WNBA: Liberty Try To Avoid Farewells
By Mel Greenberg
On of two things will happen Thursday night in the next chapter of the New York Liberty's landmark regular season when they host the defending WNBA Eastern Conference champion Indiana Fever.
The second-seeded Liberty may be well on the way for more glory with an opening win in the best-of-three series or New York will be on the verge of saying goodbyes of sorts with both the charter WNBA franchise and coach Anne Donovan heading across the Hudson River to Northern New Jersey for separate reasons.
If the Liberty get wiped out 2-0 without returning for at least a game three Donovan will be on her way to South Orange at the collegiate level as the new coach of Seton Hall.
New York will not be far behind. Though the organization has yet to make the official announcement, reports have already appeared saying the team will be using the Prudential Center in Newark as its home arena the next three summers while Madison Square Garden undergoes a series of renovations.
But prior to tipoff the Liberty can relish so far on its daunting run from floundering around fifth and sixth in the front part of the season to finishing in a first-place tie with the Washington Mystics and earning a No. 2 seed in the revamped 1-1-1 playoff format at the conference level.
In the past, New York (22-12) as the higher seed to No. 3 Indiana (21-13) would have had to open on the road and return knowing that if they lost the opener they had two home games available to recover -- which has happened in earlier years.
The championship final will still be a best-of-five 2-2-1 and should the Seattle Storm's 28-6 finish on top of the West go for naught, whoever among the four teams emerges from the East will then gain home-court advantage.
New York was 4-7 before turning things around, especially after the All-Star break when the Liberty went on a franchise record 10-game win streak that carried them to first place.
However, the Washington Mystics, which finished with a 6-0 run, had their own ideas about winning titles and snapped the New York string on a shot by Lindsey Harding Friday night. That win helped propel them to the No. 1 seed against the No. 4 Atlanta Dream (19-15).
Washington and Atlanta opened the playoffs at the Verizon Center in the nation's capital Wednesday night before Seattle opened the West at home against the Los Angeles Sparks (13-21).
A Liberty rally on Sunday against the Connecticut Sun rally at home in overtime on Pondexter's winning shot rescued the No. 2 seed and home court as well as the standings tie with Washington.
Meanwhile, Indiana blew a lead at home and lost its third straight, falling to the Minnesota Lynx in overtime. Had the Fever won there would have been a three-way tie for first. The Fever still would have been the third seed.
In going overall 15-3 since the break, New York set a franchise record for wins, as did Washington, and in a recent matchup against the defending WNBA champion Phoenix Mercury also set a franchise record for points in a game.
The key among keys to the New York revitalization has been the acquisition of former Rutgers All-American Cappie Pondexter, the overall No. 2 pick of the 2006 draft who had helped Phoenix to two tities in the previous three seasons.
The native of Chicago made it known she wanted to be back in the big city, especially with Donovan, who coached her and the rest of the USA Basketball Olympic
women's team to a gold medal in Beijing, China in 2008.
Pondexter was obtained in a mega three-way trade that saw the Liberty send Shameka Christon and Catherine Kraayveld to the Chicago Sky while former Temple star Candice Dupree replaced Pondexter in Phoenix.
"You know, when I had to make the decision of Seton Hall or Liberty, at that point knowing Cappie was coming, that was really a hard decision," Donovan said on a pre-playoffs teleconference call Tuesday.
"Just knowing about Taj (McWilliams-Franklin), my feelings on Janel (McCarville), yeah, I was excited to come back and work with this team. That was a hard decision back then."
Donovan was able to follow the model set by former NBA star Michael Cooper a year ago. He was named coach of Southern Cal prior to the season but remainined coaching the Los Angeles Sparks until their elimination when Lisa Leslie became retired and he headed off for the collegiate level.
"The hardest thing for me would have been if we hadn't turned it around," Donovan explained. "I was a kid that grew up coming to Madison Square Garden and watching the Knicks play. So for me the Garden is really reverent. It's a place that I had the highest level of respect for.
"For a time there the thought of not contributing to some history in the Garden was very discouraging," said Donovan, who also coached Seattle to its only WNBA title in 2003. "So for me I'm just so thrilled that this team came together, and it's such a great group of women, and we're going to leave our mark in the Garden.
"We've already done that with the regular season that we've had. We're hoping to add to that with the postseason. I'm not fast forwarding to the next season. I am just really happy that I've been part of the special season that we've had."
While Pondexter was the centerpiece in the Liberty reconstruction, McWilliams-Franklin was a valuable asset signing as a free agent and bringing a veteran presence after playing on the former Detroit Shock and having no desire to follow the team to Tulsa.
She and Donovan worked together previously on the bankrupt shortened season of the American Basketball League in the winter of 1998 when both were with the Philadelphia Rage.
"Back then she was all about defense and nothing's changed from that during this run," McWilliams-Franklin said during the winning streak when the Liberty were producing strong second halves.
Former Stanford star Nicole Powell, a three-point shooting ace, was picked up off the dispersal of the former Sacramento Monarchs roster. Former UConn star Kalana Greene became a key contributor off the bench as a rookie after being available at the top of the second round of the draft. Plenette Pierson, an imposing presence off the bench, was obtained early in the season in a trade with Tulsa.
"The addition of Cappie was a major move," said Indiana coacn Lin Dunn whose team split the season series with New York 2-2. "But I did think when they were able to get Pierson from Tulsa it added a toughness to that team. All of those former Detroit players have a toughness and experience about them. You can get one of those players on your team, especially someone like Pierson, it's really an advantage."
Indiana has one of its own in Shavonte Zealous, the former Pittsburgh star who was named to the All-Rookie team last season when she played with Detroit.
The Liberty have depth with two other recent additions out of Rutgers through the draft -- Essence Carson in 2008 and Kia Vaughn last season. They also had McCarville back in the post while former Utah star Leilani Mitchell improved to become the top three-point shooter in the league.
"She's been great," Pondexter said of Mitchell. "She's contributed in a huge way. Without that we wouldn't be where we are right now."
Though Indiana, highighted with MVP candidate Tamika Catchings and All-Star Katie Douglas, struggled down the stretch, Dunn said that the performance has no basis in terms of the Fever's mentality going into New York.
"Last year we lost 7 of our last 10," Dunn said. "And we lost 5 of our last 7, and we were playing for a championship with two minutes left in the fifth game (at Phoenix).
"So with the veteran players that we have, and the experience that we have, I really don't think losing two or three games here at the end is going to bother them at all."
Indiana has Briann January, the former Arizona State star, running the show at point in her second season. Former Rutgers center Tammy Sutton-Brown is on the squad as is former Southern Cal center Ebony Hoffman providing compliments to Catchings when they are on their game.
Both coaches talked about the new playoff format.
"You should have the right to host it first," Dunn said pointing out a year ago the Fever lost an opener on the road and had to go and win two at home. "But I do think in some ways it puts additional pressure to win that first game at home no matter what."
Donovan added, "The positives are much better than they were before. You go back to the very first year even though it was a one-game final, most of the coaches from my understanding were unhappy about a one-two going on the road.
"I think this makes it easier for the coaches and the team -- being in your own home and bed. That's what teams work for to get homecourt advantage. It is pressure, but I'd rather have the homecourt advantage and opening up at home than going on the road for that first game."
Pondexter acknowledged that the East was a dog fight and added that whatever the Liberty has achieved for now needs to be put aside.
"It's a new season now. It's a totally different ball game. Everybody's going to be playing their absolute best. And what happened in the regular season doesn't matter anymore," she said.
If the Western Conference teams with all those unprecedented losing records they're bringing to the playoffs feel under-hyped, they may want to look to last year's Women's Professional Soccer league and Sky Blue out of New Jersey for inspiration.
Sky Blue, which was in the cellar most of the way underwent two coaching changes and had several key injuries. But they found a way to the playoffs and finished upsetting Los Angeles, the top team in the WPS, in Calfornia to win the title.
In light of that soccer story maybe more attention should be made of the Mercury (15-19), which finished 13 games in back of Seattle in second place. Phoenix will open up defense of its title Thursday night in the Arizona desert against the Silver Stars (14-20), which earned the third seed in a wild three-way fight for the third seed with the Los Angeles Sparks (13-21) and Minnesota (13-21), which was eliminated.
Past seasons have seen some thrilling playoff battles between the two teams and San Antonio just upset Phoenix on the final day Sunday after upsetting Indiana at home on Friday night.
Despite Pondexter's departure, Dupree was a major contributor in her Mercury deput, Diana Taurasi was still Diana Taurasi, who will begin the postseason with a new contract tucked away to make both her and the organization happy.
Penny Taylor also remains a force and former LSU star Temeka Johnson adds shooting from the backcourt.
The Silver Stars made a bunch of changes and Sandy Brondello moved up to head coach when Dan Hughes decided to just work at the executive level as general manager.
Brondello talked about why the West was the way it was this season, including her own team, which is highlighted with Becky Hammon and Sophia Young, and former Penn State star Helen Darling.
"We've had an inconsistent season," Brondello said. "But we have to put that all behind us and take one game at a time approach. We have to go into Phoenix and play our best basketball, because we're playing a very good team.
"In the West, none of us thought it would be like this. We had to battle, and I know for us we only won three games against the East, but we were still able to make the playoffs.
"I think you see some teams, the ones with the continuity, it was easier for them to get their chemistry together," Brondello observed. "It's more about how quickly you can get your chemistry. I think the teams just get stronger every year basically. You know, the West made some changes. I know they've made a lot of changes trying to find that chemistry. That's why, obviously, Phoenix and L.A. have losing records.
"We've changed a lot of players from last year, really we felt like a new team but it's comforting when you have your experienced players around. I mean, they know what you are about, but that makes it a little easier because obviously they're the leaders of your team."