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.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

WNBA: Eastern Trifecta Set For Thrilling Finish

(Guru's note: The post below this speaks to the draft lottery and covers the West standings and playoff picture.)

By Mel Greenberg

While a pack of dead horses off their losing won-loss records are playoff bound in the West, that's some kind of race with a livelier bunch who on Sunday will determine the Eastern seeds on the final of the regular season.

In a historic note in the 14th summer of the WNBA, a three-way tie for first exists among the Washington Mystics (21-12), New York Liberty (21-12), and the defending conference champion Indiana Fever (21-12).

Furthermore, although the playoff-bound Atlanta Dream (19-14) are stuck with the fourth seed after their hot start to the season, depending how everything plays out Sunday in one scenario coach Marynell Meadors' team can finish a game behind the frontrunning trio.

At worst, the Dream would be three games out of first, which would be the closest a team in that slot has finished illustrating what a great competition existed East of the Mississippi River.

At one point until the Chicago Sky (14-20) faded down the stretch, every team in the East had a winning record.

Chicago concluded its business Saturday night with an 84-71 loss at the Tulsa Shock (5-29), finishing either 7 or eight games out of first once Sunday's action results in the final standings.

The Sky will now join Tulsa and the Minnesota Lynx in the three-team, four-shot draft lottery competition for the 2011 No. 1 pick, likely to be talented UConn senior Maya Moore.

Minnesota has two chances, one of which is the Lynx's own courtesy of playoff elimination Saturday night when the Los Angeles Sparks were edged by Western regular season champion Seattle, 76-75, in the Pacific Northwest.

The other is courtesy of owning the Connecticut Sun's pick via draft-day trade in April when Minnesota picked former Nebraska star Kelsey Griffin with the third overall pick and sent her to the Sun for what became a lottery first-round pick when Connecticut narrowly missed the playoffs for the second straight season.

The Sun (17-16), whose record is better than anyone in the West except Seattle, have a chance to be a spoiler of sorts Sunday when Connecticut visits New York in Madison Square Garden.

In what has been a wild week, Indiana had a chance to already lock up a second straight regular season title before losing solidy at New York Tuesday and then at San Antonio, which was after a West playoff berth, Friday.

Indiana on Sunday will host Minnesota, which as a result of playoff elimination, now only has pride and a chance to be a spoiler working for the Lynx (12-21) against the Fever, though technically standings-wide Minnesota can finish in a three-way tie for third.

The three-way deal was completed in the nation's capital Friday night when Washington edged New York in the final seconds, depriving the Liberty of clinching a top-two berth and leaping from the third seed to first pending Sunday's results.

New York had won 10 straight, moving from a fifth-and-sixth place shuffle with Chicago into playoff confention and then into Eastern title contention.

Another example of East toughness is Connecticut, better by won-loss record than any team not named Seattle in the West, can finish 3-5 games out of first, which is pretty notable for a fifth-place team.

They also will miss the playoffs by 1-3 games though Atlanta would own a tiebreaker.

But the Sun will have motivation to stick New York with something considering the way the Liberty has handled them to date, winning 3-of-4 in the series.

Washington will be at Atlanta where a win will give the Mystics the No. 1 seed outright, remarkable for a franchise that until last season was most tmes involved in high first-round draft picks courtesy of bad finishes.

But some of that has yielded the fruits of the present in a season that got off to a sour note when All-Star Alana Beard was sidelined before opening day.

Former Maryland star Crystal Langhorne, a native of Willingboro, N.J., near Philadelphia, has become a bonafide sensation her third season to the point USA Basketball was criticized last week for not selecting her to the national team player pool.

Washington, which could fall to the third seed Sunday, has via another high draft pick, Marissa Coleman, who is Langhorne's former Terrapins teammate. The big offseason steal was signing veteran Katie Smith, who had been with the former Detroit franchise.

New York made major offseason moves also, gaining former Rutgers star Cappie Pondexter, formerly with the WNBA champion Phoenix Mercury, in a three-team trade.

Former star Nicole Powell was added off the dispersal draft of the former Sacramento Monarchs, while veteran Taj McWilliams-Franklin was a key free agent signee after she decided not to follow the former Detroit Shock franchise to Tulsa.

Furthermore Leilani Mitchell has emerged as one of the top three-point shooters in the league and is a frontrunning candidate for most improved player in terms of the WNBA postseason awards.

The Liberty are also motivated to send coach Anne Donovan out on a winning note. She will be heading across the Hudson River to South Oraqnge, N.J., as the new women's collegiate coach of Seton Hall.

Donovan, who guided the United States to the 2008 Olympic gold medal in Beijing, China, also steered the Seattle Storm to the 2004 title. In 2001, her Charlotte Sting squad got off to a 1-10 start then reversed direction all the way to the chsmpionship finals.

As has been mentioned but in case this is your first reading, the top two teams in each conference will have home court advantage in the first round in a revised 1-1-1 format from the previous best-of-three arrangement that began in the lower seed's arena and then moved to the high seed's home for Game 2 and, if necessary, Game 3.

The same 1-1-1 will be used in the conference finals with high seeds opening at home. The championship series remains a best-of-five 2-2-1 setup.

A year ago, Indiana, which features Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas, extended Phoenix to a fifth game in the most thrilling championship series in WNBA history.

By virtue of the time starts, Sunday will be like a round-robin Row Your Boat song.

Washington at Atlanta begins at 3 p.m., followed by New York-Connecticut at 4 p.m., and Indiana-Minnesota at 5 p.m.

If all three frontrunners lose, Washington still gets the No. 1 seed off of most wins in common games among the trio. New York at the moment holds the No. 2 seed in part because after splitting the season with Indiana, the Liberty have a better conference record.

But if both lose Sunday, that also becomes a tie in conference competition. It is unclear if they then go to the comparable records against teams .500 or better.

In that situation, Indiana is at 9-10. If New York lost to Connecticut Sunday, the Liberty would be at 9-11. If that tie-breaker is being used with a win over the Sun, then the Liberty would be 10-10. One reason the games aren't the same is that Indiana went 5-0 against Chicago, which doesn't count because the Sky don't have a winning record.

Anyhow, here's the various ways it could play out prior to Sunday night's conclusion to the regular season:

All three win: Washington (1), New York (2), Indiana (3)

All three lose: Washington (1), depending on tiebreaker New York 2-or-3, same form Indiana. The common records in the group, incidentally, are Washington 6-3, New York 4-5, Indiana 3-5 (one less because of the five-game series used only in a few cases for each team).

Washington wins, New York wins, Indiana loses: Wash. (1), NY (2), Indiana (3).

New York and Indiana win, Washington loses: NY (1), Ind (2), Wash. (3).

Washington and Indiana win: Wash. (1), Indiana (2), New York (3).

And after the sound and glory fade, relax, in a few days the Easterners will battle again in the real playoffs -- only every one will be 0-0 to start and anything can happen.

-- Mel

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