Eastern Conference Midseason Update

The playoff picture in the Eastern Conference is starting to take shape, but plenty of things can still happen as the WNBA reconvenes from its month-long Olympics break for the second half of the season. Connecticut, riding a five-game win streak, appears well on its way to clinching the top seed with a record of 15-4 – tied with Minnesota for tops in the league. After that, the picture gets murky with Indiana, Atlanta and Chicago jockeying for position between the second and fourth spots. Hopes are fading fast for New York and Washington, but until they’re mathematically eliminated, they can’t be counted out.

Connecticut is once again thriving with a cadre of homegrown talent and all indications say the Sun will be back in the playoffs for the eighth time under head coach Mike Thibault’s 10th season. Against New York on Aug. 16, Connecticut welcomes back a pair of Olympians in Tina Charles and Asjha Jones, who tweaked her ankle July 11 but should be ready to go. The Sun have won nine of 11 heading into the break, including five straight. Charles leads the way, averaging approximately 19 points and 11 boards per contest, but the surprise emergence of guard Kara Lawson (14.5 points, 3.5 assists) at the age of 31 makes Connecticut a true contender.

Chicago’s nemesis, Indiana, is holding tentatively to the second spot at 10-7, but the Sky and the dream are just two games behind. The Fever have remained relatively injury free, but reigning WNBA MVP Tamika Catchings is shooting just 42 percent this season. Their second-leading scorer, Katie Douglas, is only hitting 37 percent of her shots. Catchings will return to the team after representing Team USA, but the Fever will need more help from the post if they hope to contend against Tina Charles and the Sun.

The Sky went toe-to-toe with Minnesota as one of the hottest teams to start the season. After going 7-1, Chicago lost the league’s then-leading scorer Epiphanny Prince to a broken foot, which led to the Sky’s 1-8 performance in the next nine games. Prince’s presence has proven critical to the team’s success and if she can return healthy for Chicago’s second-half opener against Atlanta on Aug. 17, the Sky can potentially return to dominance. Center Sylvia Fowles and forward Swin Cash will both be sharp from the Olympics and hungry for more wins. Prince’s absence has allowed younger players such as Sonja Petrovic and Tamera Young to shine with more playing time. When Prince comes back, the team will be deeper, more experienced and primed for the franchise’s first playoff run.

As the reigning Eastern Conference champs, the Dream have been an enigma thus far. At 9-10, Atlanta has tried to adjust to life without starting center Erika de Souza, who will return to the team following her duties with the Brazilian national team in London. De Souza’s career 6.6 rebounds per game should bolster a team that’s already second in the league in that category. Veteran Sancho Lyttle has stepped up her game to average a career-best 15.4 points per game while Angel McCoughtry, also in London with Team USA, leads the league with 22.6. McCoughtry missed four games in July, but she’s performed well in London and she’ll be back at full strength.

New York can also blame its wild inconsistencies on the lack of available players at its disposal. Center Quanitra Hollingsworth, who played for the Liberty last season, did not report to training camp and opted to join the Turkish national team in preparation for the Olympics. She and power forward Plenette Pierson (knee) remain out indefinitely. The team’s leading rebounder, Kia Vaughn, sat out three games with a concussion. The Liberty (6-12) hope to take advantage of the break to heal and make a final push for the fourth seed.

Washington, on the other hand, has fared well in the injuries department but not so much on the court. The Mystics boast just two scorers in double figures – Crystal Langhorne and Monique Currie – and the team is ranked last in overall scoring at 69.9 points per game. Former Chicago forward Michelle Snow has started 13 games and averages 7.3 points while highly touted rookie Natalie Novosel, formerly of Notre Dame, is averaging just 3.3 points, including 26 percent from beyond the arc, in limited minutes. The Mystics have taken the time off to engage in team-building activities in hopes of building chemistry, but they’ll need more consistent play, particularly from the perimeter, to have a chance at the playoffs.