Making sense of the WNBA
Diana Taurasi returned to the floor for Phoenix, but it didn't change the outcome for the Mercury. Angel McCoughtry rejoined Atlanta, but the Dream still lost -- and that whole weird situation still doesn't appear to be truly resolved.
The Chicago Sky finally slowed their plummet by making the first-place team in the Eastern Conference, Connecticut, look vulnerable. And that came just two days after the Sky blew an 11-point fourth-quarter lead and lost in overtime to the last-place team in the West, Tulsa.
Yes, as the WNBA world turns two weeks after the London Olympics ended, let's hit the refresh button to see how things are going.
The answer is "not so great" for some of the gold-winning Olympians from the U.S. team. McCoughtry, who missed two games last week for what was termed "personal reasons," was back playing for Atlanta on Saturday against visiting Minnesota. She didn't start but scored 14 points in 20 minutes of action.
The Dream lost 84-74, after which Atlanta coach Marynell Meadors didn't give any more clarity to the McCoughtry matter other than to say, essentially, "Well, at least she's here, right?"
McCoughtry said after the game, "I asked Coach for a couple of days off so I could get myself together. She allowed me to do that, so I'm grateful for that."
Well, then that's all cleared up. (Cough.) The Dream are 12-12 and in third place in the East, so they should still be OK to make the playoffs. And who knows what could happen then: The Dream have functioned well in the past even amidst some apparent dysfunction.
As for Taurasi, after missing all but two games in the first half of the season and the first three of the second half, it was back to work for the Mercury on Saturday against Indiana. This might slightly quiet those who claimed Phoenix was tanking, but it didn't change the fact that the Mercury are still losing. DT had 19 points, but Phoenix dropped its 10th in a row.
Another Olympian, Sylvia Fowles, didn't play Sunday; she was out for personal reasons. Yet, as mentioned, her Chicago team actually ended its nine-game losing streak. Just when it looked as if the Sky's season had all the buoyancy of a concrete block, Chicago went into Uncasville, Conn., and beat a Sun team that seemed strangely out of sync.
Connecticut was at home, playing against a team that was reeling and didn't have its Olympian center and the Sun lost by double digits? Yes, Asjha Jones is still out for Connecticut, but this result still doesn't make any sense. Credit the Sky for improbably pulling it together, including backup center Carolyn Swords, who had 14 points and six rebounds. Maybe the former Boston College standout was channeling the best of her college days while back in familiar territory.
And maybe the Sun hit the snooze button one too many times in this game. While Connecticut (17-6) still has a 2½-game lead over Indiana (14-8), the Fever seem to be surging. Indy is 4-1 since the Olympic break, with the loss being on the road to the team with the current longest winning streak in the league (nine games), Los Angeles.
The Fever's last two victories were also on the road in the West, against Seattle and the team with the current longest losing streak, Phoenix (10 in a row). Speaking of snooze buttons, you feel for players like Lauren Jackson, who's still trying to adjust her body clock from Australia time to London time to Australian time to Seattle time.
In the last four minutes of the Storm's 68-66 loss to the Fever last Thursday, Jackson appeared a little sleepy, making some uncharacteristic errors. Of course, it was her first game back in the WNBA this season, and even future Hall of Famers aren't super-human.
Jackson's rustiness was expected; the problem was that the whole Storm team lost focus at the end in one of those tear-your-hair-out losses for a coach. Brian Agler saw Indiana outscore Seattle 15-0 to close the game.
The good news for the Storm, though, was it really didn't matter much -- other than to give them a little wake-up call about finishing. They shot 50 percent Sunday in a win against visiting New York; Jackson had 16 points, nine from the foul line.
Seattle -- which is 6½ games behind San Antonio and ahead of Phoenix -- is essentially locked into the fourth and final playoff spot in the West. A battle remains atop the division, though, where the league's two hottest teams reside. First-place Minnesota (19-4) has won six straight. Los Angeles is 19-6, has won all four games since play resumed after the Olympics and hasn't lost since June 28 (at San Antonio).
San Antonio (17-6) had won a dozen games in a row before falling at Los Angeles last Thursday in a game that ended up a dud, with the Sparks prevailing 101-77. The Silver Stars took out some frustration on Tulsa, 91-71, in San Antonio on Saturday. Next up, the Silver Stars have another chance to show their mettle on the road against one of their fellow West powers. San Antonio is at Minnesota on Tuesday.
And after that, the Silver Stars still must face the Lynx twice more in the regular season. They also have two more games against Seattle and two more versus Tulsa.
Which brings us to the 4-19 Shock, a team still trying to make the best out of what's left of 2012. Since relocating to Tulsa from Detroit, the Shock have gone 6-28 and 3-31. But they haven't given up on this season, and they gave their patient fans another rare victory last Friday when they beat the Sky in overtime.
This week brings the return of center Liz Cambage, the Shock's top draft pick in 2011 (No. 2 overall) who -- like Jackson -- missed the first half of the WNBA season while with the Australian national team.
The Shock play at Atlanta on Tuesday. But Cambage isn't scheduled to be in uniform until Thursday's home game against Los Angeles -- which, oddly enough, is one of the Shock's few victims this season. The Sparks lost at Tulsa on June 26.
This will be first-year Tulsa leader Gary Kloppenburg's first chance to meet Cambage as her coach.
"I actually met her initially when I was still with Indiana last year," said Kloppenburg, the former Fever assistant. "She came over to our team hotel when we were here in Tulsa because we had [Australian] Erin Phillips in Indiana, and they're really good friends.
"I've talked to Liz on the phone this year and Skyped. We're excited to get her over here. The Olympic year is just tough, but we'll get her back for 10 games. My feeling is, let's see how she blends in. Let her get a feel for a new attitude that we have and a new system."
Kloppenburg knows it's best not to throw a whole lot at Cambage, who turned 21 on Aug. 18.
"We'll keep it pretty simple, but we want to use these games to build for the next year," he said. "No question she's going to help us even in the short term, because she can score down low. And we struggle at times to get that.
"I think she's got excellent hands and a good basketball IQ. She can pass the ball and operate up on the elbows and make that shot. The thing we want to get her better at is to be able to seal down in there deep, and get her with the left hand and right hand hooks. I think when she gets that aspect down, she's going to be unstoppable."