Another quintuple-game night in the WNBA on Friday, and all five of them had playoff implications of some description. Whether it’s officially confirming your spot in the postseason, fighting for seeding, or just playing spoiler while you look forward to the lottery, the regular season isn’t quite done yet.
Although if you happen to be a Connecticut Sun fan, you could’ve been forgiven for thinking your team had already decided the season was over. With the mathematical calculations finally confirming that the Sun’s chances of making the playoffs were finished (realists had confirmed that eons ago), two more Sun players were shut down for the season. The team confirmed that Kara Lawson wouldn’t be returning for the rest of the year with lingering issues from her bruised knee, while Tina Charles was shut down with sore knees and various other aches and pains that everyone’s always feeling by this stage in the season. Making sure they stay below everyone else in the standings would also help Connecticut’s lottery chances, of course (and give them the #1 pick in a dispersal draft in the unfortunate event that any other team ceased operations over the offseason).
But in case you haven’t noticed me pointing it out several times over the course of the season, both here and on Twitter, the Sun have invariably been a better team with Tina Charles on the bench this season. Plus, when a team hears that their opponent is missing virtually their entire starting five (remember, Asjha Jones, Danielle McCray, Allison Hightower and Kelly Faris are all out for various reasons as well as Charles and Lawson), they tend to relax. The Mystics came out with very little energy, and we saw what might well have been the quickest timeout of the season. Mike Thibault brought everything to a halt after just 45 seconds, with his team trailing 5-0.
Washington struggled to find any of their usual energy and focus throughout the first half, but they did at least crawl into a pretty tedious contest. They didn’t hit many shots, but they managed to drive into contact enough to earn trips to the free throw line and gather up some points. Connecticut had a drought in the middle of the half where their basic limited level of talent was highlighted, but over the course of the half they shot significantly better than Washington. The rotations and help in the Mystics defense weren’t crisp at all, and Tan White led the Sun to a 36-34 halftime advantage.
Two games in the WNBA last night, both with significant playoff implications. While the eight teams who’ll be participating in the postseason have become relatively clear, only Chicago as the #1 seed in the East have already settled into a particular spot. The final two weeks of the season could still have a heavy influence on positioning, matchups, and home-court advantage in the playoffs. Everyone’s still battling to finish as high as they can.
We’ll start in the West, because the clash between Minnesota and Los Angeles had been a long time coming. These two have broken clear as the top teams in the conference as the season’s worn on, but the three previous times they faced each other this year took place so early in the season that they feel like distant memories. LA came out 2-1 up in those games, with all three resulting in blowout wins for the home team. But the important numbers heading into last night had little to do with those encounters. The Lynx were 1.5 games ahead of the Sparks at the top of the West with five games left on Minnesota’s schedule (just four for LA). The Sparks were probably going to have to win both this game and their final regular season meeting with the Lynx back in LA next Thursday to sneak up into the #1 seed. A split would still give them a chance, but would leave them relying on Seattle beating Minnesota in their upcoming double-header. It was a definite longshot unless LA did the work themselves.
Fortunately for all neutrals, both teams were healthy and had everyone available, so the starting units were the same groups we’ve grown accustomed to over the season. It was Minnesota who got off to the fast start with the home crowd behind them. They were pushing the ball quickly down the floor to create early offense, and already looking to those dive-in post-ups they’ve been working on with Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore since midway through the season. You may remember me mentioning in prior articles that the matchup with LA was one prime reason that this has clearly become a focus of the staff in Minnesota. With a perimeter of Lindsey Harding, Kristi Toliver and Alana Beard, somebody on that group is going to be noticeably undersized against the Lynx wing she’s trying to guard. With Toliver on Lindsay Whalen and Beard trying to handle Moore, usually it’s Harding struggling to deal with Augustus. From the opening possessions, Augustus was deep in the paint exploiting her size advantage over Harding. Barring injury, a significant coaching move or an upset in the first round, we’ll be seeing plenty of that in the Western Conference Finals, as well.
Monday games are unusual in the WNBA. In fact, this year all of the league’s regular season outings on a Monday came on national holidays – the Memorial Day double-header that ESPN used to kick off their coverage, and the Labor Day game in LA this week. Presumably there’s some market research somewhere that suggests people don’t want to go out to games on the first day of the working week. But for the Los Angeles Sparks and Atlanta Dream there was no vacation day, as their respective battles for playoff positioning provided some entertainment for the rest of us.
The Sparks at least came into Monday’s game assured of their playoff spot. In fact, they’re virtually certain (to all but the mathematicians) of a top-2 seed in the West. But both LA and Minnesota are well aware of how important home-court advantage could be in a potential Western Conference Finals clash between the two, and LA were trailing by just a game coming into this one. The two matchups between the Sparks and the Lynx still on the schedule could well be the deciders, but if LA don’t take care of business in their other games down the stretch they might not matter. Atlanta are still to secure their postseason berth – officially – but with New York floundering the Dream are practically there. However, after opening the season 10-1, Atlanta had gone 4-12 since, dropping into a three-way fight for the 2/3/4 seeds in the East. Washington and Indiana haven’t exactly been charging, but if Atlanta couldn’t find a couple of wins before the end of the season, home-court advantage in the first-round could easily slip away.
Atlanta’s problems in the second half of the season have stemmed from their injuries. Sancho Lyttle is still out due to her broken foot, having played just six games all season. Tiffany Hayes was out again with swelling in the knee that was operated on in midseason. And Armintie Herrington was still missing due to her concussion. On the bright side, Angel McCoughtry was fit enough to retake her starting spot after one game coming off the bench due to an ankle sprain, but that was the only good news for the Dream. They’ve really struggled when both Hayes and Lyttle have been out, and missing Herrington compounds things. Their scoring options and bench are both relatively limited to begin with – so losing three of their top six players is hard to take. Playing LA just makes it look worse – the Sparks have stayed pretty damn healthy all year long.
However, it was Atlanta who managed to craft out a first quarter lead in this game. Early on, LA were hitting jumpers and missing everything at the rim, to the extent that you started to wonder if they were better off just firing away from the perimeter – even Candace Parker, who normally delights opponents when she settles for outside shots. But that backfired as the opening period wore on and the jumpers stopped falling. It felt like LA had been practicing spin moves, but not very successfully. They were repeatedly spinning and twisting around, only to find a Dream defender still stood right in front of them making the shot difficult. LA’s offensive production dried up.
It was an unusually light Sunday schedule for the WNBA this week with just one game on the slate. And considering one of the teams involved had already been eliminated from the playoff hunt, and the other has been heading that way for a while now, fans could be forgiven for ignoring the day entirely. The result was always likely to have more impact on lottery percentages than postseason participation.
However, New York arrived in Tulsa with faint dreams of the playoffs still in their minds. They were 2.5 games behind Indiana with five left to play (six for the Fever). If Indiana have a disastrous run-in, a couple of wins could be enough for the Liberty, but it was likely they’d need at least three and probably four to have a realistic chance. The way New York had been playing lately made that seem distinctly unlikely. Their only win in their previous six games was over Connecticut, and there’d been some heavy defeats mixed in the rest of that run. Cappie Pondexter’s heel injury has taken the edge off her performances – when she wasn’t even playing that well to begin with – and left very little on the perimeter for the Liberty. It left them coming into this game as underdogs with the bookmakers, despite being the only team with anything meaningful to play for – and Tulsa being a lottery team with key injuries.
The Shock started to excite everyone in the middle of the season, once Liz Cambage got healthy and they started to win a few games while revolving around the dangerous young post pairing of Cambage and Glory Johnson. But they were already falling off when Cambage sprained her ankle again to make things worse, and she was still in a boot for this game. Point guard Angel Goodrich – whose promotion into the starting lineup ahead of Skylar Diggins also coincided with the Shock’s upturn in form – was also still out due to illness. Reportedly she’d been coughing up blood and complaining of headaches, but she joined the team on the bench for this game so hopefully she’s on the mend. Shock head coach Gary Kloppenburg stuck with the same starting five he’d introduced in their loss to San Antonio on Friday, with Tiffany Jackson-Jones replacing Cambage in the paint, and a diminutive perimeter of Diggins, Riquna Williams and Candice Wiggins.
It doesn’t get talked about much because they always appear to be working hard and they often pressure the ball to create problems in opponents’ backcourts, but Tulsa are a deceptively bad defensive team. They get broken down too easily, they make too many mistakes, and the pressure for turnovers often costs them more points than it creates. Also, while her limited speed and desperation to sit in the paint sometimes limits her, Cambage is a big loss to their defense. She just fills so much damn space in the middle, and makes it hard to score inside. Jackson-Jones was awful defensively in this game (not that she did anything on offense either), allowing New York to gain an early foothold via layups from their posts. Glory Johnson picking up two fouls in barely two minutes of play didn’t help the Shock, either.
Four games on Saturday night in the WNBA, all four won in varying degrees of comfort by the favourites. So the playoff picture is continuing to resolve itself – mostly by default because we’re running out of games – but there weren’t exactly a lot of shocks to go around. With two weeks to go in the regular season, if you can’t make a pretty good guess at what’s coming by now, you haven’t been paying attention.
At stake in this one: Los Angeles continue to chase Minnesota for the #1 seed in the West, coming into the day one game back. As a sideline, Chicago are right up with the pair of them for home-court advantage in a theoretical WNBA Finals. San Antonio were still in with a mathematical chance of chasing down Phoenix or Seattle for a playoff spot, albeit a very small chance. Bizarrely enough, a Silver Stars loss in this game would confirm Seattle’s place in the postseason, while Phoenix would still be catchable – despite Seattle sitting in fourth while Phoenix were in third. Schedules, tie-breakers and mathematics can be strange bedfellows.
LA had their usual starting lineup, and their roster as healthy as ever, but San Antonio began the game with yet another new starting unit. Danielle Robinson was still out with strained/sprained knee (the team have used both words to describe it), and now her replacement Davellyn Whyte was missing as well (reportedly with a foot problem). That shifted Shenise Johnson over alongside Jia Perkins in the backcourt, with Shameka Christon coming in to start on the wing. It’s a perimeter that had some success in their win over Tulsa the night before, but obviously their bench became even shorter.
While LA led by as many as 11, it was ultimately a fairly tight first half. The Sparks were looking to push whenever they could, but becoming a little ponderous and static when forced into halfcourt sets. San Antonio started slowly but came back into the game late in the first quarter through better defensive energy and Jia Perkins making plays on offense. Dan Hughes would love to have Perkins as his sixth woman energy from the bench, but the injuries have forced her into a much bigger role this season. She’s not always the most efficient scorer, but sometimes she can be electric.
The other place where San Antonio found success in the first half was on the offensive glass. With Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike, LA have a clear athleticism advantage in this matchup over players like Danielle Adams, Jayne Appel and Cathrine Kraayeveld. While Parker was doing her typical job of filling the stat-sheet in a number of areas, the Sparks were getting outworked on the glass and the Silver Stars were staying alive with second-chance opportunities. They took 11 more shots than LA in the first half, thanks to a 10-2 advantage in offensive rebounds, and it allowed the Silver Stars to trail only 35-30 at halftime.