So much for the value of late-season momentum in handicapping a playoff series! The Dream started off the season strong, but limped into the playoffs as the East's fourth seed, after going 4-6 during its run down the stretch. The Washington Mystics spent 34 games working to get the number one seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, and seemed like the team to beat after winning 8 out of their last 10.
In the end, all that momentum did the Mystics no good at all. After dropping game one on its home court on Wednesday, 90-95, Washington was blown out in Friday night's game two, as the more aggressive, home-standing Atlanta Dream swept the series in a 101-77 rout. Though Washington started out well enough, heading off an a 9-0 run to begin the first period, they seemed unable to cope once the Dream rolled out a 2-3 match-up zone (heavy to zone) in the middle of the period. By the end of the opening period, the Dream had cut the distance to four points. But the second stanza essentially decided the game (and the series) as the Dream started the period with a 24-0 run from which the Mystics never recovered.
Katie Douglas played all 34 games for Indiana, averaging 29.8 minutes a game. She is the Fevers second-leading scorer (13.7 ppg), second-best passer (3.3 apg), second-best shooter in all three categories and fourth-best rebounder. She also has a reputation as a plus defender.
So in 27 minutes Thursday, Douglas took one shot, had one assist, one steal, two rebounds and one turnover. She finished with no free-throw attempts and no points.
Regardless of the reason for Douglas dismal performance (most folks credit a bad ankle), that was the story of the game. Sure, Indiana was up 10 early, but without Douglas, the Fever just dont have enough firepower to compete with the New York Liberty or, for that matter, the Connecticut Sun or Chicago Sky.
That said, the Liberty deserve lots of credit for the 85-73 win at the Garden, as they kept their cool and took control of the game late in the third quarter. Cappie Pondexter of course played a big role (28 points, four assists, one turnover, five of 10 from three-point distance), but she did miss 14 shots, so it wasnt all her. Taj McWilliams-Franklin had a brilliant game (15 points, 10 rebounds, two steals) and Nicole Powell, Essence Carson and Plenette Pierson added major contributions.
The 2009 WNBA champion Phoenix Mercury were expected to be the class of the Western Conference once again this season, even though they lost Cappie Pondexter to the New York Liberty. Instead, they limped into the playoffs as the West's second seed despite a losing record (15-19) in the regular season.
For the San Antonio Silver Stars, things proved even worse. Their playoff destiny wasn't clear until the final week of the season, when they finally managed to put together their first two-game winning "streak" of the season, finishing in third place in a weak Western Conference with a record of 14-20.
"We're the best 15-19 team you'll ever see," the Mercury's Diana Taurasi told reporters earlier this week. The reigning champs set about proving her right on Thursday night with a 106-93 romp over the Silver Stars, who were playing without newly acquired star Chamique Holdsclaw, who went down with a torn Achilles' tendon in their loss to Minnesota on August 15.
If San Antonio had taken any comfort from the Mercury's regular-season troubles, or from splitting their four-game regular-season series against Phoenix including taking a 83-82 victory over the Mercury in the season finale, the bubble was burst in game one of the Western Conference semifinals. The reigning champions were looking like ... well, champions ... as the Mercury began their run for a "three-peat" behind a career-high of 32 points from Candice Dupree. Dupree, a fifth-year forward acquired in the offseason by the Mercury from Chicago as part of the three-way deal that sent Pondexter to New York, put on a show in the first WNBA postseason game of her career.
The Western Conference Semifinal series between the West's second and third seeds is a rematch. It is a rematch, first, of last year's conference semis between the Phoenix Mercury, then the league's top seeds, and the San Antonio Silver Stars, a team that had used a late-season surge to slip into the playoffs with a 15-19 record as the fourth seed in the West.
We all know how that one turned out. The Mercury went on to win not just the series, but 2009's WNBA title, and enter this year's playoffs as the reigning champs. The Silver Stars put up a gutsy fight, managing to take these opener on the Merc's home floor and stretch the series to three games, but in the end, they went home early.
Though many of the names may be the same, neither of these teams looks much like the 2009 edition. The reigning champs, in particular, have not been playing much like champions of late.
In the crazy quilt that has been this year's Western Conference, only the Seattle Storm has been much more than mediocre. The Storm, of course, have been stellar, rolling into the playoffs with the league's best record, 26-6, and finishing a perfect 17-0 at home. Seattle sewed up the West's regular-season championship on July 27, interestingly enough, by defeating the Phoenix Mercury, 91-85.
After a reasonably strong start, Phoenix clawed its way back into this year's playoffs and the No. 2 seed in the West despite a losing (15-19) record that was only one game better than that of the very worst team in the East. Meanwhile, 14-20 San Antonio found itself in a three-way tie for the West's last two playoff berths that wasn't broken until the final days of the season.
Turns out that this playoff series is also going to be a rematch of the final game of the regular season, the one that ultimate gave Phoenix the West's third seed and dropped Los Angeles into fourth place.
Phoenix, which to that point had led the regular-season with San Antonio, two games to one, had taken a two-point lead in the season finale on two free throws by DeWanna Bonner with 2.6 seconds remaining. But San Antonio's Sophia Young drove to the basket, made a layup to tie the score, and was fouled in the process by Bonner. Young then iced the go-ahead free throw to give the Silver Stars an 83-82 win, clinching the third playoff spot in the West, tying the regular-season series with the Mercury, and setting up this postseason rendezvous with Phoenix.
It may be "just" a meeting between the East's second and third seeds, but the New York-Indiana series should be the best of the four first-round match-ups. Both teams had superior seasons in the difficult Eastern Conference. Each is led by an MVP candidate, the Liberty by Cappie Pondexter who has almost singlehandedly resurrected a franchise that has found itself cast as one of the WNBA's bottom dwellers in recent years, and the Fever by Tamika Catchings, one of the best all-around players to don a WNBA uniform.
Both teams have ample playoff experience, though that of the Fever, who made it to the WNBA Finals last year before losing to the Phoenix Mercury in five games in one of the most exciting playoff series in recent memory, is more recent and germane to the players currently on the floor. Neither has ever won a WNBA title.
The Liberty come into the playoffs having won 11 out of their last 12 games. Though Indiana was just 5-5 down the stretch and most significantly lost at both New York and San Antonio in the final week of the regular season to plummet from the No. 1 to the No. 3 seed in the East, prior to that, the Fever were an impressive 7-2. Did the club peak too early or was Katie Douglass banged up shooting hand the major reason for this late-season stumble? Can the Fever recover their mid-season stride in time to repeat as a WNBA Finals contender? Or will New York continue at its recent sizzling pace and recover some of the glory that once attended this team in the early days of the league?
A sign in the stands at Key Arena, emblazoned with the aphorism, A Spark Is No Match for a Storm, said everything that needed to be said after the Seattle Storms 79-66 game-one victory over the L.A. Sparks on Wednesday evening, as the Western Conference Semifinals commenced.
Many of the more than 10,500 Seattle fans who filed into Key Arena, overflowing into portions of the buildings upper bowl of the building (which had been closed throughout the regular season), donned playoff T-shirts which read, We Are Home Court Advantage, a way of acknowledging the 17-0 home record the Storm forged this year, a first in WNBA history. That home record propelled Seattle to well, what else? home-court advantage throughout the 2010 WNBA Playoffs, and the Storm needed to exploit that edge as the 2010 season's colossus sought to translate its 28-6 regular-season record into its first postseason series win in six years.
As everyone in the WNBA community knows all too well, playoff success hasnt been easy to come by in the Pacific Northwest. The Storm entered this series having failed to get past the first round since their championship run in 2004. Moreover, the very same Los Angeles Sparks the team opposing the Storm on Wednesday had drummed Seattle out of the postseason in each of the last two years and four of the last five.
The Sparks postseason dominance of the Storm has been all the more galling for fans in the Emerald City, because in each of the past two seasons, L.A. has eliminated the Storm by winning a decisive Game 3 in Seattle. True, the 1-1-1 playoff travel format adopted by the league this year had yet to be introduced, but it remains that each year, L.A. won -- and the Storm saw their playoff hopes dashed -- in a deciding third game in Seattle's own house. The fans who so desperately wanted to witness a Storm breakthrough against the franchises number one rival were optimistic on Wednesday, but optimism itself doesnt dissipate half a decade of playoff pain.
Know what does? The kind of emphatic performance coach Brian Aglers team delivered in a 13-point lashing of their L.A. nemesis.
Sometimes necessity is the mother of invention. Such was the case in game one of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The fourth-seeded Dream, just 2-6 in August and badly beaten this past Sunday in Atlanta by the Washington Mystics, recognized they needed to make some radical changes if they hoped to avoid seeing their postseason once again end in Round One.
The Dream responded by abandoning their normal rotation of players, going smaller and quicker. The move paid off in spades, as Atlanta's back-up players rose to the occasion and the Dream romped to a 95-90 victory over the top seeds in the East, the Washington Mystics. In winning game one on the road, the Dream have effectively robbed the Mystics of their hard-earned home-court advantage and now have the opportunity to closing out the series back home on Friday night.
Let's see: The Seattle Storm have dominated the league this season, sealing their status as top seed in the Western Conference in late July and carrying an impressive 28-6 record into the playoffs. Despite a roster packed with veteran talent, the Sparks have been one of the league's biggest disappointments this season, barely scraping into the playoffs last week with an embarrassing 13-21 record (and then thanks only to holding the tie-breaker over an equally bad Minnesota Lynx team).
Seattle's roster includes perennial MVP candidate Lauren Jackson, arguably the best player in the world, and Sue Bird, one of the world's best point guards. All of their players are healthy and well rested heading into the playoffs. Los Angeles fields only nine active players, having lost its star, Candace Parker, to shoulder surgery 10 games into the season, and Betty Lennox, MVP of the 2004 WNBA Finals, to knee surgery a weak later.
Seattle has earned home court advantage throughout the playoffs and is a perfect 17-0 at home this season. Los Angeles hasn't done all that well at home this season (8-9) and is a whole lot worse on the road (5-12).
Seattle swept its regular-season meetings with Los Angeles, 5-0.
Is there a whole lot more to say about the upcoming Western Conference semifinal series between these two teams set to begin Wednesday night?
Probably not. But then again, the Sparks traveled to the den of the beast last Saturday and came within a single point of spoiling the Storm's perfect home record, as the Storm held on by the skin of their teeth for a 76-75 victory on Fan Appreciation Night.
For the Sparks, it was just another "L" in a season that has seen too many of them. For the Storm, it was a shot across the bow, a warning: However bad its record might be, Los Angeles, the team that has swept them out of the playoffs in the first round for the past two years, is not a team to be trifled with.
How many of you projected, prior to the start of the season, that the Washington Mystics (who have never before finished first in a WNBA regular season) would end the season as the top seed in the 2010? Not this scribe. I slotted them in fifth!
The Mystics started out slowly (4-3 in May) as they adjusted to the loss of star Alana Beard and addition of free agent Katie Smith. They stood at 13-10, coming off a three-game losing streak, on July 30 when they won at Indiana to start a 9-2 run down the stretch. They won their last six games and captured the number-one seed in the Eastern Conference with the tie-breaker over the New York Liberty. That takes a lot of guts!
Conversely, the Atlanta Dream, whom the Mystics will take on in the opening round of the WNBA Eastern Conference playoffs, returned the line-up with which they finished most of the latter half of the 2009 season. In a year when a lot of teams had to adjust to major roster changes to start the 2010 season, the Dream started out of the gate at 6-0.
But as other teams began to gel together, and concurrently learned how to play Atlanta, wins became tougher to come by. The Dream finished the season 4-6, winning only twice in August and dropped from first to fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
But as players and coaches will be quick to tell you, the record reverts to 0-0 once the post-season gets under way. How are these two teams likely to match up in the playoffs?
The Chinese girls' basketball team surprised even themselves when they took the gold today at the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in Singapore. China held off an Australian rally to take the championship game, 33-29, as the Aussies settled for silver. Team USA took the bronze with a 34-16 victory over Canada.
"We expected to get into the top eight, but we didn't expect to claim the title," said Ma Xueya, China's top scorer, who finished with 15 points. "We worked hard in each match and we never gave up and I'm very proud of winning a first Youth Olympic Games gold medal."
The basketball competition in the Youth Olympics, a dream of International Olympic Committee Jacques Rogge, is limited to athletes aged 16 to 17 (born between January 1, 1993 and December 31, 1994). The basketball games have featured a half-court, three-on-three format, played in two five-minute halves. The game is won by the first team to score 33 points or the one in the lead at the end of regulation, whichever comes first. The format promotes a fast, exciting pace and places less emphasis on depth of talent than the traditional five-on-five, full-court format. At the same time, all three players on the floor at any time must be adept at the game, as there is little opportunity to "hide" a weaker player between one or two stars.