Gearing up for the final push for the 2007 WNBA Playoffs

What To Watch In The Second Half

NEW YORK, July 18 - With exactly one month to go in the 2007 WNBA season (time sure flies when you're having fun), things are really starting to get interesting around the league. There are still more than 40 games on national television left and another 40 available via webcast (for free!). So with so many games to watch, here's what you should be watching for.

Legging It Out
From Sue Bird's knee and Rebekkah Brunson's calf to Erin Buescher's knee and Temeka Johnson's knee, the Western Conference race to the postseason will be shaped as much by injuries as anything that happens on the court. Unfortunately, injuries to big stars have truly dominated the headlines for much of the season to date. With the possible exception of the Phoenix Mercury, just about every team in the West has been bitten by the injury bugs (not to jinx them or anything), which is why the growing depth of the WNBA is so key. The East has been relatively injury-free thus far, but the team that stays healthiest down the stretch will truly have a leg up. (I just totally nailed that one!)

Smooth Sailing
Sure, things may look one way now, but there is still a lot of basketball to be played (and resulting columns to be written). Teams still have between 14 and 17 games remaining on their schedules and things could look very different with a heavy load of games packed into a short period of time. The San Antonio Silver Stars, the leaders out West, have more home games remaining than anyone out west (nine) and is riding high after winning eight of its last 10 games. In the East, the Connecticut Sun also have nine games at Mohegan Sun Arena left on the schedule (get your tickets now!). Meanwhile, the Seattle Storm just tipedp off a four-game road trip that will take them to the East Coast and the Monarchs will take their big east coast trip in early August (nothing like a little cross-country flight to foster team unity).

Mercury At Critical Point
The Phoenix Mercury have not made the postseason in a few years (seven, to be exact), and have certainly not qualified for the postseason in the Diana Taurasi era (which we keep reminding her of when she's late with her blog entries). That's why these next four weeks are so critical for the Mercury. The Mercury had lost two in a row heading into the break but turned it around with a win over Seattle on Tuesday. Taurasi is also gunning for her second straight scoring title (her 25.3 ppg set a new record a season ago), yet is still more than three points per game behind the overall leader, Lauren Jackson. Taurasi was atop the list for the first few weeks, but saw a drop thanks to seeing fewer minutes recently as a result of (ahem) disciplinary issues.

The Top Spot
The battle for the best regular season record is ON and the two leading contenders are both play the East. The Detroit Shock and Indiana Fever are on pace to win more games than they have ever done in their franchises' history and this could shape up to be a classic duel down the stretch (they will play each other three more times this season). The team with the best record would be assured of home court advantage throughout the Playoffs. That said, you don't get a trophy for finishing with the best record during the regular season. The Connecticut Sun had the best record in the league the past two seasons (26 wins both times) and the Sparks had the league's best record in 2004 (25 wins). The least team to win a title after having the best regular season record was the 2003 Detroit Shock.

Sun Rising Over The Sky
Back on June 27, the Connecticut Sun were owners of a lowly 5-10 record and facing the harsh reality of missing the Playoffs for the first time since 2002 (not to keep picking on the Sun). But they turned things around in a major way before the break, winning three in a row to climb into the fourth playoff spot. It also helped that the upstart Chicago Sky, who were 8-8 as recently as July 1, then went on to lose four games in a row and find themselves on the outside looking in at the playoff picture. (That said, the Washington Mystics are just a game-and-a-half behind the Sun and certainly not out of it yet.)

The Race To The M.V.P.
The two best players in the WNBA this season have been Indiana's Tamika Catchings and Seattle's Lauren Jackson (way to go out on a limb there, Matt). We can compare the stats and we can look at what they're doing for the teams and argue until we drop. Both will tell you they'd rather win a championship than the M.V.P. Award (why not wish for both?), but they are as responsible for the success of their teams thus far as any two players in the WNBA. Not that I've polled the media (because that would require effort), but the winner is probably too close to call at this point. Also deserving of strong consideration is San Antonio's Becky Hammon (despite her wacky political beliefs), who is third in scoring and tops in assists.

At Liberty To Discuss
The New York Liberty began its season in the most unexpected fashion, winning five straight games (about three more than many believed would be possible all season). But some of that luster has faded away after going 4-6 in their last 10 games. Now the Liberty are teetering on the brink of .500 and fighting for respect again after being the only team without an All-Star representative. Guard Loree Moore and forward Cathrine Kraayeveld are the tough, gritty leaders of this young team, but center Janel McCarville has finally begun to make her presence known as well. But can she continue to perform like she did in the final two weeks before the break and finally deliver on the potential and hype that comes along with being a No. 1 draft pick? (Where have you gone, Ann Wauters?) In her last seven games since being inserted into the starting lineup, McCarville has posted four games in which she scored in double figures, including an 18-point, 12-rebound performance in the Liberty's win in Detroit back on July 6.

Rookie of The Tear
Prior to the All-Star break, the top overall pick in this year's Draft, Lynx guard Lindsey Harding, was the clear-cut favorite to win the Rookie of the Year Award (at least according to the infallible Rookie Rankings). Her 11.7 ppg led all rookies and she was leading her team in assists and was second in minutes per game. But a torn ACL has cut her season short and opened the door for other candidates to stake their claim for the prize. The other viable candidates at this point are 26-year old Sparks guard Marta Fernandez (10.9 ppg, 3.8 apg), her teammate Sidney Spencer (8.2 ppg, .460 3-FG%) and Sky guard Armintie Price (8.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg).

Lost Angeles
The Sparks are 7-12 and losses in their last six games have this team going in the wrong direction (south). Without Johnson, Lisa Leslie or Chamique Holdsclaw, the Sparks have lacked another consistent offensive threat to complement Taj McWilliams-Franklin (who is doing all she can to keep it together). Johnson is still working her way back and Leslie has not officially ruled out a return, but the Sparks are in jeaopardy of missing the postseason for the first time since 1998. (Just how long ago was that? Let's just say I waited in line to see The Truman Show while listening to 98 Degrees in 1998.)

Milestones and Record Watch
Minnesota's Seimone Augustus may not make the postseason for the second straight year, but she has established herself as one of the most potent offensive players in the game in just a short period of time. Augustus, who is averaging 22.1 ppg this season and 21.9 ppg over her first 55 games, has already surpassed Cynthia Cooper's career average of 21.0 ppg. Coop is still nearly 80 games up on Augustus (unless she wants to try another comeback), but it is certainly a sign of good things to come. After Cooper, the next three in order for all-time leaders in points per game are Taurasi (19.2), Jackson (18.9) and Cappie Pondexter (18.5). Jackson is just 101 points away from reach 4,000 for her career (she would be the fastest and youngest to reach that mark). DeLisha Milton-Jones is 17 points away from 3,000 while Tamecka Dixon, who just re-signed with Houston, is only 23 points away from the 3,000 mark (welcome back to my former NBA collegaue).

There really is so much more to watch than just these ten stories as we make the turn for home, but it's a start (and the most I could write while still recovering from Post-All-Star Stress Disorder).