Things To Watch Down The Stretch: Part II

And now our thrilling conclusion to the things to watch with the resumption of the 2008 WNBA season. You can read Part 1 here.

Olympic Effect

We’ve already touched upon all the basketball being played at this point by rookies Sylvia Fowles and Candace Parker, but they aren’t the only ones who gave it their all over in Beijing. Fifteen other active WNBA players took part in the 29th Olympiad, most of which are regarded as integral parts to their respective WNBA teams. The Sparks’ nucleus of Parker, Lisa Leslie and DeLisha Milton-Jones played for the U.S. and the Storm also had three key players from their roster rack up minutes (Sue Bird, Lauren Jackson, Kelly Santos).

Upon the players’ arrival back in the States, there will be obvious concerns about fatigue and durability, especially with those that are up there in age or nursing injuries. There will also be a readjustment period as players return to teams that haven’t been able to practice with their full squads for a month. Perhaps this gives an advantage to teams like New York and Connecticut that didn’t send anyone to China. Although, Sun coach Mike Thibault was an assistant on U.S. head coach Anne Donovan’s bench and considering his importance to Connecticut, his temporary absence from the Sun could also have an impact.

Keep in mind though that the Storm won the 2004 title after Bird and Jackson participated in the Olympics in Athens.

The Storm Without Lauren Jackson

Prior to the break, the Storm got a taste of what life would be like without their best player, as Jackson left the team early to join her Aussie mates in preparation for the Olympics. The Storm went 3-2 in the five games she missed, proving they can be competitive in the short term without the reigning league MVP. But doing battle sans LJ over the long haul should prove to be a more daunting task, and that’s the very obstacle Seattle now faces with Jackson set to undergo surgery on her ankle.

Jackson leads the team in scoring, rebounding, blocked shots, steals and is also the team’s best free throw shooter (if not the league’s). That’s a lot to cover for, and with so few games left on the schedule, Seattle needs to figure out a solution quickly. Jackson is expected to be out four-to-six weeks, which means the door is open for a possible return in the playoffs, but with so many teams jockeying for four playoff spots in the West there’s no guarantee even Seattle will still be alive.

The good news is Seattle still starts a virtual All-Star team with Bird, Sheryl Swoopes, Yolanda Griffith and Swin Cash gracing the lineup. And Camille Little, who the Storm got for virtually nothing from Atlanta, has been a pleasant surprise since taking over Jackson’s spot in the starting lineup, doing an admirable job in the post and on the boards. In the five games Jackson has missed, the second-year pro has averaged 11.8 points and 7.8 rebounds while shooting 55 percent from the floor. But let’s not go crazy. That doesn’t even come close to replacing the production that Jackson typically provides. If Seattle hopes to compensate for the loss of Jackson, it’s going to take a concerted effort from the team’s All-Star veterans and lesser-known supporting cast.

Tamika Catchings

It’s been a while since Indiana had Tamika Catchings at 100 percent because of various injuries and the Fever have dipped from the East’s elite as a result. But thanks mainly to the addition of Katie Douglas, a breakout year by Ebony Hoffman and some underperforming conference foes, Indiana has been able to remain in the playoff picture in 2008.

While the Fever continue to be hampered by inconsistent play, Catchings has been steadily improving since making her return to the court in June. In her last game before the break, Catchings turned in arguably her best performance of the year to date. She scored a season-high 25 points on 7-of-11 shooting, including 5-of-5 from three-point range, and collected five rebounds and six assists in helping the Fever post a huge 88-84 road win in Phoenix. The victory halted a three-game slide. But more important, it signaled that Catchings is close to being at full strength and that the Fever could possibly realize their full potential soon. And with the playoffs right around the corner, the timing couldn’t be worse for their conference rivals.

The Spoiler

The only team out of playoff contention is the Atlanta Dream, which was to be expected at this point since they are taking part in their inaugural WNBA season. The Dream own a 3-24 record heading into their final seven games and stand 9 ½ games out of a playoff spot in the East. With no postseason berth to shoot for, the Dream will instead be focused on ending on a positive note and carrying that momentum into the 2009 season.

And there are silver linings. All three of the wins have come in the team’s last 10 games. Veteran Betty Lennox has enjoyed a career year and Ivory Latta has had a breakout season. The team has played most of the year with out Erika Desouza, who was effective prior to being sidelined by injuries. And in-season acquisitions Alison Bales and Kasha Terry have paid immediate dividends and promise to be key components in 2009. The Dream’s most recent addition occurred during the break in the form of Nikki Teasley, who gave birth in June and has missed the entire season to this point. The savvy veteran should help enormously with her talent and leadership skills at the point guard spot.

Add it together and Atlanta will be looser, more aggressive and much improved for its remaining games. That could spell danger for tighter opponents still teetering on the cusp of the postseason, or teams that take them for granted.

The Phoenix Mercury

The Mercury have endured a rollercoaster ride this season in their attempt to repeat as WNBA champions and the adversity didn’t stop even when the action halted for the Olympic break. First, in what came as a bit of a surprise, forward Penny Taylor made it clear that she had no intentions of rejoining Phoenix for the remainder of the season once she was done playing for Australia in Beijing. Soon after it was announced that starting center Tangela Smith would miss 4-to-6 weeks after undergoing knee surgery, meaning she was out for the rest of the regular season and possibly the playoffs… if the Mercury even get that far.

Making the playoffs seemed like a no-brainer prior to the commencement of the 2008 season, but even with Cappie Pondexter and Diana Taurasi lighting up the scoreboard the Mercury find themselves in serious jeopardy of becoming the first team to miss out on the postseason the year after winning a WNBA title. Currently, Phoenix sits in last place in the West with a 12-15 mark with seven left to play. The good news is the Mercury are only three games back of the fourth and final playoff spot in the extraordinarily competitive conference. They still must leap frog Minnesota and Houston, but they play the Lynx twice and the Comets and fourth-place Sacramento once each down the stretch, so there’s an opportunity to put themselves in a good position.

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