There are no easy games in the WNBA West

August 27, 2013 - 1:12pm
Maya Moore has once again led the Minnesota Lynx to the top of the Western Conference. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Lynx)

Maya Moore has once again led the Minnesota Lynx to the top of the Western Conference. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Lynx)

I’ve had to come to a very serious realization in the last week or two: When WNBA teams win a few games and get us all excited, we then turn around and wonder what happened when they then lose a few.

But blaming that on inconsistency misses the point. The reason it happens so regularly is because every single team in the WNBA is just so dang talented. Every team has players who can step up, so therefore its survival of the mentally fittest. The teams who come to the arena, game in and game out mentally and emotionally prepared on a more consistent basis, are going to be the ones who win.

Granted, in the West, Minnesota, L.A. and Phoenix remain the favorites, but none of them can be excited about a possible meeting with the Seattle Storm in the playoffs. The Storm have given them all major problems, and the San Antonio Silver Stars and Tulsa Shock have bestowed some migraine headaches on the three favorites as well.

Wait, three favorites? What three favorites? There are no favorites, as truly any team can win on any night, and there’s no better way for the season to close than that.

No. 1 Minnesota Lynx (20-8):

Maya Moore is fantastic. Sure, this is indeed supposed to be about the team overall, but there’s just no way to begin talking about the Lynx without gushing about Maya Moore’s effort.

Not talent, effort. No game displayed that more than her effort against the defending champion Indiana Fever: 35 points, eight rebounds, three assists, four steals and two blocks??? Who does that?

Maya Moore. She has had games where her talent couldn’t manufacture many points but her effort gave the team eight to ten rebounds, five to seven assists, a couple steals and a few big blocked shots. Maya Moore comes to work every day and you’d be hard pressed to find a superstar (‘cause that’s what she is) more diligent at her craft. Salute.

The Lynx as a team have stumbled some lately, but with Moore’s play they’ve remained on top of the Western conference. An Achilles’ heel for the Lynx is their interior play. I really like Janel McCarville’s court vision and overall game but she’s missed a few games with injury. On top of that, even when she’s in, there’s still a bit to be desired in her having more of a presence defensively and on the glass. That’s an issue and that issue compounds when she’s not in the game, as the Lynx can then only insert big forwards such as Amber Harris and Deveraux Peters, which hasn’t worked. Both ladies are talented but they’re not centers.

The Lynx are undersized without McCarville in the game, and even with the great Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus, and Lindsey Whalen that lack of size may be tough to overcome.

Quick shout, can’t talk great players and not mention the great Rebekkah Brunson too. Heck of a team they’ve got, but it’s going to be a challenge.

No. 2 Los Angeles Sparks (19-8):

The Sparks have had some real bloodbaths lately … get it? Blood baths?

Yeah, that’s the gushing cut from the Candace Parker-Nneka Ogwumike mishap that left Ogwumike looking like she just fought Mike Tyson in his prime. But Tyson isn’t the only heavy hitter bothering L.A. these days as the Tulsa Shock and especially the Seattle Storm have delivered some serious knockout blows in their games against the Sparks. Thankfully for L.A. fans, Minnesota has continued to struggle a bit and the Sparks are now a jab and right cross away from seizing the number one seed.

That will be determined, most likely, by the big games against Minny (the Lynx down the stretch that could be classic. Kristi Toliver has struggled with her shot lately for L.A. and as super talented as Ogwumike is, she still disappears for lengths of time in games. Toliver missing shots is human nature, but Ogwumike not being aggressive, not maintaining a presence on the court, could be deadly for L.A. if it continues.

Also, Candace Parker may indeed be the most talented player in the WNBA but that still has to transfer to being the most consistently effective player. During some of these losses to lesser talented teams, she has not played nearly at an elite level. ‘To whom much is given, much is expected.’ You’re the best? Show us game in and game out, especially in this, the finale of the season.

But even with these issues, in the clutch the Sparks have still come together to win some crucial games. Jantel Lavender has been tremendous off the bench, playing hard and a force scoring in the paint. It’s interesting but I just looked at every team’s last ten games, the Sparks are one game behind Minnesota and Chicago in the race for the league’s best record. It makes me think, “Bell, they’re playing as good as anyone. Why complain?” Indeed they are, and should be commended – but it’s that curse of expectations that comes along with being blessed with a ton of talent. As great as the Sparks are playing, you still want more. My advice to them is to make plays and continue winning to finally shut guys like me up.

No. 3 Phoenix Mercury (14-13):

The Mercury are playing winning basketball since Russ Pennell took the helm and all reports are that he puts a heavy emphasis on defense -- and it has shown in the players’ focus and effort. But with all of that being said, a season sweep at the hands of the Seattle Storm has helped put the Mercury’s playoff status, or at least playoff position, as the number three seed in jeopardy. Mathematically, in fact, there’s a chance that this team could miss the playoffs altogether. 

Huh? Yes, it’s true. That would make this one of the most disappointing seasons for a franchise in the history of professional sports considering the team’s expectations. The Seattle Storm are a game behind Phoenix, and Tulsa and San Antonio aren’t going away easy either. But let’s start with the good: Candice Dupree, who is playing beautiful basketball. Dupree has really been efficient offensively, moving without the ball to spot up, hitting her midrange jumpers, and getting to the cup when needed. She truly is a silent assassin.

The Mercury have another player who’s quite a scorer herself, possibly the league’s best in Diana Taurasi, who could use some help getting the rock. She’s done an admirable job running the point for the team, but her game is truly on the wing. Having to bring the ball up the court marginalizes her scoring and therefore hurts the team. It would benefit the Mercury to find more ways to run her off of screens and get on the wing more to be as great as she is.

There are still issues getting the ball in to Brittney Griner as well, but at least Pennell is making much more of an effort than Gaines did.

Anything is possible with the Mercury. They could not make the playoffs at all, or they could finally heat up and win another title. Be interesting to see which path they go, but at their best they will be very difficult to beat. Then again how would I know? I don’t think we’ve seen their best yet.

No. 4 Seattle Storm (13-14):

If you love team basketball and team effort, there is no team more beautiful to watch right now than the Seattle Storm.

Brian Agler runs out eight to ten players who can all contribute in some sort of way, and there isn’t one player who tries to impose her will over any other. It’s akin to watching one of those teams from the ‘Hoosiers’ movie back in the day -- just great teamwork offensively and defensively.

Agler has everyone committed to hustling back down the court and having a very effective transition defense, and that’s really helped them, especially against the stronger teams.

As a result of all this, no team wants to face the Storm right now, especially the “favorites.” The Storm seem to play them much better against them than teams that aren’t considered as strong.

You know, it’s easy to see why Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson are so great -- they’ve been playing with Tanisha Wright and Camille Little. Other way around? Maybe, but Wright and Little are so good on the basketball court. Wright plays both ends of the floor with a hustle and determination that oozes to everyone else wearing the green and yellow uniforms. She has given poor Diana Taurasi fits this season.

Temeka Johnson also has shown that she’s more than a temporary fill-in point guard for a WNBA franchise. This is a leader who can take her team to the heights of the league.

So many people contribute that it’s very hard to write an excerpt on this team: Tina Thompson, Shekina Stricklen, Noelle Quinn and more all make this team very formidable in the West this year. No one forces shots, no one tries to dominate the ball any more than their position requires and everyone takes pride in not letting their player score. They’re tough. Agler is tough. And they’re going to be tough for whoever plays them.

No. 5 San Antonio Silver Stars (10-17):

The Silver Stars are right there in the thick of the playoff hunt.  A sweep of the Storm this week would really help that cause but even with a split the race will probably go down to the end for the playoff spot.

With All-Star Danielle Robinson – DRob -- out, Davellyn Whyte has stepped in and played well for the Silver Stars. She’s aggressive, guiding the offense and giving the leadership that they need on the court. But a healthy return of DRob ultimately will be necessary if this team is going to reach the playoffs. She’s just so fast and does such a terrific job at keeping the defense on its heels. She and Davellyn are racking up assists because Jia Perkins (one of the great unsung players in the league), Shenise Johnson and Danielle Adams are putting the ball in the hole.

There is no superstar so the defense is forced to play much more honest and disciplined against the Silver Stars. San Antonio has really benefitted from their post play too. Jayne Appel’s career has been revitalized with her effort on the floor. She gets the team second shots with her offensive rebounds, and plays very solid defense while doing all the important things that don’t show up in the stat line. Kayla Alexander has a chance to be a very good player one day. She really frustrated Liz Cambage, who has been virtually unstoppable, with her length and athletic ability last week. Alexander blocked her shot, rebounded and was just all over the place with her hustle. This bodes well for the future but more immediate is that it bodes well for this Silver Star team to capture that fourth playoff spot if the Seattle Storm falter.

No. 6 Tulsa Shock (9-19):

OK, I made a prediction earlier in the season here on Full Court that the Shock would play over .500 ball and make the playoffs. They’ve been close, playing much better, but so far they’re still falling a little short but it ain’t over. (Well, the .500 part is over, but there’s still an outside chance of a playoff berth.)

Liz Cambage and Glory Johnson are leading this team as it fights and scratches to make the postseason. Skylar Diggins is gradually playing better, Angel Goodrich is really playing well at the point and Candice Wiggins’ shot is finally beginning to fall. It’s coming together for Gary Kloppenberg’s team.

And no one in the league can stop Cambage. Her ankle is the only thing that may slow her down but if she’s healthy, they must continue to get her the rock. She’s just too big and too skilled for virtually anyone to handle.

Odds are against the Shock catching the Storm, Silver Stars or the Mercury, for that matter, but if they can play a little better it can happen. The problems lie in the mental department, not the physical department. It may be something that will only improve with more games, more years of experience, but watching Tulsa play, the Shock make  great plays and then make awful mistakes in judgment. They had at least four to five shot clock violations against the Sparks, and it didn’t even look like the players had any idea the clock was running down. Then late in the game, Riquna Williams fouled Lindsey Harding with no time left on the shot clock and bailed her out. Williams also was guilty late in the game in how she executed an isolation in a crucial last possession in regulation that resulted in yes, another shot clock violation. She’s a great example of a player who’s as good as they get from the neck down, it’s the neck up, the mental game, with her and as a team, that’s going to determine whether they can do the improbable and reach the 2013 postseason.

Bell Fuller runs the blog “Lovin’ the WNBA,” and is a contributing writer for Full Court