree returns), because Parker will have to take Dupree. Kristi Toliver also won’t be able to hide on Gilbreath if the Mercury are back to the starting lineup from their previous game, which might shift the other Sparks’ assignments around. LA used Lindsey Harding on Diana Taurasi to start the game, with Alana Beard on Penny Taylor. Harding’s lack of size isn’t as much of an issue against Taurasi as it is against Seimone Augustus in Minnesota because Taurasi isn’t going to post up, but we’ll see if they stick with it in the playoffs. If Phoenix open with a perimeter of Taurasi, Taylor and Bonner, the Sparks may not have much choice.
- We did get a look at the Nneka Ogwumike-Brittney Griner matchup which is likely to remain the same in the playoffs. Griner obviously has a significant height advantage, but rarely hurt the Sparks on offense. When they had the ball, LA weren’t afraid to go at her, and the Sparks picked up a host of offensive rebounds. Many of those came when Jantel Lavender was destroying Griner’s backup, Krystal Thomas, but Griner gives up plenty as well. She still hasn’t quite found the balance between helping on defense and still managing to rebound, so if she misses the block, someone like Ogwumike is left wide open for the offensive board and putback. It also comes down to Griner’s teammates being quick enough to realise she’s out of position and rotating to box out under the rim. They were bad at that even when she was on the bench.
- The game itself was virtually over as a contest in the first quarter. LA were hot from outside early on, ran away from Phoenix in transition, and led by 19 in the first quarter. That lead never dropped below 16 for the rest of the night and almost hit 40 in the second half. It was a demolition. But in the first half, back before everyone had given up the game as a dead loss, LA only scored 16 of their 49 points in the paint. It’s been a while since they shot that well from the perimeter, and however open they find themselves against Phoenix’s defense it’s not necessarily something LA can replicate every night.
- The Mercury had a brief scare when Taurasi limped off the floor late in the first half after a collision with A’dia Mathies. Taurasi had taken a knee to her right quad, and didn’t play in the second half, but she was sat on the bench laughing and joking with her teammates. It seems very unlikely that something like that could keep her out of a playoff game.
- Game 204 of the 204-game regular season ultimately didn’t have much hanging on it. Washington and Indiana had decided things for themselves in the playoff race, so while a loss would drop them into a tie with the Mystics, Atlanta’s result no longer affected Eastern positioning. The Silver Stars were playing for pride, and little else. In fact, a win would only hurt their statistical chances in the draft lottery.
- Armintie Herrington was out again due to her shoulder injury, hopefully held out merely as a precaution with the playoffs about to begin. Sancho Lyttle still hasn’t played since breaking her foot in midseason, and there’s been no news of a return for the playoffs. It’s looking unlikely at this stage.
- The game had a very ‘end of season’ feel to it, but that seemed to mean different things to either team. San Antonio relaxed and enjoyed themselves, played with some freedom, and ran away from the Dream in the second quarter. Atlanta looked mildly interested early on, then sat down their key players and quit as the game went along. Angel McCoughtry’s day was over early in the second quarter, while Erika de Souza and Tiffany Hayes played very little in the second half. Obviously they have far more important games to come, but it was a slightly depressing way to finish the regular season. It was Atlanta’s fourth straight loss heading into the postseason, and they’ll be hoping to flip the switch for the playoffs.
- San Antonio will view this as the start of their 2014 season. Jia Perkins and Shameka Christon both had good moments, Shenise Johnson scored well and took Alex Bentley apart on several occasions, but Danielle Adams was the star. With all their important injuries, developing younger players like Adams has been one of the central aspects of San Antonio’s season, and you could see it in this game. She did most of her damage in the paint, finishing around the rim and drawing fouls. She still has the outside shot to stretch the defense, but it’s no longer the mainstay of her attack. She completed her scoring by going end-to-end and spinning around Courtney Clements to finish, taking her to a franchise-record 39 points on the night. As with the first game of the day in Connecticut, the home crowd who’ve suffered through a difficult season were given something to end the year on a positive note.
- For the negative people (like me) out there, this one result took San Antonio’s chances of the #1 pick in next year’s draft from 18.6% to 10.4%, and dropped their chances of a top-3 pick from 68.7% to 46.7%. Those are meaningful changes, but the ping-pong balls have fallen in favour of teams with low odds in the past. The Silver Stars could still get lucky and have a premier talent to add to the players returning from injury next season, for what they’re hoping will be a much more successful campaign.
Playoff previews and an End-of-Season Awards piece should be appearing here in the next couple of days, so check back soon for those. As always, WNBAlien coverage will go right through the postseason.
First-round Playoff Schedule
Thursday September 19th
Washington @ Atlanta, 8pm ET
Phoenix @ Los Angeles, 10pm ET
Friday September 20th
Indiana @ Chicago, 7pm ET
Seattle @ Minnesota, 9pm ET
Saturday September 21st
Atlanta @ Washington, 7pm ET
Los Angeles @ Phoenix, 10pm ET
Sunday September 22nd
Chicago @ Indiana, 3pm ET
Minnesota @ Seattle (at the Tacoma Dome), 5pm ET
Monday September 23rd
Washington @ Atlanta, TBD (if necessary)
Phoenix @ Los Angeles, 10pm ET (if necessary)
Tuesday September 24th
Seattle @ Minnesota, TBD (if necessary)
Indiana @ Chicago, TBD (if necessary)