SECAUCUS, N.J., July 19, 2011 -- It’s still early.
We’ve still got weeks to go, injuries to overcome, hot hands to ride, shooting slumps to slog through, milestones to hit and storylines to run down until we really have a clear picture of this MVP Race. But that said, with the All-Star Game set to hit the floor in San Antonio on Saturday, we’re starting to get an idea of how this is all going to shake out.
For the past month, Sylvia Fowles and Tina Charles have leap-frogged each other in the top spot of the rankings. First, Fowles took the lead. Then Charles surged ahead, only to be overtaken by Fowles again last week in the toughest decision about No. 1 this year. But this time around, there was no question.
Last ranking: 1
Fowles’ stat line in the Sky’s 76-68 loss to the Dream on Saturday went like this: 21-11-8. Good, certainly, but not entirely amazing until you realize that that last number isn’t assists. It’s blocks. Asserting herself once again as the most dominant post player – and, if she keeps this pace, most dominant player at any position – Fowles commanded the lane on Saturday night, almost pulling off the extremely rare points-rebounds-blocks triple-double. Her team struggled, losing their fifth straight game on the road, but Syl was as solid as always. Toss in 21 points and 13 rebounds three days prior against Tulsa, and Fowles earned another week atop the rankings – and an Eastern Conference Player of the Week nod. If Chicago’s going to make its first-ever postseason, Fowles will be the driving force.
Last ranking: 2
In a crucial Eastern Conference showdown with the Liberty on Friday night, Charles led the way yet again, scoring a game-high 15 points to send the Sun to a win over the team breathing down their necks in the standings. She did, however, only have four rebounds – far below her season average of 10.6 per game – and scored only four points after the first 20 minutes of the game. Then, two days later, the Fever bore the brunt of her frustration, watching as Charles dropped in 18 points and tacked on 14 rebounds to give her a grand total of 25 rebounds and 33 points against Indiana in two games last week. In other words, Charles hasn't lost ground in the race because of anything she's done -- but right now, it's nearly impossible to keep pace with Fowles.
Last ranking: 4
What a week it was for Taurasi. First, she gets named to her fifth All-Star Game. Then she becomes the fastest WNBA player in history to reach 5,000 points, doing so in her 243rd game (the Mercury’s win over the Mystics on Friday) to out-pace previous pacemaker Lauren Jackson, who did it in her 259th game. Meanwhile, her Mercury team wins its fifth and sixth games in a row and 10 of its last 11. And while she struggled from the floor against the Mystics, ending with 13 points and eight turnovers, she did chip in five assists to give her 13 for the week after dishing out eight against the Lynx on Wednesday. Oh yeah, she also scored 27 in the game. As Taurasi goes, so go the Mercury -- and right now, both are very, very dangerous.
Last ranking: 8
Last week, we were a little torn about where to place Brunson on this list because she wasn’t scoring a ton. Nevermind. The Lynx’ center rattled off a trio of dynamite games, averaging 17.33 points and 10 rebounds over Minnesota’s last three – including a 16-point, 16-rebound effort in a loss to the Mercury on July 13 – to earn Western Conference Player of the Week honors. Now, with the Lynx riding her play in and around the paint to a spot near the top of the Western Conference, we’ve got a better idea of where Brunson should fall in The Race.
Last ranking: 5
The Fever may have fallen to the Sun on Sunday night – their second loss in a row after a seven-game win streak – but not before a masterful effort by Catchings kept them in the game. Scoring 18 points (her ninth straight game in double-figures), hauling down 15 rebounds – competing in the lane with a certain Ms. Charles, mind you – and racking up three steals, Catchings showed just why she might be the most versatile player in the WNBA. This, after scoring 22 against the Lynx on Friday and dishing out seven assists in the Fever’s win over the Sun on Wednesday. Leading a team means adjusting your game, and at this point, few if any do it better than Catchings.
Last ranking: 3
Over the final 17 minutes of the Liberty’s win over the Shock on Sunday, Pondexter didn’t come close to scoring. But forgive her: points are hard to come by from the bench. Despite sitting out the final one-and-a-half quarters of the Libs’ blowout win while coach John Whisenant played his reserves, the All-Star guard still led both teams in scoring, with 18 points on the night. However, she does drop a few spots this week due to two tough shooting nights in a row before that, as she went a combined 10-for-27 from the field in games against the Sun and Fever earlier in the week -- along with a Liberty team that's spreading the scoring load. But if there any murmurs that Cappie was slumping, she answered them with seven points in the first quarter against a Shock team helpless to stop her.
Last ranking: 7
Bird cooled down a touch from the form that earned her a Western Conference Player of the Week nod last week, but she still managed to rattle off a 22-point and a 15-point game over the past seven days, in addition to a 10-pointer against the Silver Stars on July 14. But we’ll see just how valuable she is in the weeks to come, as Lauren Jackson continues to rehab after hip surgery.
Last ranking: 6
Hammon spent the first week of July and pretty much all of June igniting twine across the country. Then, all of a sudden, she froze over. Averaging 19.6 ppg over her previous seven games, she scored a total of 10 points in the Silver Stars’ pair last week – five in a loss to the Sparks, five in a win over the Storm. She’d failed to reach double-figures only once before this season, so a week that saw her go a combined 4-for-24 from the field comes as a shock – and, apparently, an aberration. She came back on Monday night and scored 26 in a win over the Sparks.
Last ranking: 10
Sure, Taylor only scored eight points in the Mercury’s win over the Mystics on Friday. But she also had eight rebounds. And seven assists. And five steals. A game prior, on July 13 against the Lynx, she went 19-8-8 – including 14 points in the fourth quarter, as Phoenix overcame an 11-point deficit in the fourth quarter. And that’s been the way things have gone lately for the Phoenix sharpshooter, who’s plastered the stat sheet while she’s led her team’s march to the top of the Western chart heading into the All-Star break. She doesn’t have the flash – or quite the upside – of Taurasi, but whatever she has is exactly what the Mercury needs right now.
Last ranking: N/A
If it feels wrong to have three players form the same team in the Race for the MVP Top 10, just think of what it feels like to play against them. Dupree joined Taylor with 19 points in the Mercury’s comeback win against the Lynx, then added 20 points against the Mystics to lead all scorers. On a night when points were hard to come by for both teams (Phoenix won, 78-64), Dupree shot 9-of-15 from the field and carried her team to a win. There’s a reason why Phoenix is the top-scoring team in the WNBA by more than 6.5 points over second-place San Antonio, and it’s because of this trio.
Sylvia Fowles ended up with 27 points on an impressive 12-14 shooting, 7 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 3 steals to help the Chicago Sky tie the Eastern Conference Finals at 1 game apiece versus the Indiana Fever.