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12 takeaways from the past week in the WNBA

Welcome to the second installment of “12 takeaways from the past week in the WNBA,” Excelle Sports’ weekly WNBA column highlighting everything from X’s and O’s, individual performances, analysis, off-the-court stories and other miscellaneous tidbits that stood out. Each piece will end with Power Rankings. This week we’re adding an MVP short list.

Aug. 7-13

1. A Lynx title is no sure thing

The Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks met Friday night in a rematch of last year’s WNBA Finals. With these teams on a collision course to meet in the WNBA Finals, perhaps this regular season game was nothing more than a preview of what’s to come. But for the Lynx, after a heartbreaking 2016 Finals loss, this game was about flexing their position atop the league as winners of three of the past six championships. Also, since they beat the Sparks on July 6th, winning Friday would have guaranteed them the season series (the teams play once more Aug 27th in Los Angeles).

For Los Angeles, a win on the road would remind them they can beat Minnesota and that last year wasn’t an aberration. And they did just that. With the game tied at 36 at the half, the Sparks came out and won the third quarter 21-8. After an expected Lynx run in the fourth, Nneka Ogwumike hit a baseline jumper to seal the win late. The Lynx are now 1-2 without Lindsay Whalen, and the Sparks keep getting better adjusting to two new starters.

2. Chelsea Gray will be an important player in WNBA title race

It was a great week for Chelsea Gray, who scored 23 points against the Lynx and is now averaging 15 points a game and shooting 45 percent from three with splashes like this:

The most fun part of her game is her driving, where she changes pace and finds her way to the rim:

In her third year, Gray has been asked to replace Kristi Toliver, who signed with the Mystics this past offseason, in the starting lineup. She’s increased her scoring average by 9 points since last season and has become a legitimate third option next to Candace Parker and Ogwumike. With Odyssey Sims looking to pass and Alana Beard specializing in defense, Gray’s ability to score in the playoffs could be the difference between back-to-back titles and an early exit.

3. Anyone can beat anyone

The Sparks followed up their win over the Lynx with a loss to the New York Liberty. The Indiana Fever beat the Lynx last week. The Washington Mystics have won two in a row without Elena Delle Donne. The San Antonio Stars have won four out of five. The Dallas Wings looked like a team emerging from the pack last week and lost both of their games this week. Seattle, after losing four in a row, won at the Phoenix Mercury during Brittney Griner’s return. The Atlanta Dream haven’t won since acquiring Imani Boyette and Tamera Young. The Sky haven’t lost since the trade. Anyone can beat anyone in this league and the playoff push should bring drama.

4. Jenny Boucek fired as head coach of the Seattle Storm

After an 84-71 loss to the Sun on Tuesday, the Storm fired coach Jenny Boucek and installed Gary Kloppenburg as interim head coach. The Storm had fallen to 10-16 and were on the outside of the playoff standings. After going 16-18 last year and making the postseason, this team was supposed to challenge the Sparks, Lynx and Mercury in the Western Conference. The thought was that Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd would be an overwhelming trio. Although the Storm are fifth in offensive rating per Basketball Reference, they’re 10th in defensive rating, not where you want to be in the middle of a playoff race.

It’s hard to judge from afar if the defensive struggles were a function of Boucek’s coaching or merely a personnel issue. Either way, the team was crumbling, and if they were ready to move on from Boucek at the end of the year, it was worth a shot to get a different voice in the locker room, especially someone like Kloppenburg who has extensive head coaching experience. The Storm won their first game with Kloppenburg 98-89 in Phoenix Saturday night, spoiling Griner’s return. They got contributions from all over their roster.

5. Sue Bird sets all-time starts record

Sue Bird passed Tina Thompson for all-time career WNBA starts with her 471st in Tuesday’s loss to the Sun. She’s played her entire 15-year career in Seattle.

6. Career-highs for Erica Wheeler, Courtney Williams, Allisha Gray, Isabelle Harrison

It was a week of career-highs in the WNBA. Connecticut Sun guard Courtney Williams dropped 27 Tuesday in an 84-71 win over the Storm. San Antonio Stars center Isabelle Harrison scored 23 during Saturday’s 84-68 win over the Atlanta Dream. Indiana Fever Erica Wheeler scored 33 in a Tuesday loss to the New York Liberty and Dallas Wings rookie Allisha Gray had a career-best 21 Saturday in defeat to the Connecticut Sun. With just 12 teams in the league, each roster is stacked with talent.

7. Dallas Wings take a step back

It was a tough week for the Wings, who ended last week surging at 13-14. They lost a nail-biting overtime game against the Mercury 101-100 on Thursday and fell at the Sun 96-88 Saturday. The road loss in Connecticut was expected, but the Wings should have beat Phoenix at home, failing to hold on to a six point lead in extra time. Their inexperience showed as they conceded multiple offensive rebounds and failed to closeout on Diana Taurasi and Monique Curry. They also couldn’t get a shot off on the final possession, as Skylar Diggins-Smith and Allisha Gray played hot potato. The positive news is Glory Johnson is playing some of the best basketball of her career, and this team has the core to breakout next year much like Connecticut has this year.

8. Sky surging post Boyette trade

The Chicago Sky’s trade of Imani Boyette and Tamera Young to the Atlanta Dream was a move for the future. They received a first-round pick and consolidated their frontcourt as they prepare for the return of Alaina Coates. In the short-term, the trade appeared to weaken their chances at the playoffs. Instead, the Sky have won three in a row and would make the playoffs if the season ended today. Stephanie Dolson, Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot are experienced players who are not going to be content waiting for the future. The Sky and Amber Stocks are an interesting case study on the dual general manager and coach role. Stocks’ incentive as an executive is to get a higher draft pick which would mean tanking. But no coach would be ok with that.

9. Atlanta is falling apart

On the other side of the trade is the Dream, who are now 10-18 and have lost six in a row, including all five games since the trade. The Dream are 11th in offensive rating and dead last in three point percentage. Atlanta’s fifth ranked defense isn’t good enough to hold up their offense which goes cold for long stretches. Rookie Brittney Sykes has been a bright spot scoring the basketball, but her preferred shot is the pull-up long two, further cramping the spacing. The team looks they are running out of the steam and could wind up missing the playoffs and being without their first-round pick.

10. Dance battle between Fever and Mystics

No explanation necessary:

11. MVP Short List

  1. Sylvia Fowles (Minnesota Lynx) – Fowles is averaging 20 and 10 with a historic player efficiency rating (PER) of 32.7. Her team is 21-4. This is her award to lose.
  2. Jonquel Jones (Connecticut Sun) – Jones continues to dominate the WNBA in her second year. The Sun are 17-5 in their last 22 games and are third in the WNBA overall. Jones has a PER of 28.1 and is averaging 16 points and 11.7 rebounds. The Sun are now tied with the Lynx for the top offensive rating in the league. Their defense is third with Jones protecting the rim.
  3. Nneka Ogwumike (Los Angeles Sparks) – The reigning MVP is having another worthy season. Playing alongside Candace Parker may hurt her campaign as both will receive consideration this year.

Honorable Mentions: Candace Parker, Maya Moore

*Note: Elena Delle Donne and Brittney Griner not considered due to missed time from injury

12. Power Rankings

  1. Minnesota Lynx (21-4) LW: 1
  2. Los Angeles Sparks (19-8) LW: 2
  3. Connecticut Sun (17-9) LW: 3
  4. Washington Mystics (16-10) LW: 4
  5. New York Liberty (15-12) LW: 7
  6. Phoenix Mercury (14-13) LW: 5
  7. Dallas Wings (13-16) LW: 6
  8. Chicago Sky (11-16) LW: 8
  9. Seattle Storm (11-16) LW: 10
  10. Indiana Fever (9-19) LW: 11
  11. San Antonio Stars (7-22) LW: 12
  12. Atlanta Dream (10-18) LW: 10

 

 

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