Inside The W with Michelle Smith

The Los Angeles Sparks haven’t looked nearly like the team that ran out to a 20-1 start as of late. Beginning with a two-game stumble right before the Olympic break, Los Angeles has won just four of 10 games. The Sparks lost their No. 1 seed, meaning they won’t have home-court advantage in a potential WNBA Finals matchup with the Lynx, and a little crisis of confidence conceivably could have been brewing in the City of Angels.

But Tuesday night’s big win over Phoenix might have been exactly what the Sparks needed to right the ship prior to the postseason.

“It was a good bounce-back,” said Sparks coach Brian Agler. “We have been talking about gaining some momentum going into the playoffs. I know there’s going to be a little gap before we play (with a bye into the semifinals), but we wanted some wins going into the postseason.”

Agler said his team look deflated after a 77-74 loss to top-seeded Minnesota on Sept. 6 and it took a while to get over it.

“Competition is emotional and momentum is a big thing, so it was good to get a win against a good team (Phoenix),” Agler said.

The Sparks coach has been making strategic decisions about resting his players versus trying to raise his team’s confidence for a long-awaited title run. Agler said he rested starters Nneka Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver against Seattle over the weekend because they were fatigued by a run of five games over eight days.

“They have been playing a lot of minutes and I decided to sit them out,” Agler said. “Candace (Parker), I made her the offer, but she wanted to keep playing. She felt like, last year, she didn’t play the last two games of the season and she didn’t feel confident in her first game back, so she wanted to keep playing.”

Ogwumike is still playing like an MVP, Parker has maintained a do-everything standard for this team and now guard Chelsea Gray has played the best stretch of her young professional career. In the last four games, Gray — the Duke product from Northern California — has averaged 18 points a game coming off the bench. Against the Mercury, she scored a career-high 23 points.

“I like our depth right now,” Agler said.

Lynx Take Lead

By all accounts, the Minnesota Lynx should be very tired.

The core of the team didn’t have the benefit of a five-week Olympic break. Instead, Maya Moore, Sylvia Fowles, Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen played with the U.S. Women’s National Team in the Olympic Games in Rio, yet somehow returned to the WNBA schedule and turned up their intensity level another notch.

The defending champs are about to finish with the league’s best record for the second straight season, the No. 1 seed in the newly formatted postseason, which equates to a bye to the semifinals and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, and a whole lot of momentum.

The Lynx are 5-2 since the Olympic break and have won 11 of their last 13 games. They are second in the league in scoring and second in scoring defense.

“We have great leadership in our coaches, we are a veteran team and just want to be playing well heading into the playoffs,” Whalen said.

On Tuesday night, in a dramatic overtime loss to Chicago, Whalen rested to get ready for the playoff run. Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve joked before the game that her veteran point guard was “job-shadowing.”

“You have to find a balance between getting some rest and maintaining the chemistry that we want to have going into the playoffs,” Whalen said.

The Delle Donne Factor


Elena Delle Donne’s thumb injury sidelines the reigning MVP and throws some doubt into the Chicago Sky’s chances of making a run at a championship.

There is no timetable for her return, and veteran guard Cappie Pondexter has picked up the scoring slack in Delle Donne’s absence — including a 24-point effort Tuesday in the Sky’s impressive overtime win over the Lynx and 24 points on Sunday against Connecticut. But it’s hard to imagine Chicago emerging as a true contender for the title if one of the league’s best offensive players is unable to play in the postseason.

Then again, if the Sky are going to play some inspired basketball to make up for Delle Donne’s absence, maybe they are still poised to make some noise.

Farewell Tours

Tamika Catchings’ last home game in Indiana — in the regular season, at least — will be Sunday when the Fever take on the Dallas Wings on ESPN2. There may still be a home playoff game in the cards for Catch and the Fever, but also a decent chance that Sunday’s finale at Bankers Life Fieldhouse is Catchings’ home-court farewell.

Catchings’ farewell tour has been a fitting tribute to the work that Catchings has done in the community throughout her career. She made it clear that she did not want farewell gifts as she moved from city to city in this final season. Instead, she made $2,000 donations to local causes that complemented the mission of her Catch The Stars Foundation in Indianapolis. The grand total of her donations, of course, is $24,000, corresponding with her jersey number.

On Tuesday night, the Connecticut Sun returned the favor. They made a $5,024 donation to the Catch the Stars Foundation in recognition of Catchings’ last game in Connecticut.

On Thursday, the Phoenix Mercury will say farewell to Penny Taylor in the team’s last regular-season home game against Seattle. With the Mercury needing one more win for the league’s final playoff spot, a postseason home game is not in the cards this year, unless they reach the best-of-five semifinals. So the much-needed celebration will have to happen against the Storm.

Taylor, 35, has been a productive contradiction, a tough competitor and a respected foe. She is a leader and has tirelessly worked through all of the injury issues that have plagued her past few seasons — including an ACL tear in 2012 — in order to remain an important piece to her team

“I want to be still able to contribute,” Taylor told the Arizona Republic about her final season. Taylor joined the Mercury in 2004. “I don’t want to be out there and holding anyone back, so I feel like I’m still doing that. That’s what’s been the right decision for me.”

Her role in Phoenix’s three championships cannot be understated. She is an emotional lift as well as a calm, veteran presence on the floor.

The league will miss her. The Mercury, who have to hope for a long playoff run to have some more time with Taylor on the floor, will miss her far more.

Hughes Bids Farewell

How many times in sports, Dan Hughes correctly asks, does one get to write their own ending?

“It’s pretty rare,” said the San Antonio Stars head coach and general manager, who will retire after 11 seasons at the helm of the Stars franchise and 16 years coaching in the WNBA. The Stars announced Hughes’ final season in April, along with the succession plan that includes the elevation of Ruth Riley as the new general manager.

Hughes, who said he wants to spend more time with his family, has been mentoring Riley as GM this season and will work with her to hire a new head coach for a Stars franchise that is rebuilding and coming off a tough season.

“I’ve gone through building teams and rebuilding teams and now we started rebuilding another one,” Hughes said. “We are young. But I believe in this franchise and I’m ready to hand it over to the next group. I’ve done both jobs here for 11 years and that is enough.”

The Stars were seriously hobbled with backcourt injuries this year, losing its top two guards, Danielle Robinson and Kayla McBride. Second-year forward Dearica Hamby was ruled out for the rest of the season on Sept. 1 after announcing her pregnancy. Rookie and No. 2 overall pick Moriah Jefferson, with her UConn pedigree, represents the potential for a bright future. And the retirement of stalwart post Jayne Appel adds to the urgency for San Antonio to find a dominant presence in the paint to mentor Astou Ndour.

Hughes, a two-time WNBA Coach of the Year, ends a 16-year run in the WNBA. He has coached the most games in league history — with stints in Charlotte, Cleveland and San Antonio — and is ranked No. 2 in coaching victories.

“He’s a tremendous coach and he’s going to go down as one of our best,” said Agler, who was hired by Hughes in San Antonio in 2005 before he was named head coach in Seattle in 2008. “His teams have always been extremely difficult to play against because they are so prepared. He’s been a great representative of women’s basketball and the WNBA.”

Hughes’ teams made 10 playoff appearances, four Western Conference Finals and one WNBA Finals in 2008 in San Antonio. He is the only coach in WNBA history to take three different franchises to the Playoffs.

The Stars will play their final game of 2016 at home against Phoenix to end one of the most successful coaching careers in WNBA history. Hughes makes it sounds so simple.

“It’s going to be a nice day,” Hughes said. “I’m just happy I had a chance to write my final scene.”

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith will have a weekly column on throughout the 2016 season.

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