This past week saw the two top-ranked teams in the Western Conference clinch their playoff spots. The Phoenix Mercury tied the 1998 Houston Comets team for the second-longest win streak in the WNBA at 15 (the longest is the 2001 L.A. Sparks with 18-straight wins), and the Minnesota Lynx, with the help of a career-high 48-point Maya Moore game last Tuesday (the second-highest WNBA single game record behind Riquina Williams’s 51 in 2013), have won seven games in a row. They both clinched with almost a whole month left in the season because no other West team even has a winning record.
It’s a similar story in the East with the Atlanta Dream. They’ve also been the only team with a winning record in their conference for a while now, but a loss to the Washington Mystics on Sunday gave their opponents a .500 record for the first time since mid-June. And suddenly, the Dream are only six games ahead of the last place team in the East with 10 games to go. I fully expect Atlanta to stay in the top spot, especially with the imminent return of their coach Michael Cooper following a successful surgery for tongue cancer, but there’s also a bunch of teams in their conference getting hot at the right time.
The Connecticut Sun thought they would be pairing this year’s number one pick Chiney Ogwumike with their former-MVP Tina Charles but before the season, Charles demanded a trade to New York. The New York Liberty hoped to finally put a championship-caliber team around their star Cappie Pondexter, but even with Charles and four-time all-star Swin Cash, they’re barely hanging on to the last playoff seed. Charles has balled out, with her averages hovering around 18 points and 10 rebounds a game, but Pondexter has struggled and Cash has shot an embarrassing 22% from the field since suiting up for New York. They haven’t shown much depth either, with younger players like Sugar Rodgers or Anna Cruz unable to lift the team above their floor. They did, however, beat a struggling Seattle team in overtime on Wednesday, despite Storm guard Temeka Johnson recording the fifth triple double in WNBA regular season history.
The Chicago Sky were supposed to be the best team in the East this season, after running away with the top record last year and a whole season of experience for Elena Delle Donne under her belt, who won 2013’s Rookie of the Year award in the most highly-touted draft class the W has ever seen. The Sky traded away their starting power forward Cash–seemingly inexplicably–for third-string Atlanta guard Courtney Clements. But even as Cash looks to have fallen off a cliff this year, the Sky have been plagued by injuries and even disease. The team’s two-time Defensive Player of the Year Sylvia Fowles didn’t join the team until late June due to a torn labrum, and all-star guard Courtney Vandersloot sustained a season-ending MCL sprain around the same time. On top of that, Delle Donne has missed 11 games with a severe case of Lyme Disease.
The Indiana Fever have looked to reload this year, in the hopes that they can recapture the lightening that won them the 2012 WNBA title as their coach retires. This is head coach Lin Dunn’s seventh year calling the shots in Indiana, but she is a certified basketball legend, having coached in the W since 2000 and coaching at the college level for over 40 years. Her star player Tamika Catchings is having a solid two-way season after missing time with a back injury, Erlana Larkins is having a breakout year, and the one-two backcourt punch of Shavonte Zellous and Briann January are as potent as ever. But the team has struggled due to injuries, and new talent around the league is passing them, which Catchings’ consistently great play for over a decade has kept them from drafting. Indiana has had only one top-three pick since 2002. They lost yesterday in the easiest arena to play this year to a Sparks team missing its 2008 number one pick but still featuring its 2012 number one pick. The Fever still had a fighting chance – either a 3-pointer or a baseline defensive rotation going the other way and they would be tied with the Washington Mystics for second in the East.
Speaking of which, the Mystics have pretty much become the consensus second-best team in the East. They’re only a game ahead of the Fever, but the Mystics’ defense has been a lot more solid than in recent years and they look like they’re getting hot at just the right time. The Mystics only sent one player to the All-Star Game this year, the team having traded or let go of longtime all-stars in the hopes of staying relevant through the draft. They’ve yet to grab a recognizable franchise player, but they’ve done well enough not to ever bottom out, even if they probably should, reaching the playoffs only three times in the past seven years and never making it out of the first round.
Two nice draft picks for Washington are Bria Hartley and Emma Meesseman. Hartley won back-to-back championships at UConn before nearly matching all-star and current Eastern Conference Player of the Week Ivory Latta in most statistics this season as a rookie. Meesseman, on the other hand, is a project who’s ceiling could be higher than the Verizon Center’s roof. In her second year out of Belguim, the newly-starting center has doubled her minutes per game and more than doubled most of her per game stats. She’s also allowed the Mystics to get up and down the floor with her long, spry 21-year-old legs, something the team couldn’t really do with the slower, but better, Crystal Langhorne last year.
The pace has been important to Washington’s current four-game winning streak. The number of possessions has jumped some since coach Mike Thibault derided the team for playing slow after a June 2 loss to the Fever. Since then, the team has won six of their last seven, forcing turnovers and getting the defense on their heels, which has led to them shooting the ball better and getting to the line more. Veteran forward Monique Currie also deserves credit as she’s scored in double figures each of the last six games, including against Tulsa, where she got all of her 16 points from the free throw line. I’m not going to hold my breath for the Mystics to grab the top seed, but with the Dream having lost their last four and the Mystics winning their last four, there’s only three games between what was once a canyon. In the Eastern Conference, late-season magic can fall from the sky.