So with the playoffs set, and just some possible shifting around in the final order of the standings, there’s nothing much to get excited about in the West, right?
Well, if you ignore Riquna Williams and her 51-point, record-setting explosion against San Antonio, then you’re absolutely correct. But just cue up Live Access on wnba.com and take a look at a truly amazing, Kobe-like performance that capped a very interesting Western Conference season.
Here’s a look at the West as the season winds down …
1. Minnesota Lynx (24-7, clinched, conference title)
The Minnesota Lynx are so good that it’s just ridiculous. When this team is on, it is virtually unstoppable. Maya Moore has had a tremendous second half of a great season: She plays an all-around game but scoring is what she’s known for and she has executed that to the utmost. Then just when you think “Oh, let’s focus on Maya, she’s the scorer for Minnesota,” here comes Seimone Augustus. “I don’t know what they’re going to do. Do you go trap Maya and leave me open? They just have to pick their poison on what they want to do.”
How right you are, Ms. Augustus, who displayed exactly what she was talking about when she dropped 23 points in a crucial win over L.A. last week. This duo of Augustus and Moore rivals what the great Sheryl Swoopes and Cynthia Cooper brought to the table offensively with the legendary Houston Comets. Very interesting that both teams also had a fantastic third cog to the wheel in Lindsey Whalen for the Lynx and the still very effective Tina Thompson for the Comets.
From top to bottom the Lynx are probably more talented than what that Comets’ roster had, but of course that doesn’t mean they’re better. You have to win to do that, not to mention Swoopes was a premier defender as well -- but I digress.
The Lynx are great, and everyone knows it. But in terms of history, it only matters if they win the title over and over again like those four-time champion Houston Comets did.
2. Los Angeles Sparks (22-10, clinched)
The Sparks have been on the Lynx’ tail all season but have not quite been able to overcome them – though the good news is that this team has continued to get better and better. This bodes well as the playoffs approach.
MVP candidate Candace Parker, who plays big in every big game, and All-Star guard Kristi Toliver have been the team’s top scorers and played at a high level all season. Now the two are joined by Nneka Ogwumike, who has picked up her aggressiveness, and in turn her effectiveness. She’s as talented as they come but she hasn’t seemed to always assert herself this season.
The Sparks have a solid general in Lindsey Harding at the point who has had an efficient first year in L.A. Harding has had success but she’s another who could be much more effective if she played more aggressively and tried to dictate pace and break down the defense more rather than simply setting the offense and dropping the ball to whomever is hot.
One issue when you have so many talented players on a team is that sometimes these players don’t assert themselves enough in an effort to be unselfish and many times rather than benefit the team, it stagnates it. Harding and Ogwumike must be aggressive in order to maximize the Spark’s potential in this crucial stretch run. They and coach Carol Ross have put together a very good season. They didn’t surpass the Lynx but are in a good position to make their run for the WNBA crown, and possibly get a long awaited playoff rematch somewhere down the line. But there’s some significant hurdles to overcome before they get there.
3. Phoenix Mercury (17-13, clinched)
After the Mercury’s recent win over the Dream, team leader Diana Taurasi said “It’s not necessarily the best team over the summer, but the team that gets hot at the right time.” She hit it right on the head.
The Mercury haven’t had anywhere near the season that they and the league in general expected them to have, but the good news is -- they are in the playoffs and from there it’s whoever’s playing best at the time. Records are out the door. That’s why teams should be very leery of Phoenix who is 7-2 under Russ Pennell.
They’re still gelling but everything seems to be coming together. The very first key to their success is Taurasi getting shots up. Playing point guard, she has done a very good job facilitating the offense, but everyone knows that Taurasi is a cold-blooded scoring assassin and that’s where she excels. Candice Dupree is one heck of a killer scorer herself but she’s more of a quiet assassin -- yet her consistency in scoring, rebounding and overall effort can help this team reach its goals.
What about Brittney? Griner had a season best 14 rebounds against the Silver Stars and has continued to be efficient. No big scoring games but very solid games all around with scoring, rebounding and blocking shots. The Phoenix Mercury have picked the right time of the year to heat up, and if Penny Taylor gets her legs under her in these last few games, they can play with any team in the league.
A continued focus on defense, and a third title to Arizona is most definitely still a possibility.
4. Seattle Storm (15-16, clinched)
While watching a few of the Seattle Storm games, a commercial really struck me. It had players coming through smoke with music and lights as they were introduced, showed some great plays, and then the faces of Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson and talked about their impending return. The commercial finished by urging everyone to get ready for the 2014 season and how exciting it’s going to be.
Huh??? I’ve watched braodcasts from all of the teams and none of them, that I saw, had an advertisement for next season -- not even the teams not making the playoffs. All of this is to say that as wonderful as this 2013 Storm team has played, there are still people out there more interested in 2014 as opposed to what’s happening now.
But this current team should be embraced. It’s one of the great seasons by a team in WNBA history, considering their odds of success this year. Coach Brian Agler, Temeka Johnson, Camille Little, Shekina Stricklen, Tanisha Wright and the great Tina Thompson, I applaud you. They’ve clinched a playoff spot, and these players, along with a solid bench, have done it by believing in themselves and playing together as a unit. No one, and I mean no one, expected this kind of season from that roster. What a great year they’ve had. In a few weeks, we’ll all have about eight months to talk about next season but until then, it’s been special to see the Storm and the beauty, teamwork and fire that they play the game of basketball with right now, this season.
5. Tulsa Shock (11-21)
This is a team profile but when you drop phitty on somebody … come on now we can’t talk about anything else but that. Phitty!?
Fifty-one points in one game. 51. Riquna Williams blew everyone away with her performance Sunday night. Who does that? In WNBA history, no one. Here’s a second-year guard breaking a record shared by two of the all-time great players in the history of the league: Diana Taurasi and Lauren Jackson with 47 points. It’s a tremendous feat and I’ve long said that she is the best athlete in the league and she showed why I made that assertion. Riquna is extremely quick and explosive, and she blew by Silver Stars’ players sometimes as if they were standing still. She is very difficult to keep up with off the dribble in the open floor. Also the woman can elevate effortlessly. Riquna hit a boatload of threes over anyone who dared to guard her. She hit them wide open and she hit them hanging in the air while the defender has already returned to the ground as Williams releases the ball … all nylon.
Wait, first of all Riquna had 16 points at halftime. One hears that and thinks “Oh wow, she’s having a good game” – but she hadn’t even gotten warm. Instead of scoring another 16 in the second half to have a great headlining 32- point game, she goes on to score 35 points in the next 20 minutes.
Just astounding. She is obviously among the reasons that this franchise is going to be so exciting to watch in the coming seasons. Bravo, Riquna Williams.
6. San Antonio Silver Stars (11-21)
This has been a Red Cross year in the WNBA. More injuries have hit the league and its premier players this season than ever before, but for San Antonio, it’s been a steady rain of injuries rather than one big explosion.
Coach Dan Hughes and the team have done a very good job considering the difficulties that they’ve experienced this season. Jayne Appel has taken big strides, and Shenise Johnson has definitely developed in the absence of Sophia Young, Becky Hammon and others. The Stars already knew Jia Perkins could play, as has the league for years, and Danielle Adams continues to be a very good scorer.
Then it’s only appropriate that the Stars realize they have a star in point guard Danielle Robinson. She has distributed the ball this season as well as anyone not named Penicheiro since the league began – but of course she’s been hurt too.
The one thing that the Silver Stars could probably still use a bit more of, even with all of their players healthy, is a little bit more toughness. A Tanisha Wright, Rebekkah Brunson, Cheryl Ford, Swin Cash type of player has really never been on that team. A little nastiness and tenacity to go with the professionalism and execution could go a long way, and could have really helped them in these big games down the stretch -- and also when they were incinerated by Riquna Williams in her record scoring night this past weekend.
Bell Fuller runs the blog “Lovin’ the WNBA,” and is a contributing writer for Full Court.