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, September 11, 2011

Guru's WNBA Report: East Playoff Seeds Get Settled Sunday

(Some material for this post with quotes drawn from team and wire reports)

By Mel Greenberg

The playoffs for the playoff seeding in the Eastern Conference ends Sunday with the defending conference postseason champion Atlanta Dream (19-14) visiting the Indiana Fever (21-12), who own the No. 1 East position, while the New York Liberty (19-14) visit the Connecticut Sun (20-13).

New York, Connecticut and Atlanta all have the potential at this hour to be No. 2, No. 3 or No. 4 depending on the outcome of the two games.

Three other games will conclude the regular season and each will have some storyline attached.

The Minnesota Lynx (26-7), with a first-ever Western Conference regular season title and runaway overall top record in the WNBA, will visit the Phoenix Mercury (19-14), who were relegated to the third seed when the defending WNBA champion Seattle Storm (20-13) topped the Mercury at home on Friday night.

The Storm win gave Seattle the West second seed and home-court advantage in the best-of-three semifinal series with the Mercury.

Minnesota and Phoenix are tied 2-2 in the season series with most of the games having been terrific battles. If the Lynx win Sunday, they will have won every Western series while in the crossover games they will have swept Atlanta, Chicago, and Washington, while splitting with Connecticut, Indiana and New York.

Phoenix, though, would love to win Sunday to increase the suspense and create some doubt as to what the ultimate outcome will be in the West heading into the best-of-five WNBA championship series.

The San Antonio Silver Stars (17-16) on a back-to-back after beating Washington 82-74 at home Saturday night, head to Tulsa (3-30), where the Shock will be trying to avoid the worst finish in the WNBA on a 34-game schedule.

The 1998 Washington Mystics only had three wins on a shorter schedule while Atlanta, now in its fourth season, finished 4-30 when the Dream launched in the summer of 2008.

The Silver Stars, with a fourth seed in the West, will be in tune-up mode and though some will think Minnesota to be an overwhelming favorite in the semifinal series, it should be noted that the Lynx’s first two wins over San Antonio within a week’s span weren’t decided until just before time expired.

Prior to Saturday night’s game, San Antonio announced a multi-year extension agreement with All-Star and veteran Becky Hammon, which is expected to keep her in the home of the Alamo until she concludes her career that began as a walk-on free-agent signee with New York following her graduation from Colorado State.

Seattle will host the Chicago Sky (14-19), which will conclude its sixth season in the franchise’s overall history without a trip to the playoffs.

Chicago is coming off a loss in Saturday night’s other game in which the Los Angeles Sparks (15-19) prevailed at home in the Staples Center to conclude one of the more disappointing seasons in the California franchise’s 15-year history.

Considering the notion Indiana coach Lin Dunn offered Friday night after the loss to New York, a win could be worth something to Seattle if the Storm emerge from the West in terms of home-court advantage in the finals.

This topic will be visited further down below.

As for details from Saturday night, Washington (6-28) continued a season-long trend of fading at the finish, this time after holding a lead into the fourth quarter. The Mystics’ overall wins are the second worst in franchise history topped only by the 3-27 mark in their inaugural season in 1998.

A year ago at this time, there was nothing but elation in the nation’s capital and a feeling the Mystics had turned the corner on their woeful history at last when they finished with a franchise-best 22 wins to tie New York for the East regular season title and earn the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.

Atlanta, with the fourth seed, dispatched the Mystics 2-0 and then shutout New York 2-0 to get to the finals and lose three close games to Seattle, which dominated action last summer.

Then came a tempestuous off-season in which popular general manager Angela Taylor was let go followed by Julie Plank’s departure when she was asked to add the GM title to her coaching duties.

Trudi Lacey was promoted from assistant coach to the dual title role but then problems developed on the roster. Veterans Katie Smith and Lindsey Harding departed after requesting trades while former Duke star Monique Currie had an injury in Europe.

She did not return to action until a week ago while All-Star Alana Beard, another former Duke star who missed last season following foot surgery, suffered a series of injuries on the same foot and did not play this season.

Currie, Saturday night, had 14 points behind former Rutgers star Matee Ajavon, one of may candidates for WNBA Most Improved Award, who had 15 points.

Ajavon moved into a starting role early in the season when Beard was unable to participate.

“We have played with a lot of heart, determination and resiliency for the entire season,” Lacey said after the loss Saturday night. “We’re young and we haven’t been together very long at all. I think in tight games, experience truly helps. It shows when you don’t have it.”

San Antonio had it Saturday night with former Baylor star Sophia Young scoring 17 points while Hammon had 15. Rookie Danielle Adams, who was named the Women’s Final Four top player in April after leading Texas A&M to the Aggies’ first NCAA title, scored 14 points.

She recently returned from a foot injury that caused her to miss several weeks, an absence that deprived her of giving likely winner Maya Moore of Minnesota, the former UConn star, a challenge for Rookie of the Year.

Speaking of picks and Minnesota, which has bulked up the last several years with No. 1 selections such as former LSU star Seimone Augustus in 2006 and Moore in April, could have another one in April even if the Lynx win the NCAA title.

They own Washington’s lotto pick in a deal that sent former Tennessee star Nicky Anosike to the Mystics just before the season got under way.

Sometimes it is forgotten but for a time Minnesota had another No. 1 pick when Phoenix selected Harding in 2007 and then dealt her to the Lynx for veteran Tangela Smith (now with Indiana), the former Iowa star who helped the Arizona group when their first WNBA title that summer.

Washington has Seattle’s pick in another deal but with the Storm no longer lotto-bound, the Mystics would be selecting lower in the first round with that choice.

In Saturday night’s other game, DeLisha Milton-Jones had 15 points and former Maryland star Kristi Toliver scored 11 as Los Angeles finished its season with a two-game winning streak, though both games, including Friday’s home over Tulsa, came at the expense of teams not heading to the playoffs.

Former Tennessee superstar Candace Parker was held back again as a precaution with the knee she injured in late June acting up. That caused her to miss 15 games and the Sparks went 5-10 in her absence.

They went 4-6 after she returned prior to the weekend wins, which was not good enough to pass any of the Western teams above Los Angeles in the standings not named Minnesota. The Sparks were in striking distance of all them when Parker returned late last month.

“When you look back on it, we probably had moments where we should have seized a lot of golden opportunities in front of us to write our own destiny,” Milton-Jones said. “The cards just weren’t in our favor. I think next year, whether we’re here with the Sparks, we all know you have to seize those opportunities when they come.”

Los Angeles, which is 11.5 games out of first, will finish two or three games behind fourth-place San Antonio, depending on the Texans’ Sunday result in Tulsa.

Two losses that might have otherwise closed the gap were a setback at home in overtime to Washington after holding a 24-point lead in the second half to set a WNBA record for blowing a lead that size in a half, and a loss at home to Tulsa, which had set a WNBA record before the game with 20 straight losses.

By comparison, Seattle was without three-time MVP Lauren Jackson, who had a hip injury, almost the same length Los Angeles went without Parker. Yet the Storm stayed above .500 and has been on a tear since her return.

Bryant tried to be positive after the two-game finish.

“You want to leave the season with a good taste in your mouth,” Sparks assistant coach Joe Jellybean Bryant, the father of NBA Lakers great Kobe Bryant, said. “We played well the past two games. We played really good defense. I’m really happy about it.”

Bryant was promoted from assistant in early July for a second tour of duty after Jennifer Gillom was fired early in her second season with the Sparks.

It is not known if he wants to return or Los Angeles wants to look elsewhere.

Former Houston, LSU and Olympics coach Van Chancellor is known to be interested in returning to the league while with former Sparks great Lisa Leslie now a part-owner, it is wondered whether she has enough influence if a successor is necessary.

Leslie played for Washington assistant coach Marianne Stanley at Southern Cal and Stanley also had several stints as an assistant in Los Angeles.
Many speculated she might get the job before Gillom was hired to succeed Michael Cooper, who headed off to coach Southern Cal.

Chicago’s Sylvia Fowles, in the running for several postseason awards, had 18 points and 11 rebounds, while Dominique Canty scored 16 points and Erin Thorn had 12.

First-year coach Pokey Chatman, the former LSU coach who is also general manager, didn’t offer a lot of hope for Sunday’s final game in Seattle.

“After a loss, it’s grim,” she said. “I’m an honest coach. Seattle has a veteran team and they have a playoff spot locked up. You play to maintain chemistry.”

Back in the East, Indiana is looking to beat Atlanta for the first time in four tries, though the triumph could mean relegating the Dream to the fourth seed and making them the Fever’s conference semifinals opponent.

Connecticut in playing New York is looking for the second seed and home court advantage in the first round against either the Liberty or Atlanta, while the Liberty, with a win, could finish with the second seed in a three-way tie if Atlanta beats Chicago.
New York has the tie-break with Atlanta on season series if the two finish locked for third place.

Liberty first-year coach-general manager John Whisenant, on the heels of beating Indiana Friday night, would love another win over one of the league’s upper echelon teams to have his group gain even more confidence in what is considered a wide-open situation in the East.

Connecticut has played superior at home but struggled on the road, most recently at Atlanta Tuesday night when if the Sun won they would already own the second seed.

Home-Court And The Finals

As several coaches in the playoffs noted inquisitively, who gets the home court in the finals if Minnesota falls short?
If Indiana wins the Eastern playoffs and wins Sunday then with 22 triumphs the Fever would have home court in the finals over any of the West squads that would advance.

Indiana split with Seattle and Phoenix and swept San Antonio.

The Guru is not sure if this is in play or not but looking at tiebreakers, it seems that if the overall records were the same than records against the opposite conferences would be compared to break ties.

So, if Indiana or Connecticut tie with Seattle at 21 – Indiana was 8-4 against the West with a sweep of Tulsa and San Antonio and split with Los Angeles, Phoenix, Seattle and Minnesota; Connecticut was 7-5 sweeping Los Angeles and Phoenix and splitting with Tulsa, Seattle and Minnesota and being swept by San Antonio; Seattle at this hour is 5-6 against the East sweeping Washington 2-0, splitting with Connecticut, New York and Indiana, being swept by Atlanta and also holding a loss at Chicago. Sunday’s game left with the Sky will make the Storm either 6-6 or 5-7 against the East.

That seems to mean East squads have the advantage. However, if Connecticut loses Sunday and wins the East playoffs Seattle could have home court over the Sun with 21 wins.

If Atlanta gets to 20 wins Sunday and then played Seattle again in the finals for the second straight year it is not known if the Dream sweep of the Storm during the season is in play.

But Atlanta’s record against the West was 6-6, which would match the Seattle vs. East if the Storm beat the Sky. So maybe the 2-0 against the Storm would work. Atlanta was funky sweeping Seattle, Tulsa and Los Angeles but being swept by Phoenix, Minnesota, and San Antonio.

New York, getting to 20 wins, could be even with Seattle or Phoenix with overall records if matched in the finals. The Liberty vs. West record was 8-4, sweeping Tulsa and San Antonio, and splitting with Los Angeles, Phoenix, Seattle and Minnesota.
The 8-4 is better than Seattle but even with Phoenix.

San Antonio, since this one is easy, could not have any records better than any East team so if the Silver Stars reach the finals any of the four East teams would have home court advantage.

Phoenix against the East was 8-4. The Mercury were swept by Connecticut but have a better cross-conference record; They swept Atlanta and have a better cross-conference record; They swept Chicago and Washington and split with Indiana and New York.

It seems that if they matched New York on wins and both got to the finals a third tie-break level might be needed. But let’s wait until Sunday’s results are in and we’ll see if it is necessary to explore that situation.

Postseason Awards

While awaiting the late game Saturday night, the Guru went through unprecedented angst making picks to submit to the WNBA for the annual postseason awards
.
He won’t discuss his choices yet – this post is long enough.

But he now has a trade off in proposals on how he spends the WNBA’s money for them.

Off of last year’s final standings, the Guru thought that maybe a fifth team could be added to the playoffs and get into a 5-4 play-in game to the semifinals at the home court of the higher seed.

However, seeing there was clear separation this year in each conference between fourth and fifth place and that the fifth place teams had deep enough losing records, he now withdraws that proposal for the moment.

But in its place, now that the WNBA has those nice mega-advertising bucks from the Boost Mobile deal, perhaps the media panel might be allowed to pick a third team All-League group.

The talent level is deep enough and considering who was left off on the Guru’s ballot, he could stock two teams and compete for a title with those he had to leave off being selected for the first two teams.

Casino Wars

Sunday's Connecticut-New York game will also be a battle of teams with casino-ownership backing.

As is well known, the Connecticut Sun are owned by the Mohegan Indian Tribe who possess the Mohegan Sun. The New York Liberty have one of the five-team jersey name deals in the WNBA, theirs being the ones touting the Foxwoods Casino, a nearby rival of the Mohegan establishment.

On Friday night when certain colleague of the Guru, who are partial to the Liberty, noted after the win over Indiana they were heading up early Saturday on a bus trip for the game.

The Guru, mentally locked into older times mode, began offering nice eating places at Mohegan.

But seeing their tweets and facebook postings from the trip Saturday he learned they were staying at Foxwoods.

But of course, being Liberty fans. Here's hoping they got a nice deal considering how pricey the longer, by not much, ride to the Liberty backers is in terms of lodging.

And with that, the Guru will return after Sunday night’s games conclude.

Mel

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