WNBA: The Second Season Begins
By Mel Greenberg
There's nothing new about Washington series openers at home in the Verizon Center when the Mystics have made their rare share of WNBA playoff appearances in their 13 years of existence.
And the Los Angeles Sparks-Seattle Storm kickoff in the West has almost been a regular occurrence.
But when those two matchups get WNBA postseason action launched Wednesday night -- the Mystics will host the Atlanta Dream (19-15) -- the past does not serve this time as a prologue to the immediate future.
Except for Seattle (28-6), which ran away with the West, the other seven teams have been in playoff ambience for almost a month suggesting there won't be much change in intensity after the opening tips.
For example, last Friday night, the arena atmosphere in the nation's capital was as good as it gets this time of summer as Washington and the New York Liberty battled over the final minutes back and forth until former Duke star Lindsey Harding hit a shot with 13 seconds left. New York then missed a pair, enabling Washington to jump into a three-way tie for first and the top seed.
Two days later Washington took a huge lead in Atlanta and then held on for the win and that's why it's all different for the Mystics, who have been in the East cellar numerous times in the past.
"It was really just a playoff game," Washington newcomer but WNBA veteran All-Star Katie Smith said on Tuesday's teleconference about Friday's triumph that snapped the Liberty's 10-game win streak. "A lead for them, a lead for us, and it just came down to the wire. We played pretty well, but we are really excited for ourselves to get a chance to play against Atlanta."
Both New York and Washington, incidentally, finished in a standings first-place tie at 22-10 with each team setting franchise records for wins. Indiana (21-13), the defending conference champion, could have made it a three-way tie. But the Fever, already doomed to the third seed off earlier results, lost their third straight and became the No. 3 seed.
The Mystics are ahead of their five-year plan, according to Greg Bibb, the Mystics chief operating officer who has been on the scene for just a few years.
In the past Washiington opened at home because the formats for conference semifinals and finals in the best of three series was a 1-2 setup forcing the team with the higher seed to open on the road.
This time, the new arrangement is a 1-1-1 so the high seeds in each round will play before their crowds first. The 2-2-1 best-of-five format remains for the WNBA championship series.
A year ago, Atlanta was the Cinderella story recovering from an awful first year in the league to gain the playoffs. Of course one reason was that terrible performance landed the Dream the top pick in the 2010 draft and coach Marynell Meadors selected Angel McCoughtry fresh off Louisville's run to the NCAA title game against Big East rival Connecticut.
This year the Dream, who had to contend with Chamique Holdsclaw jumping ship before the season opener, roared to a 6-0 record at the outset and was in the hunt most of the way for the title until some slumps since the All-Star break caused Atlanta to drop to the fourth spot.
Now the Cinderella outfit is being worn by the Mystics, picked for last or fifth in preseason ballots. Washington's early woe was losing former Duke All-American Alana Beard to ankle surgery before the season got under way.
"Well, I'd like to know first who picked Washington last because it certainly wasn't me," said Indiana Fever coach Lin Dunn, whose team will meet New York on the road in Madison Square Garden Thursday night to start that series. "Oce we saw Washington had picked up Katie Smith, it was obvious to me that they were going to be a strong competitor in the East, and they were, especially coming off a playoff season that they had last year."
It's the first time the Mystics have been in the playoffs in successive seasons.
Smith had played for the Detroit Shock on two of the three WNBA championships but when the NBA Detroit Pistons gave up ownership of the team last winter, Smith then began a free agent. She decided the franchise move to new ownership in Tulsa wasn't to her tastes in the twilight of a career that also included several Olympic gold medals, an NCAA title game appearance with Ohio State in 1993, and two titles in the former American Basketball League with the Columbus Quest.
Smith had health issues a year ago with her back but has been a key addition, that warrior in the locker room to help change the culture in Washington.
"I don't think you ever know exactly how it's all going to play out, one, two, three, four, whatever," Smith said. "But I thought we understood that we could play with anybody and compete with anybody. It's really the thing we all needed to do. Each team has their own identity and their own way."
The Mystics have evolved into the Atlantic Coast Conference alumni association adding stars from conference members the last several seasons.
But change also evolved at the top under the ownership of Sheila Johnson, now considered a managing partner under Ted Leonsis who took over the NBA parent Wizards in June and owns the NHL Capitals as well as the Verizon Center in the deal.
Two seasons ago, Angela Taylor, a former WNBA player personnel executive, was hired away from the Minnesota Lynx as general manager. The Mystics also tabbed Julie Plank, a former WNBA assistant at several stops, to run the squad.
This winter Marianne Stanley, who had coached the franchise to one of its better previous seasons in the early part of the last decade, returned as an assistant.
Stanley, a former Immaculata star who guided Old Dominion to three national titles, is known for her work with post players. She had a two-year stint at Rutgers under C. Vivian Stringer, the first of which saw the Scarlet Knights get to the NCAA title game in 2007.
Matee Ajavon, a former Rutgers star who was on that team, joined Washington last season when she was claimed in the dispersal draft of the former Houston Comets.
Though not likely to win the award, Ajavon is certainly worth her share of ballots for the WNBA sixth-player honor.
Low finishes in the past meant high draft picks. Additionally, a few deals along the way have added such former Duke sensations as Monique Currie, having a career year, and Harding.
From just up the road, in successive drafts, Washington claimed former Maryland standouts Crystal Langhorne, a resident of Willingboro, N.J., near Philadelphia, and Marissa Coleman, who both helped lead the Terrapins to the 2006 NCAA titles.
Langhorne has been a go-to inside presence, often gaining double doubles to the point that USA Basketball was criticized last week for not making her one of the additions for the training camp player pool from which next month's World Championship roster will emerge.
"I've enjoyed playing with her," Smith said of Langhorne. "She's consistent. She works on her game. I think every year she tries to add something new and become better at it. She's knocked down one three this year, so she's trying to improve in that area. So I think one-on-one, she could probably score on most people. She's got a variety of moves and finishes.
"Who wouldn't want to have a chance to play with somebody like that who really wants and gives you the desire to be better all the time."
Despite Atlanta's strength against most teams, Washington has been able to thrive against the Dream.
"I think they have the most athletic team in this league," Smith said of Atlanta. "They get up and down the floor as a track team. So the transition defense is huge. They have great rebounders and great post players. Not only post player rebounders but guard rebounders. So I think their transition defense and rebounding are two key, key things to try to slow them down."
But Washington will be using the top-rated defense in the league.
"I think if we can slow them down a little bit, they'll get some foul (shots) on us and score points, but if we slow them down we'll have a chance to score on them, and hopefully get a win. But it's going to be a battle just like everybody."
Several weeks ago Langhorne was made aware on that particular night that the Mystics had passed their all-time win total.
"That's great for the franchise, but now we have to go and start winning championships."
The Storm already has one title in their collection, winning in 2004 under Anne Donovan, who is now coaching the New York Liberty.
But this season has been new ground for Seattle and rare ground in the WNBA as the Storm went 28-6, with most of the losses occurring later after clinching the West No. 1 seed in record time by late July.
The Storm also have overall home-court advantage but if Seattle fails to win the Western playoffs, home-court will shift to any of the four Eastern participants.
Under Br1an Agler, who was the coach of Smith on Columbus team that won the two ABL titles, Seattle went 17-0, the second WNBA team to be perfect at home following the 16-0 in 2001 by the Los Angeles Sparks.
Los Angeles also won 28 games that year, but on a 32-game schedule.
Seattle hasn't made it past the first round since that 2003 championship but the Storm will be the favorites against the Sparks who have dispatched them in recent seasons.
It's an odd matchup on paper with every team in the West except the Storm having near-deep or deep losing records _ Los Angeles was 13-21 gaining the fourth-place tie-breaker over Minnesota.
The Sparks suffered a major setback when former Tennessee sensation Candace Parker -- the 2008 rookie of the year and MVP -- was shut down in July with a shoulder injury.
But Los Angeles was able to win enough, especially on the work of former Houston star Tina Thompson and guard Ticha Penicheiro, a former Old Dominion star who played for the former Sacramento Monarchs and signed as a free agent.
Thompson's last-second one-point shot against Minnesota a week ago can be considered the deal-maker or else Los Angeles would be holding a draft lottery ticket hopeful of gaining the No. 1 pick, likely to result in the selection of University of Connecticut senior star Maya Moore.
All-world Lisa Leslie retired from Los Angeles after last season so the series with Seattle won't see the classic confrontations inside the paint between Leslie and perennial MVP candidate Lauren Jackson, a native of Australia.
Seattle has a lot of spice off the powerful UConn program with such past Huskies stars as future Hall of Fame point guard Sue Bird, Swin Cash and Svetlana Abrosimova.
On Tuesday's teleconference Bird was asked the difference between playing on a dominate team as UConn and the one in the pros, though she did disagree with the description of Seattle's performance this season.
"I know we had some success this year," Bird said. "I don't know if dominate is the word I'd use only because there is some crazy stat, like half our games we were down going into the fourth quarter.
"So in terms of compared to college, first of all, you can't compare college to the WNBA. Like I said, in college we were dominant because we were beating teams by 20 points every night. But this year we've been far from that," Bird continued.
"I think the one thing about our team's ability to stay in games regardless of the score kind of speaks more towards we have a veteran team. So 20 points can go away like that. So we try to stay in every game, stay in the moment, and that's what we're doing and that's worked for us."
After Wednesday night's games, Washington heads to Atlanta for Game 2 on Friday night, while Seattle will be in Los Angeles, Saturday. Games 3, if necessary, will be back in Washington, Sunday, and Tuesday in Seattle.