Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Monday, August 13, 2007

WNBA: Playoff Fever Dominates Final Week

By Mel Greenberg

In the flash of several seconds on opposite sides of the continent Sunday the potential playoff participation fortunes of the New York Liberty got a little brighter while the Washington Mystics’ prospects somewhat dimmed.

The Liberty found more life on a last-second shot by Erin Thorn, lifting New York to a gritty 85-84 win against the overall-best Detroit Shock in Madison Square Garden in an afternoon attraction.

That advanced New York to within a half-game of the Washington Mystics for the fourth and final berth in the Eastern Conference, a gap that became narrowed later Sunday night when Washington fell to the Sacramento Monarchs, 86-82, in overtime in the Arco Arena out West.

In that game, former Stanford star Nicole Powell made two foul shots with two seconds left in the extra period. Washington’s Alana Beard had moved the Mystics to within a point at 83-82 on a three-pointer with five seconds remaining.

Scholanda Robinson was then fouled and hit the first of two free throw attempts for Sacramento, which grabbed an offensive rebound after Robinson missed her second attempt.

Former Duke star Monique Currie had tied the game in regulation at 73-73 with three seconds left and then stole Powell’s pass, only to miss a desperation three-pointer as time expired.

“Right now for us, it’s a one-game playoff each night that we play,” New York coach Pat Coyle said after the Liberty’s win. That’s just how we’re looking at it.”

Overall, the WNBA will be in postseason ambience beyond just the Liberty in the final week of the regular season. Each game night will have playoff implications attached as teams jockey for position and New York and Washington fight for the final playoff spot, although the second-year Chicago Sky has yet to be officially eliminated.

Of course, fans of the wannabe teams at the bottom of the league have a different kind of race to watch. Those franchises’ final positions offers the potential, through the lottery, of the No. 1 pick in next April’s lucrative WNBA draft that will be loaded with premium talent. The pickings could begin with prized prospect Candace Parker, if the Tennessee junior decides to skip her final season (2008-09), which she is allowed to do because her original class will be graduating.

Mystics Rebound From Early Season Funk

Washington is trying to become the second-coming of the former Charlotte Sting, which in 2001 got off to a 1-10 start before bolting all the way to the championship round against the Los Angeles Sparks, who claimed their first WNBA title that season.

Off the Mystics’ effort, if Washington makes the playoffs, one could also make a coach-of-the-year argument for Tree Rollins, the former assistant who took over after Richie Adubato abruptly quick early in the season after a trade involving Chasity Melvin and Currie, then with Chicago, was triggered by the Washington front office without his knowledge.

However, our own leanings in that postseason awards competition are elsewhere, probably in the direction of the San Antonio Silver Stars’ Dan Hughes after his draft-day trade in April landed former New York Liberty star Becky Hammon. Previous offseason moves included acquiring Ruth Riley from Detroit for former Liberty University star Katie Feenstra, who has helped the Shock dominate the league in the absence of injured all-star Cheryl Ford.

The tight playoff situations are reflective of rugged competition in almost all of the postseason awards categories, especially most valuable player.

While it’s conceded that if the entire WNBA rosters were up for grabs, Seattle center Lauren Jackson would be a prohibitive favorite to be the top pick. But “most valuable” can sometime produce different connotations than “most outstanding,” which brings such candidates as the Phoenix Mercury’s Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor, Detroit’s Deanna Nolan, Connecticut’s Katie Douglas and Asjha Jones, and San Antonio’s Hammon into the mix. Also toss in how to consider Tamika Catching’s missed time with Indiana due to injury.

The same can be said for the most improved , defensive, and new sixth-woman categories, as well as the voting for the first and second all-WNBA postseason squads.

But let’s put aside that deliberation for now and return to the discussion of this week’s action.

The Nitty Gritty: Night By Night This Week

First, the games of note each night: On Tuesday, Washington hosts the Connecticut Sun, Chicago hosts New York, and San Antonio is at Los Angeles. On Wednesday, Connecticut is at Indiana and San Antonio is at Sacramento. On Thursday, Washington and the Liberty will tangle head-on at the Mystics’ Verizon Center.

On Friday night, Phoenix is at Sacramento, Connecticut is at New York, and Indiana is at San Antonio. It all gets settled Sunday, if not beforehand, when Washington visits Connecticut, while New York hosts Chicago, Sacramento visits Phoenix, San Antonio is at Minnesota, and Detroit is at Indiana.

That’s your overall helicopter view. Now let’s go to ground level and look out the windshields of what each team faces.

The Nitty Gritty: Team By Team

In the New York-Washington race, the Liberty might have an edge with two games against Chicago, both of which are must wins. The Washington game is obvious critical, especially when the next night Connecticut will arrive at Madison Square Garden with several its own items on the Sun’s agenda.

Incidentally, a New York-Detroit first-round confrontation in the East could be intriguing because of the closeness of their meetings this season as Sunday’s contest illustrated.

Washington, accessing the postseason and upsetting Detroit, could further invoke memories of the 2001 Charlotte team, which upset the former Cleveland Rockers, then the Eastern No. 1 seed, in the first round.

But the Mystics have a workload ahead, which is why Sunday night’s setback could be costly.

We’re talking, from Washington’s perspective about hosting Connecticut, New York, and then finishing at Connecticut. So a win, alone, over the Liberty can’t do the job without help elsewhere mixed in with at last one Mystics’ win over the Sun.

Sun Eyeing Second

Unfortunately, unlike recent seasons, Connecticut still has something to play for beyond being in playoff preparation mode.

Connecticut, which already has the season tie-breaker with the Indiana Fever, could catch the second-place squad for first-round home-court advantage. The Sun, currently trailing the Fever by 1 ½ games, will visit Washington, go head-to-head at Indiana, visit New York, and then host Washington.

Indiana, meanwhile, will host Connecticut, travel to San Antonio, which is in its own pursuit in the West, and then finish hosting Detroit.

Sky Not Yet Felled

A year ago, Chicago, as an expansion team, had already long been since eliminated and was looking toward the draft.

The Sky, at this hour, however, remain alive.

Chicago, for you Temple/Candice Dupree fans here in Philadelphia, needs the following to happen to sneak into the fourth slot.

The Sky need to go 3-0 (sweep New York and win at Houston), giving Chicago a 15-19 record. New York, with a loss to Connecticut, would then be at least 13-20.

Washington, losing both Connecticut games, makes the Mystics 14-19. This means the Sky need Washington to lose to New York, so both the Mystics and Liberty would be 14-20, a game behind Chicago. The Mystics went 3-1 against the Sky during the season, so Chicago cannot get a tie-break finishing fourth with the Mystics.

If New York loses both games to Chicago, but beats Connecticut and Washington, to tie at 15-19, then the Sky, by virtue of a must-sweep of the Liberty this week, would have the tie-break at fourth.

There’s no chance of a three-way tie for fourth, in the East, but a three-way deadlock at the top looms as one of a myriad of possibilities in the Western Conference. So let’s head over in that direction.

Gridlock Looms in the Western Conference

Over in the West, a year-ago at this time, the Phoenix Mercury had finally figured out then-new coach Paul Westhead’s high octane offense and closed with seven straight wins to land a tie with the Houston Comets, which held the deadlock-breaker for the final Western slot.

This time, the Mercury started its pursuit much earlier, helped by a draft-day trade by new general manager Ann Meyers-Drysdale that saw Phoenix send No. 1 overall pick Lindsey Harding to the Minnesota Lynx for veteran rebounder Tangela Smith to help solidify the Mercury’s rebounding deficiencies.

Phoenix has just a home-and-home lefton its schedule this weekend with Sacramento and could win the West with a split, considering the Mercury holds the tie-breaker with San Antonio.

The Silver Stars, to take the top spot in the West, need Phoenix to lose both games and then must win three-of-four from a slate of Tuesday’s visit to Los Angeles, Wednesday’s visit to Sacramento, Friday’s visit from Indiana, and then Sunday’s visit at Minnesota. The game with the Monarchs is probably a must-win in this scenario and also to avoid Sacramento causing a 2-2 tie in the season series.

Meanwhile, Sacramento could finish in a tie for first with Phoenix by sweeping the Mercury and beating San Antonio. That would also cause a tie in the season series between the Monarchs and Phoenix. Incidentally, for this exercise, we are going to bypass the secondary and beyond tie-break procedures for the moment.

Sacramento and San Antonio could tie for second. But get this one, dear readers, look what happens if Sacramento wins all three game, which projects the Monarchs to 21-13. Phoenix would also be 21-13. And, if San Antonio, which would then have a loss to Sacramento, also loses to, say, Indiana, but takes the other two games, we then have: a three-way tie for first at 21-13.

If San Antonio, though, goes 3 of 4 in the previous setting, thus beating Indiana, the Silver Stars could slip into first at 22-12, a game ahead of Sacramento and Phoenix, which would finish in a tie for second at 21-13.

Self-time out: Yo Guru, you just said that same thing differently four paragraphs ago. Yeah, but this is another way it could be achieved with the one loss being to Sacramento.

Time In: That leaves us with the Seattle Storm, which is fourth no matter what, but needs to tune up for the playoffs with a finishing slate of hosting Minnesota, Tuesday; and hosting Los Angeles Friday. That means the team might have a hand on who will earn the best positions for the draft lotto balls to determine the No. 1 pick.

Coach Wanted?

A recent report that Phoenix coach Paul Westhead is set to become an NBA assistant at Seattle, though later refuted by the Mercury mentor, suggests quite an intriguing possibility if the Mercury position becomes vacant, especially in the light of what Westhead has built.

“If you’re a general manager, you have to protect yourself and start building a list now, just in case,” said one WNBA observer.

Hall of Famer Anne Meyers, a former UCLA all-American, took over the general manager position in the offseason after a longtime broadcasting career.

One name who was involved two years ago in the Phoenix search was former Auburn coach Joe Ciampi, who is known to be interested in a head coaching job in the league.

Ciampi was thought to be a frontrunner the last time, until former ownership went into Westhead’s direction.

Considering the stir that was created during the last search, if the vacancy occurs, bet the house that Mercury All-Star Diana Taurasi will make her own offer to hire her former college coach Geno Auriemma, at Connecticut, which, though maybe lighthearted, will quickly find its way into print.

Some names with longtime contemporary ties to Meyers are Rutgers assistant Marianne Stanley, who coached in the WNBA, and Seattle coach Anne Donovan, also the Olympic coach, if the former Olympic and Old Dominion star is not retained following a Storm season that has been, at times, well, stormy.

Philly Summer League Finals

The second of the best-of-three finals between defending champion Team Black and Cinderella-style Team White continue Monday night at 7 p.m. at Torresdale Boys Club at Linden & Jackson Sts. in Northeast Philadelphia.

Team Black, paced by former Temple star Ari Moore, pulled away from a second-half challenge to win the opener last Wednesday over a team dominated by Division II players of Philadelphia University.

We will be working the desk in the home office, Monday night, but reports will be sent here for posting after the action concludes.

-- Mel

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