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Saturday, July 20, 2019

Parity Can Be Puzzling: Sorting Out the Magic Numbers as the WNBA Playoff Hunt Enters Its Final Week

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Photo Credit: Original Artwork Courtesy istockphoto.com©

By Clay Kallam

Aside from New York – burdened with a disinterested and incompetent owner and an isolated and erratic general manager – every team in the WNBA is still in the playoff hunt entering the last eight days of the season. (And, yes, Sacramento is still alive, though the pulse is very, very faint …)

There are still many different possibilities for the top eight in each conference, though finishing fourth in the West rather than getting a shot at Tina Charles, Jayne Appel or Epiphanny Prince in the lottery might not actually be a positive. Still, it’s at least one more home game’s worth of revenue, and a reward for whoever manages to rise to the occasion – or perhaps sink less than the competition.

So let’s take a look at the WNBA playoff picture, starting with the West, from the bottom up, as we enter the last week of the regular season:

Sacramento (11-21): After Friday night’s loss to Atlanta, it’s pretty simple. The Monarchs must win their last three, and both San Antonio and Minnesota must lose all their games. The task is simplified somewhat by the fact that Sacramento plays both teams, at Arco, but planning for the lottery could begin as early as Sunday if either the Silver Stars or Lynx win Saturday night.

Minnesota (12-18): The Lynx don’t have it much better. They must, like Sacramento, win out, but they have four games to play, including a visit to Los Angeles. On top of that, since San Antonio holds the tiebreaker (the first is head-to-head; the second is conference record), Minnesota needs the Silver Stars to go no better than 2-2 – unless the Sparks cooperate by going 0-4 (L.A. also holds the tiebreaker over Minnesota, if it comes into play, due to conference record). If the Lynx go 3-1, then San Antonio must go 1-3, and if Minnesota goes 2-2, the Silver Stars must finish with four straight losses. In short, Lynx fans need to swallow hard and cheer for the Sparks Saturday and Tuesday, hoping for a San Antonio collapse.

San Antonio (13-17): Here’s a team with an actual magic number (meaning they’re in control of their own destiny), and the Silver Stars need only count to three to get ready to play Phoenix in the first round. (OK, they could slide into third if: (a) they sweep the Sparks and the two teams match records in the last two games (0-2, 1-1 or 2-0); (b) they split with the Sparks, and then win one more of the last two than the Sparks do; or (c) split the Sparks, and go to the as-yet undetermined third tiebreaker of records against teams at or above .500 (which is dead even right now), or possibly to the fourth tiebreaker (head-to-head point differential, which won’t be decided until after the two games with L.A.).

Third-place in the West would obviously be a lot better than second, as Seattle without Lauren Jackson is a much less formidable opponent than fully loaded Phoenix, but at this point, just getting to the playoffs would be enough. And by the way, Becky Hammon’s commitment to the Russian National Team may wind up costing the Silver Stars a playoff spot, as they lost both games while she was gone earlier this summer. A win in either or both, and San Antonio would now be coasting into postseason.

Los Angeles (15-15): The cool preseason pick to win it all, the Sparks are pretty much locked into third, though a complete collapse could conceivably knock them out of the playoffs. One win, though, punches their postseason ticket, and a sweep of San Antonio Saturday and Tuesday guarantees third. A split makes third place a little more dicey, as San Antonio finishes with Sacramento and Seattle, and the Sparks finish at Phoenix, but the Sparks would only need one win at that point to lock up third place. If L.A. manages to lose both to San Antonio, then suddenly that Friday night home game against Minnesota could be huge, especially if the Lynx have beaten Seattle and Detroit and their playoff hopes are still alive.

From one point of view, though, it doesn’t really matter if the Sparks fall to fourth – to get to the WNBA Finals, they have to beat Phoenix, and whether they do so in the first round or in the conference finals is really irrelevant. For the hot Sparks, just getting in the playoffs is the key, and the magic number for that is only one.

Seattle (19-12): Seattle has already clinched its playoff berth. One win or one L.A. loss guarantees second. It’s hard to see the Storm making up two games on Phoenix to take over first place in the West without Lauren Jackson – but if that’s going to happen, Seattle must beat Phoenix at home Thursday, plus get at least one more win and hope the Mercury fall apart.

Realistically, the Storm may be lucky to win one of the last three, as each of their opponents is playing for something in the postseason—Minnesota, Saturday, is fighting for its season’s survival; Phoenix, Thursday, has home court advantage in the WNBA Finals still in spin; and San Antonio, Saturday, is both hoping to keep its playoff hopes alive and, perhaps by that point, still in a tussle with L.A. for third-place seeding. Most likely, Seattle manages to hold on to second, and the focus shifts solely to L.J.’s back, and whether she’ll risk her $400,000 European paycheck for some WNBA playoff games.

Phoenix (21-10): The Mercury have already punched their playoff ticket, and a win in Seattle Thursday clinches first place in the West all by itself. Otherwise, the magic number for top seeding in the West is two – which Phoenix fans shouldn’t worry too much about reaching. In terms of the bigger picture, the Mercury would currently lose the tiebreaker to Indiana, so Phoenix needs to hope the Fever lose one more game than the Mercury down the stretch if they want to get home-court advantage in the WNBA Finals.

Now that was the easy part – here comes the East, again from the bottom up …

New York (12-19): As Full Court’s Jim Clark put it recently, stick a fork in New York. They’re cooked—mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.

Connecticut (15-17): With Asjha Jones out of commission, the Sun have pretty much sunk below the playoff horizon, but two wins plus the unlikely combination of: (a) Chicago splitting with Detroit and beating Indiana; (b) Detroit beating Chicago once and losing its other three games; and c) Washington losing all three of its games, would put Connecticut in postseason.

In other words, the Sun are looking good for their first lottery pick ever.

Washington (15-16): If the season ended today, the Mystics would be out of the playoffs despite a record tied with that of Chicago, thanks to the third tiebreaker (wins against teams at or above .500).  But since their two main competitors, Detroit and Chicago, play each other twice, the Mystics are guaranteed that some losses will help them out. Of course, the Mystics have to win at least two games, or preferably all of their last three, but assuming they go 2-1, a sweep by either Detroit or Chicago puts Washington in postseason. A split between those two teams makes things much more complicated: If Washington goes 3-0 in that case, the playoffs are a sure thing. At 2-1, with a Chicago-Detroit split, both Chicago and Detroit would need to lose another game. Chicago plays only Indiana, at home, or if Chicago does beat Indiana, Washington must beat both Atlanta and Indiana to advance.

Really, though, Washington is in pretty good position. If the Mystics win all three, they’re pretty much in, and if either Detroit or Chicago sweeps, and Washington goes 2-1, that works too.

Chicago (15-16): The return of Sylvia Fowles will be crucial in the two games against Detroit, which the Sky must at least split. A sweep puts them in postseason, regardless of what happens against Indiana Thursday, and a sweep by Detroit knocks them out. A split would also tie the Sky-Shock season series at 2-2, making a Chicago win against Indiana almost mandatory, as that would give the Sky the conference-record tiebreaker against Detroit. Winning only one against Detroit, followed by the Shock going 2-0 against Minnesota and New York would mean that Chicago would need Washington to lose one of its last three – but you knew that already, right?

Detroit (15-15): If the Shock win three of their last four, as long as one is over Chicago, they’re in the postseason. If they get swept by Chicago, even if they win their other two, they’re out unless Washington goes 1-2. Those other two are at Minnesota, which could already be eliminated, and New York, which already is. So it’s simple: Beat Chicago once and take care of business against the bottom-feeders and a season of frustration can be redeemed in postseason.

Atlanta (17-14): One of the most remarkable turnarounds in sports history is all but complete. The magic number for the Dream is one, which seems pretty unassailable, but the Dream first play at Phoenix in the second half of a back-to-back Saturday, and a loss there would make Thursday’s game against Connecticut crucial. Another defeat, and suddenly Atlanta could find itself in a must-win situation in Washington next Saturday against a team that could, with a win, make the playoffs. If it comes to that, though, expect Chamique Holdsclaw to come back for the last game (though some think Atlanta is actually better with Angel McCoughtry in the starting lineup).

And, remember, the Dream lose the tiebreaker to Chicago, and if they lose to the Sun and the Mystics, they will have the worst conference record of any of the contenders.

Indiana (20-10): The Fever will win the East, and to earn home court in the WNBA Finals (should they get that far) they need only to tie with Phoenix (conference record). Equally important, though, the Fever need to right the ship. They’ve won only once in their last six games, and five of those losses came on the road. Only one home game is left, Sunday against Washington, so a win seems pretty mandatory.

Originally published Sat, September 05, 2009

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Week: February 7, 2012
1 Baylor (31) 24-0 1 1 1 775
2 Notre Dame 23-1 2 2 2 743
3 Connecticut 21-2 3 4 3 710
4 Stanford 20-1 4 5 4 685
5 Duke 19-3 6 8 5 650
6 Miami (FL) 20-3 7 7 6 604
7 Kentucky 21-3 5 15 7 584
8 Maryland 20-3 10 10 8 534
9 Wisconsin-Green Bay 20-0 9 24 9 530
10 Ohio State 21-2 11 NR-RV
10 483
11 Tennessee 17-6 8 3 11 476
12 Delaware 20-1 13 NR 12 434
13 Georgetown 18-5 15 11 14 379
14 Texas A&M 16-5 16 6 15 378
15 Nebraska 19-3 18 NR 13 309
16 Rutgers 17-4 14 12 17 372
17 Louisville 17-6 12 9 20 276
18 Gonzaga 21-3 19 NR-RV
19 234
19 Purdue 19-5 17 21 16 222
20 Georgia 18-6 20 12 21 202
21 Penn State 18-5 21 14 18 176
22 DePaul 17-7 23 18 NR-RV
23 Georgia Tech 16-6 22 NR-RV
22 104
24 South Carolina 18-5 NR-RV
NR 24 46
25 Vanderbilt 18-5 NR-RV
NR 45
Dropped Out: No. 24 North Carolina, No. 25 Kansas.
First-place votes: Total first-place votes received (if any) are indicated in parentheses following school name.
Others receiving votes: St. Bonaventure (22-2) 34; North Carolina (17-6) 19; California (17-6) 18; Florida Gulf Coast (21-2) 16; Middle Tennessee (19-5) 15; Texas-El Paso (20-2) 8; Texas Tech (16-6) 5; Brigham Young (21-4) 4; Fresno State (19-4) 4; St. John's (15-8) 4; Princeton (15-4) 3; Oklahoma (15-7) 2; West Virginia (17-6) 2; Kansas State (15-7) 1.
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Credit: Courtesy Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA). The weekly Division I Top 25 Coaches' Poll, sponsored by USA Today and ESPN, is based on voting by a Board of Coaches made up of 31 head coaches at Division I institutions all of whom are WBCA members.