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Friday, July 19, 2019

WNBA Eastern Conference Recap: Indiana Clinches; Things Heat Up in the Rest of the Playoff Picture

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Photo Caption: Six-four French center Sandrine Gruda stepped up big last week in Asjha’s Jones’s absence, scoring 54 points and grabbing 25 rebounds on the week, to win Player-of-the-Week honors for the East for the first time in her two-year WNBA career.

Photo Credit: Courtesy NBAE/Getty Images/David Dow

By Jim Clark

Despite dropping both their games last week, the Indiana Fever became the second team in the league (after Phoenix) to clinch their playoffs as Connecticut, Washington, and Chicago all posted losses.

Indiana still has a decisive lead in the race for first place in the East with a four-and-a-half game lead over Atlanta, its next closest contender. But the Fever’s grip on the top spot is beginning to loosen as losses pile up with key players showing evidence of fatigue as the regular season draws to a close.

Meanwhile, the race for the remaining Eastern Conference playoff berths is wide open as only two-and-a-half games separate second-place contender Atlanta from the two teams tied for fourth place (Washington and Chicago).

Even the basement is beginning to heat up, as Detroit has gone on a recent three-game winning streak and the Liberty have begun to show signs of life. So while Indiana is definitely in, it’s hard to rule anyone—even New York—completely out of the picture.

Here’s how the WNBA Eastern Conference stacks up with just three weeks left in the regular season:

1. Indiana (19-7)
Won 0. Lost 2: @Sacramento (62-67); @Seattle (60-74).

Their recent road trip has taken its toll, as the Fever have now lost three of five, including both of last week’s away games, and are looking more vulnerable as the season draws to a close. The losing streak threatens to relinquish home-court advantage to Phoenix, if the Fever cannot right things soon.

The good news is that only two of the team’s seven losses are to Eastern Conference opponents. The bad news is that the next three contests are against Western Conference opponents who have already defeated Indiana this season.

The anti-dote to the bad news is that each of those games is at home, where the Fever are 12-1. The secondary bad news, however, is that four of the final five games of the season are on the road where the Fever are only 7-6.

So, what does this all mean? Who knows? Indiana still holds the league’s best record, and their conference record is unassailable. Besides, only Atlanta has been playing very well in-conference, and their series with Indiana is complete. All of the remaining teams are playing at .500 or worse over the last 10 games.

So what’s up with the recent string of losses? It sounds simplistic, but the Fever are not scoring enough points. Less simplistically, Indiana’s field-goal percentage has been comfortably above .400 all season. In the recent losses, it has been just .330. The Fever’s three-point percentage this season was around .350. In the losses: .200. Douglas, Catchings and Hoffman have averaged 30-plus minutes all season. Could they be tired?

Up this week: v. San Antonio (Thursday, August 27); v. Sacramento (Saturday, August 29).

2. Atlanta (15-12)
Won 1: v. San Antonio (93-87). Lost 1: v. Los Angeles (87-91).

The Dream looked like an ordinary .500-mark Eastern Conference team this week, splitting their two home games against teams from the West. In Thursday’s victory over San Antonio, Angel McCoughtry poured in a career-high 34 points, grabbed seven rebounds, and added four assists in the best game to date of her short pro career. Every one of McCoughtry’s points were needed, as Atlanta gave up 20-plus points to each of the “Big Three” San Antonio players. Chamique Holdsclaw played less than eight minutes, during which she was held scoreless, and has missed the two games since due to a “sore knee.” If this proves to be more than a minor injury, it could spell the end to a “Dream Season” for Atlanta.

McCoughtry’s outstanding performance against the Silver Stars (plus the absence of Holdsclaw) earned the rookie her first career start in Sunday’s game against Los Angeles. McCoughtry scored 23, but the Dream came up empty, yielding the same number to Candace Parker, and also allowing four other Sparks (Betty Lennox, with 14 off the bench, DeLisha Milton-Jones, who put up 13, and Tina Thompson and Noelle Quinn who notched 12 each) to score in double figures.

Atlanta, like Phoenix, focuses its efforts on scoring quickly and often, but plays defense only when necessary. When the opponent shoots well, as Los Angeles did (47.8%), any game can turn into a loss.

Atlanta’s previous win streak coincided with seven of nine games at home, but that advantage is over. The Dream are just 4-7 on the road, where they play six of their final eight games.

Up this week: v. Sacramento (Tuesday, August 25—Won, 103-83, once again without Holdsclaw); @ Detroit (Thursday, August 27); @ Seattle (Saturday, August 29).

3. Connecticut (14-12)
Won 2: v. New York (74-69); v. Minnesota (98-94). Lost 1: @ New York (83-85 - OT).

It was not a bad week for the Asjha Jones-less Sun, a week highlighted by two wins and marred only by a dispiriting overtime loss on the road in New York. The most encouraging development recently has been that of Sandrine Gruda, who scored 54 points and grabbed 25 rebounds on the week, shooting 51% and winning Player of the Week in the East. In two of the games, Lindsay Whalen also contributed 20+ points, doing her part to provide Jones’ accustomed points.

Nonetheless, the teams the Sun beat were lowly New York and a Minnesota team in complete free-fall, having lost nine of their last 11 games. The week to come will be much more challenging: After Tuesday’s home game versus Detroit, Connecticut begins a West Coast road trip in which they play four games in six days against the West’s top two teams and surging Los Angeles, before facing a less-challenging but far from impotent Sacramento.

Jones is unlikely to play before Sunday’s contest, and even that schedule is uncertain. Coach Mike Thibault must hope that promising advances by bench players continue, or the team could find itself several games below .500 by the time they return to Connecticut. The supporting cast continues to be unpredictable and inconsistent, a trend which must reverse if the Sun are to retain the slight advantage they hold in the playoff race.

Up this week: v. Detroit (Tuesday, August 25—Lost, 70-90); @ Seattle (Thursday, August 27); @ Phoenix (Saturday, August 29); @ Los Angeles (Sunday, August 30).

4. Washington (13-15)
Won 1: @ Phoenix (91-81). Lost 2: @ Los Angeles (69-72); @ Sacramento (60-82).

Even given how badly nearly every team in the WNBA plays on the road, only a win over Phoenix prevented this week from being a disaster for the Mystics. That said, the team still lost ground to both Connecticut and Chicago, ending the week below the .500 mark.

The week’s most hopeful sign was the emergence from season-long ennui of Matee Ajavon, who had two double-figure scoring games, including a season-high 20 in a three-point loss to the Sparks. The remainder of the team, however, seems content to leave the scoring to Lindsey Harding and Alana Beard. When those two play poorly, as both did against Sacramento, Washington simply cannot win. Unless Ajavon catches fire for their remainder of the season, Washington could easily find itself the number four team, playing Indiana on the road in the first round, or out of the post-season completely.

Though currently in fourth place in the East, the Mystics’ playoff berth is by no means secure. They are currently in fourth only by virtue of the tie-breaker over Chicago. Meanwhile, Washington still has three tough games ahead—two games to against Seattle (both at home) and one on the road against Indiana—before finishing their season against the other Eastern Conference middle-of-the-roaders. Four of seven of the Mystics’ remaining games are on the road, where they are just 5-8.

Up this week: @ Seattle (Tuesday, August 25 - Lost, 68-78); v. Minnesota (Sunday, August 30).

5. Chicago (13-15)
Won 0. Lost 2: v. Phoenix (99-106); v. Detroit (67-76).

While losing to Phoenix and scoring 99 points is nothing to be ashamed of, the nine-point loss to the Shock is especially unfortunate, both because last week’s two-game losing streak allowed Washington, who holds the tie-breaker, to pull even, and because Chicago has two remaining games with their resurgent Midwest rival.

On the other hand, the Sky have four of seven at home to close out the season, and also play cellar-dweller New York two times this week. Chicago could be back at the .500 mark by week’s end.

Shyra Ely scored a career-high 26 points against Phoenix as the substitute for the once-again injured Sylvia Fowles who has now missed three straight games with a sprained left ankle. Ely’s breakout performance was not enough, however, as Phoenix managed to shoot 57% from the floor, and Diana Taurasi suprpassed Ely with 27 points. Ely or someone else from the bench will have to become a regular contributor if the Sky are to solidify a playoff spot.

In the loss to the Shock, it was Candice Dupree who took over the laboring oar with a double-double of 20 points and 14 boards. Dupree got little help from her teammates, however, as only Tamera Young joined her in double figures with 14 points.

Riddle me this, however: After Christie Toliver scored 22 points on 8-10 shooting in 20 minutes against Phoenix, why did she sit for all except three minutes in the Detroit loss? The Sky desperately need Toliver’s outside shooting for the stretch run, and she has always been a rhythm shooter. Without question, coaching in the WNBA requires a careful consideration of the match ups in a particular game, but Toliver is unlikely to return to her early-season form if her playing time is on such a yo-yo.

Up this week: @ Los Angeles (Tuesday, August 25—Lost, 63-75); v. New York (Friday, August 28); @ New York (Sunday, August 30).

6. Detroit (12-14)
Won 2: @Chicago (76-67); v. San Antonio (99-84). Lost 1: Seattle (75-79).

Despite a close loss to Seattle, it was a very good week for the Shock. The acquisition of Nikki Teasley was meaningless; she’s seen precious little playing time and produced even less. But Deanna Nolan continues to play very well. As important, Katie Smith continues to defy time and age, having shot 50 percent or better from both three-point range and overall, and scoring a total of fifty-three points, on the week. Rookie Shavante Zellous continues to be a valuable contributor, who can be counted on to regularly put up double digits off the bench (12, 13 and 10 points in the Shock’s three games last week).

The Shock have nine games remaining, more than most other teams. Five of those are at home, and six in conference, so in theory, Detroit controls its own playoff destiny. The team is just 5-5 in the last 10 games, however, and will need to put together a string of wins to move from sixth to fourth place, but stranger things have happened. Given the mediocrity of most of the Eastern Conference, the playoffs are unlikely but possible.

Up this week: @ Connecticut (Tuesday, August 25—won, 90-70); v. Atlanta (Thursday, August 27); @ San Antonio (Saturday, August 29).

7. New York (11-16)
Won 2: Connecticut, 85-83 (OT); Minnesota, 80-67; Lost 1: @ Connecticut (69-74).

The Liberty have actually won four of six over the last two weeks to keep themselves alive (just barely!) in the playoff race. After losing at Connecticut on Wednesday, New York returned the favor Friday by pulling off a dramatic overtime win at home. They then easily beat Minnesota (doesn’t everybody, lately?) for just their third back-to-back wins of the year.

Catherine Kraayeveld had an unusually good week, scoring 37 points, including 6-11 from beyond the arc. Coach Anne Donovan used her bench extensively, and for a change, got decent production from that group. Shameka Christon and Janel McCarville continued to be the bulwarks on offense and defense, but the unaccustomed contributions from non-starters made the difference in the victories.

Granted, the opponents were hardly the most difficult, with the Sun trying to cope without Asjha Jones, and Minnesota in a nosedive. But nobody in the East is playing particularly well right now, and New York is just two games in the lost column behind Washington for fourth place.

The Liberty split their prior two games with Chicago (who they play this week), each team winning on the other’s home-court. New York will need to win both this time around. If things go really is well, the Liberty could face Washington in the season’s final game for a playoff spot. To do so, however, the bench will have to show that this week was not a fluke.

Up this week: @ Chicago (Friday, August 28); v. Chicago (Sunday, August 30).

Originally published Wed, August 26, 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.