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Inside the W: Playoff Planning

Pokey Chatman boiled it down to its essence.

“You begin the season with the ending in mind,” Chatman said.

The Indiana Fever coach is spending her first season in Indianapolis, ushering in a new era for one of the WNBA’s stalwart franchises. Future Hall of Famer Tamika Catchings is retired. Former head coach Stephanie White moved on to coach at Vanderbilt. Enter Chatman, and one of the WNBA’s most dependable veteran players in Candice Dupree, joining a Fever core that includes Briann January, Marissa Coleman, Erlana Larkins and one of the best rookies of 2016 in Tiffany Mitchell.

By contrast, across three time zones in Seattle, Jenny Boucek’s Storm team is starting to settle into its identity.
The Storm have their core, venerable point guard Sue Bird, young star Jewell Loyd, the league’s early-season scoring leader, and Breanna Stewart, the 2016 Rookie of the Year and a burgeoning superstar.

“This team is a blast,” Boucek said. “It’s not anything drastically different, but we’ve been building year upon year. Stuff is starting to make sense. We have a good handle and understanding on what we are trying to do and how we want to do it.

“This group has a chance to be special.”

Indiana and Seattle are teams with championship pedigrees. The Fever have played in three WNBA Finals series since 2009. Seattle won titles in 2004 and 2010 and made 10 straight playoff appearances from 2004 to 2013 and then returned last year in the league’s new one-and-out first-round playoff format, falling to Atlanta in their opening game.

It’s that playoff format that has changed so much in the league. No longer are there conference races for the playoffs in the East and West. Instead, the top 8 teams reach the WNBA Playoffs and are matched up by seed – with the top two seeds getting valuable byes into the semifinals. Last season, the first in the league’s new format, the Finals matched the league’s two best teams – Minnesota and Los Angeles – in a thrilling five-game series that the Sparks claimed in the final seconds.

The new postseason format has literally changed the game in the WNBA.

Teams are no longer building to compete directly with the top teams in their own conference to carve their path to a championship. Now, it’s more wide open, putting teams in a position, Chatman says, to have to be good at everything.

“Obviously in conference play, you knew you were going to have to go through people, but the end result is still that somebody is going to cut down nets at the end,” Chatman said. “The teams in our league who have had the most success, like Minnesota and Los Angeles, you can be pretty confident that you are going to have to go through them, but there are also so many teams now with great young players.

“So, I always come back to, let’s make sure we can compete with every team. But obviously the new format proves that everything can change for a team in a heartbeat.”

Boucek believes she is building a team that could challenge for one of the top two playoffs spots. Those seeds are now the holy grail of the WNBA, taking teams out of the drama of the single-elimination games, which have added excitement to the postseason, but are very unforgiving.

“It’s a really tangible reality that you want to be peaking at the end of the year,” Boucek said. “I used to root for the Western Conference teams to lose (to put us in a better position) and now I don’t care. East Coast, West Coast, home or away. We have to be able to win against anybody.

“That’s what championship teams do. Our team is ready for high standards.Before, there was a lot of nurturing and teaching. Now, they are really hungry to be pushed.Their accountability and tolerance for high standards is different.”

Chatman admits she is not a huge fan of the single-elimination format because of the narrow margin for error in one game after you have played well an entire season. Last season, when Chatman was coaching the Chicago Sky, then-Sky star Elena Delle Donne was injured in Chicago’s opening game. The Sky advanced to the semifinals without Delle Donne, but fell 3-1 vs the eventual champion Los Angeles Sparks.

“I understand and support why we went to the new format,” Chatman said. “But, when somebody sprains an ankle and they aren’t playing in the most important game of the season, it’s hard to swallow. But I understand that it’s part of growing our game and our sport.”

And, to Chatman, it has increased the importance of early-season games because each victory is so precious. Chatman said she has kept her rotations tight from the outset.

“I’ve really tightened up the strings in our training camp,” said Chatman, whose team is 2-2 in the early going, with two straight wins after opening with two losses. And the last win came against defending league champion Los Angeles. “I don’t want a revolving group. I want my core group getting reps. We need to get our team ready to start strong.”

Boucek, whose 2-1 team has also won two in a row heading into Friday’s game against New York, confessed that with just a handful of games into the 2017 season, she’s not allowing herself to think too far ahead.

“We are not really focused on the playoffs. Every day our job is to do everything we can to get better,” Boucek said. “We want to be better than we were the day before and position ourselves the best we can. It’s a big challenge to get into the playoffs in this league, but once we get it, we want to do more than we did last year. We want to be good and we are ready for that.”

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith will have a weekly column on throughout the 2017 season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.