Before playoffs, all eyes on draft lottery
The participants in the WNBA playoffs and the draft lottery are now set. Washington, Phoenix, Tulsa and Chicago -- which lost Thursday and was eliminated from postseason contention -- are the teams that will be in the Brittney Griner sweepstakes.
We'll have a whole lot more on that topic next week, in preparation for the live "SportsCenter" announcement of the lottery results Wednesday. There's plenty of ground to cover in that regard, including the considerable ire directed toward Phoenix by some other teams' fans, while the Mercury's own supporters seem quite OK with just letting 2012 go and looking toward 2013.
But this last weekend of the regular season, about all that's left to decide is which team ends with the worst record in the WNBA. Right now, that's 5-27 Washington, which finishes Friday against Indiana and Sunday at Chicago. The Mystics have lost 11 in a row, but are playing two teams with nothing on the line. The Fever's playoff spot is set, as is the Sky's position as the team with the best record in the lottery.
Still, it seems a safe bet that even against even those unmotivated foes, Washington will continue sinking until firmly settling on the bottom. Most chances in the lottery, here we come.
Meanwhile, the team with the second-worst mark is Phoenix, which at 7-25 has lost five games in a row. The Mercury finish Friday against defending WNBA champion Minnesota and Sunday against Seattle. That finale will be televised at 3 p.m. ET Sunday on ESPN2. Not exactly a barn burner.
The Storm, who also have two regular-season games left, realistically are thinking about their first-round playoff series against the Lynx. Minnesota went 3-1 against Seattle this season. The Storm are not coming into the postseason with a full head of steam, having gone 5-8 since the Olympic break. Seattle hosts another playoff team, San Antonio, on Friday.
And on the other side of Sunday's matchup in Phoenix, you have the tattered remnants of the Mercury, a team besieged both by myriad injuries and rumors that at some point this season, they rolled over and played dead. Phoenix coach Corey Gaines says that's nonsense. He says that, in fact, the Mercury did what they could to be competitive until the playoffs were mathematically impossible to reach, and then they decided there was no reason not to shut down star Diana Taurasi and give her rest.
Whether you believe that or subscribe to one of the various Mercury tanking theories, this much is not debatable: Phoenix will benefit next year from the advancements players such as DeWanna Bonner have made in their games. Bonner, in her fourth year out of Auburn, has become a starter this season and carried a huge load.
Phoenix president and chief operating officer Amber Cox praises Bonner for keeping the Mercury's attitude as upbeat as possible.
"You can give her a ton of credit for that, because she really has been the leader of this team," Cox said. "She's been the one to make sure everybody keeps working hard. But also become more of a vocal leader in a positive manner."
In this clunker season for the Mercury, Gaines insists that his players consistently attempted to play hard.
"Our game is up-tempo and we'd have games where we just ran out of gas," Gaines said. "Even when games got out of hand, we had to strive for some kind of goal. Like, 'Let's try to win these next few minutes.' You have to do that, and that's what we did."
Meanwhile, Tulsa's goal was simply to get as many victories as it could in a season in which the Shock again were often at a pure-talent deficit against foes. Tulsa is now 9-23 after winning its third game in a row Thursday, beating New York. In their two previous seasons in Oklahoma, the Shock went 6-28 and 3-31. Liz Cambage's decision not to return to Tulsa for the last 10 games hasn't dampened any of the Shock's enthusiasm for finishing this season as strongly as possible -- even if that gives them worse odds in the lottery.
It seemed fitting that the final Eastern Conference playoff spot was clinched by a team on a night when it lost. Neither New York nor Chicago grabbed the East's No. 4 spot with gusto. It went to the Liberty, and the Sky again are left on the outside looking in at the playoffs.
Some might say it's just as well, that Chicago potentially might benefit more from the lottery in 2013 than by making the franchise's first postseason appearance now. Still, it has to be looked at as a disappointment for a team that appeared to have a good chance at making the playoffs this season.