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.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Guru's WNBA Playoffs Musings: Outlook Wide Open

(Guru’s note: Your Guru did a separate guest star advance on the Connecticut-Atlanta series over at fullcourt.com and will be handling the opener Friday at the Mohegan Sun and Saturday’s Indiana-New York game at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. This post is more of a scene-setter mood piece since the Guru’s sense of the games are not much difference than all the analysis that is already out there online.)

By Mel Greenberg

When the WNBA playoffs got under way a year ago the Seattle Storm had been very UConn-esque in the regular season steamrolling to a 28-6 record.

Though the overwhelming favorites to win the title there were was one tiny question to ask: How might the Storm do in the finals against an Eastern opponent considering the rest of the Western Conference entered the first two rounds all with deep losing records?

And whatever other doubt that did exist was placed by the Storm delegation who continued to note that despite the gaudy record, it had been built upon a large number of encounters in which Seattle trailed or was in a tie at the end of the third quarter.

So perhaps close games a year ago against the Storm might help whatever opponent from the East made it to the best-of-five finals.

As it turned out the Atlanta Dream, in their third year of existence, made a darkhorse run as the fourth seed putting down both the top-seeded Washington Mystics and second-seeded New York Liberty 2-0 in both the conference semifinals and then finals.

The Dream’s fourth seed was a bit of deception because, as this season, the four Eastern playoff teams were close to each other in the standings and a closing slump relegated Atlanta to the fourth spot.

Seattle did show the Storm could win the close ones because the Dream were competitive in all three games, losing in the final minutes to make the combined differential the narrowest in the history of the finals.

Now the postseason is about to get under way again Thursday night but although once again a dominate team among the eight is part of the crowd there are many more questions and a consensus from nearly everyone who has followed the action since June that the playoffs are wide open.

This is the first time since 2006 that all eight playoff teams were above .500 with the Western leading Minnesota Lynx setting a franchise record at 27-7 in getting to the postseason for only the third time and first since 2004.

But unlike a year ago when Seattle fielded a veteran core highlighted by former UConn stars Swin Cash and Sue Bird along with three-time MVP Lauren Jackson, the Minnesota group is somewhat less experienced as a team.

So the Lynx Friday night might have to prove themselves all over again when they open at home in the Target Center against the No. 4 San Antonio Silver Stars.

Friday night’s Eastern game will match the No. 2 Connecticut Sun, who tied the Indiana Fever for best in the conference but lost the tiebreaker, against the No. 3 Atlanta Dream, who finished like gangbusters with a 17-5 run but needed all of it to overcome a 3-9 start caused by a series of injuries.

Thursday’s openers are rematches from last year’s playoffs but in different seed positions with New York visiting Indiana while Seattle, the West No. 2 seed, will be hosting the No. 3 Phoenix Mercury.

A year ago, the Liberty dispatched the Fever, then the defending Eastern playoff champion, 2-1 in the conference semifinals with the home court of Madison Square Garden aiding the cause.

Seattle zipped through Phoenix 2-0 in the conference finals.

During the summer health was as major an issue in the WNBA as it had been in the national debate.

Those that were in good shape, which was basically Minnesota and probably Connecticut, thrived.

The others struggled to various degrees. Seattle was able to hold its own despite losing Jackson to a hip injury for a large portion of the season until she recently returned.

Indiana, likewise, withstood the loss of starting point guard Briann January to a knee injury, while Atlanta made do with the loss of Shalee Lehning due to a similar mishap.

Los Angeles, however, could not overcome the loss of Candace Parker to a knee injury, though the Sparks still had a shot for the playoffs when she returned at the end of August. But they could only go 4-6 when it mattered and loss No. 6 was a playoff head-to-head elimination at home by San Antonio, which had been in a slide of its own.

Nightly Thrillers Were The Norm

In the first year under new WNBA president Laurel Richie, the third head in the 15-year history following Val Ackerman and Donna Orender, the games were mostly competitive across the board.

Though Tulsa and Washington were distanced below from everyone else in the standings, they still managed to put up a fight, especially the Mystics in the nation’s capital who succumbed in a large number of games in the final minutes.

“I think this is the first year where I think it didn’t matter who was playing the regular season, if I turned a game on, it was competitive,” said ESPN’s Rebecca Lobo, Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer who was a founding player in 1997 as a member of the New York Liberty. “Sometimes, Tulsa not so much, but pretty much every other game, the games were well-played, they came down to the wire, they were exciting.

“It was really good basketball being played. I expect that to continue in the playoffs, especially the first two rounds when they’re playing in conference,” Lobo explained.

As the playoffs begin there are but a few of the top individual stars, members of the teams eliminated, who will be missing such as Los Angeles’ Parker, Chicago’s Sylvia Fowles, and Washington’s Crystal Langhorne.

Rise Of The Lynx

When Seattle made its run last season, the Storm’s domination was to be expected considering all their veteran talent and experience.

Minnesota was seen more in a Cinderella setting, not in terms of coming out of nowhere, but certainly in terms of shedding its past seasons of frustrations highlighted by narrow losses and injuries.

The Lynx entered the starting gate with a single-focus by the media on one of their new additions, former UConn sensation Maya Moore, who excelled her four years with the Huskies and became the overall No. 1 pick on draft day by Minnesota, who managed to get lucky and eclipse Tulsa when the allotment of ping pong balls did the Shock no favors in determining the lottery winner.

Lindsay Whalen, the All-Star point guard who had been traded to the Lynx a year ago so the Connecticut could make UConn center Tina Charles the overall No. 1 pick in 2010, spoke the other day about when the Lynx had ideas they could dominate the season.

“I think we had a really good training camp,” Whalen said. “Everyone was in camp from overseas. Everyone got back earlier this year. I think we just really needed that time, three or four weeks of preparation before.

“I think having that time together, practice, gel as a team, I thought that was really big for us. That’s been really big for every team this year,” Whalen continued.

“But I think with us, with some young players, new players coming in, I think that was a big key for us.”

Minnesota blew a lead late in the WNBA ceremonial opener and fell to the Sparks in Los Angeles. But two days later at home in Minneapolis the Lynx struck back in a rout and it was quickly established over the next several games that Moore was not going to be the only story.

Rebekkah Brunson, the former Georgetown star who was taken a year ago as the overall No. 2 in the dispersal of the former Sacramento Monarchs roster, established herself as a rebounding machine and stayed that way most of the season.

“(Minnesota’s) a solid team in any statistical way,” said San Antonio coach Dan Hughes this week during the WNBA teleconference with players, coaches, and TV analysts to preview the playoffs.

“(Lynx coach) Cheryl (Reeve) has them executing well across the board. I think they separate from a rebounding standpoint.”
San Antonio lost all four season games to Minnesota but the first two – home-and=home – were decided in the final seconds.
Reeve, in her second year at the helm in Minnesota, is a former star in the late 1980s at La Salle University in Philadelphia. She grew up across the Delaware River in Southern New Jersey.

Prior to her arrival in the Twin Cities, Reeve was an assistant to Bill Laimbeer when the Tulsa franchise was in Detroit winning several WNBA titles with a different cast of individuals.

She also was an assistant to Anne Donovan when the former Charlotte Sting went to the 2001 finals reversing a 1-11 start on the season before falling to Los Angeles.

One player who was with her in Detroit was veteran Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who has played on a bunch of teams in the WNBA and the former Philadelphia Rage in the ABL prior to its collapse under bankruptcy.

Reeve was able to lure McWilliams-Franklin away from New York as an elder stateswoman presence when she became a free agent.

“This is a young team still trying to find its identity,” McWilliams-Franklin said recently when the Linx played New York on the road. “We put together a number of impressive wins during the season but by no means have we arrived.

“I think that’s important as young players they understand that unlike a lot of young, brash rookie teams that think, `Oooh, We’ve arrived. We’re the greatest.’

“This team thinks nothing of that,” she said. “They’re only worried about the next team and nothing like what could be.

“For this team the playoffs are a significant moment and we want to make sure everyone is running on the same cylinders that we have been all through the season. It’s not about wins or losses. It’s about Lynx basketball and doing what we needed to do to stay at the top level,” McWilliams-Franklin added.

“I came because of Coach Reeve. It’s about her defensive principles and intensity that she has for defense. She is a defensive coach first, no matter how many offensively great players we have on our team.

“She established something here at the beginning of training camp our team was going to (be built) on defensive. That’s what I wanted. That’s what she talked about during the free agent period and that’s what she stuck to.

“I liked that. In Detroit that’s one of the things that stood out for me and that’s why I came.”

One reason Minnesota has so many weapons is the long-sought health of former LSU star Seimone Augustus, who has been hit with a series of nagging injuries the last several seasons.

Former Stanford star Candice Wiggins is also recovered from a knee injury that sidelined her early last season in the final moments of a win at New York.

Amber Harris, the former Xavier star, was added to the post defense as the overall No. 4 pick in the draft, while former George Washington star Jessica Adair has thrived coming off the bench.

Former Virginia star Monica Wright offers depth in the backcourt as does former Tennessee star Alex Hornbuckle while former UConn star Charde Houston, a forward, adds to the frontcourt depth.

On San Antonio’s side, the Silver Stars stopped a slide threatening to take them out of playoff contention as veteran All-Star Becky Hammon went on a scoring tear, especially against Los Angeles in the game that eliminated the Sparks.

The Silver Stars also had one of the league’s top rookies in Danielle Adams, who wasn’t picked until the second round after becoming the MVP of the Women’s Final Four in Indiana leading Texas A&M to its first championship when the Aggies beat Notre Dame in the title game.

Adams missed several weeks with a foot injury but was back to early season form as the schedule concluded.

Liberty’s Facelift

The New York-Indiana series is almost a repeat of the early season schedule for both teams when they met the second weekend in June at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indiana in a game won by the Liberty and then two days later they played in Newark with the Fever prevailing in the inaugural game in the Prudential Center.

The Rock is the temporary home for New York the next three summers while Madison Square Garden undergoes a series of renovations.

Though Indiana finished tied for first with Connecticut in the East and got the No. 1 seed off a 3-2 series-winning record against the Sun, the Fever struggled down the stretch.

All-Star and veteran Tamika Catchings was suffering from a right knee sprain in New York and didn’t play in the Friday night loss two days before resting when Indiana lost at home to Atlanta.

Erin Phillips had been out with a sprained ankle and former Pittsburgh star Shavonte Zellous went down with an ankle sprain the last game Sunday.

Lin Dunn said that after rest hopefully Catchings will be ready Thursday night and that Phillips had practiced for the first time in a week but that Zellous’ condition was still undetermined.

Back in the preseason, many thought that Chicago, with the addition of rookie Courtney Vandersloot at the point and improved former Rutgers star Epiphanny Prince as a second-year pro, would at long last make the playoffs in the Sky’s sixth season.

That didn’t happen but what did is New York returning to the postseason after a much change in the offseason.

One subtraction was Anne Donovan, the Hall of Famer who had announced prior to the 2010 season opener she would be leaving that fall to coach Seton Hall.

Then legend Carol Blazejowski, who had been the face of the Liberty front office for all 14 seasons was let go and John Whisenant, the former Sacramento coach-general manager was hired to fill both vacancies in what was to be his first time spent in the East.

Whisenant brought a new complicated White Line defense to the Liberty that had carried Sacramento all the way to the 2005 title.

Two veteran frontcourt departures didn’t help matters with McWilliams-Franklin setting out for Minnesota and Jamelle McCarville deciding to take the year off.

Furthermore, playing in Newark produced its own set of problems until a system was developed to avoid late arrivals before the game. In one early incident, several players and coaches were involved in car accidents driving from Westchester County in suburban New York where most of the team lives near the training center.

There were a whole series of nagging injuries but New York had one salvation in All-Star Cappie Pondexter, the former Rutgers standout, who can put a team on her shoulders.

“You don’t stop her, you just try to hold her under 30 or 20 or something like that,” Dunn spoke about playing the Liberty.

“They key for them is they got more than one weapon. It’s not just Cappie. Leilani (Mitchell) is knocking down big threes. (Plenette) Pierson is scoring. (Kia) Vaughn is scoring. They’re getting a lot of balanced play. In particular, I’m impressed with the play of (Essence) Carson off the bench.”

Carson, Vaughn, like Pondexter, are Rutgers alums with the other two making major improvements this season.
Vaughn, by necessity, has seen more time as a starter, while another youthful post player in former VCU star Quanitra Hollingsworth has also seen a lot of time.

Whisenant got major help in landing veteran post player Kara Braxton at midseason from Phoenix in a trade after it appeared things had gone bad internally between the Mercury and the former Detroit star.

Dunn recalled off the four games between the Fever and Liberty, early on, “It was obvious to me they hadn’t quite grasp (Whisenant’s) concepts of full fronting, denying, some of the principles he uses.

“As the season has gone along, it is obvious they’ve gotten better and better at that philosophy. In particular, Vaughn, I’m impressed with her development as a top notch defender in the post and out of the perimeter. Pierson has always been tough in that,” Dunn observed.

“I think the starting five as well as the people off the bench understand how they play, what their philosophy is. I think that’s helped them down the stretch, helped them win some games and get them to the playoffs.”

New York also has Nicole Powell, the former Stanford scorer who played for Whisenant in Sacramento until the team was disbanded a year ago and the Liberty took her overall No. 1 out of the dispersal draft.

Indiana also has veteran All-Star Katie Douglas, the former Purdue sensation, as another scoring threat while yet another former Rutgers standout – Tammy Sutton-Brown at center is needed to excel and allow Catchings and Douglas to get their shots.

Ebony Hoffman, who had been in Los Angeles, added to Indiana’s frontcourt depth, which also was helped off the bench by former Ohio State star Jessica Davenport.

Competitiveness And Playoff Picks

One thing is definite about the teams in the East. Other than gaining or losing access to home-court advantages, there isn’t an alternative matchup for any of them that would have been less easy.

New York and Indiana split 2-2 but although the Liberty were handled 3-1 by Connecticut, the games went to the wire. The Liberty topped Atlanta, 3-2, but New York played some games against the Dream early in the season when Atlanta had injuries.

The Dream split with Connecticut, but perhaps Atlanta might have had a decided edge against Indiana after going 4-0 with three games played late in the season. The Fever won over Connecticut 3-2 but the last game at the Sun was a blowout by the home team.

In the West, Minnesota handled everyone, 3-2 over Phoenix, 4-0 against San Antonio and 3-1 against Seattle. So there could be a wish for all to have wanted to avoid the Lynx in the first round. Seattle beat Phoenix 3-1 with the clincher coming the final weekend and was 4-1 against San Antonio. The Silver Stars were 3-2 over Phoenix.

With all that said, the Guru’s first rounds picks are Connecticut 2-1 over Atlanta; New York 2-0 over Indiana; Seattle 2-1 over Phoenix; and Minnesota 2-0 over San Antonio.

See you at the next sunrise after Thursday’s openers.

-- Mel

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