Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - While the NBA crowned its new champion over the weekend, the WNBA still has a long way to go to determine which of the 12 teams will hoist the trophy at the season's end.
It appeared that Minnesota was the clear favorite to repeat in the early going, as the Lynx won their first seven games to begin the campaign. However, Minnesota has fallen into a slump with three losses in its last four outings. The Lynx dropped an 85-82 decision at Atlanta on Friday before suffering a more decisive 80-72 home setback to Phoenix on Sunday.
Diana Taurasi tallied 21 points and 11 assists, while Candice Dupree recorded 18 points and 10 rebounds, as Phoenix ended a 10-game regular-season losing streak to Minnesota on Sunday. Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve blamed her team's recent recession on a lack of intensity on the defensive end.
"For the second game in a row, a team dropped 50 points on us in a half, and it's hard for us," Reeve said after Sunday's contest, which marked the first loss at home for Minnesota in 2014. "You know, when we are not putting the ball in the hole at the same rate, you know, trying to win a shootout and we have to, you know, keep up with 50 points in a half it's going to be hard for us. So until we figure that out, games will be really hard."
Maya Moore, who entered Sunday's contest as the WNBA's leading scorer, was limited to 14 points on 6-of-18 efficiency from the floor and finished with five turnovers against three assists versus Phoenix. Seimone Augustus, also among the league's top scorers on the season, had only 10 points.
Phoenix is now only a half-game behind Minnesota in the Western Conference standings with a 7-3 ledger. In addition to the solid play by Taurasi and Dupree, the maturation of second-year center Brittney Griner has played a vital role in the rise of the Mercury. Phoenix won just seven games in 2012 due to its allowance of 86.7 points to the opposition. During Griner's rookie season of 2013, it allowed 80.3 points and improved to 19 wins. The 6-foot-8 Baylor product has already swatted a league-best 32 shots to help the Mercury hold their foes to only 76.8 points. Phoenix is also pacing the WNBA with 84.1 points on the offensive end.
Despite losing four of its last five games prior to a 101-74 rout of Los Angeles on Saturday, San Antonio remains in third place in the Western Conference race. The Stars knocked down 9-of-15 attempts from beyond the arc and all 24 of their tries at the charity stripe on Saturday to register their highest point total in a single game since Sept. 11, 2011.
"Shooting follows player movement and ball movement," said coach Dan Hughes after the bounce back performance by his Stars. "I thought we cut stronger and I thought we did everything with more assertiveness. I felt like I made a mistake when I asked them to do several things. We got a lot more simpler. We went back to basics. We said 'let's do this and let's do this well.' I thought we've got work to do, but they responded well."
Danielle Robinson pushed San Antonio to the decision with a season-high 24 points and rookie standout Kayla McBride chipped in 20 points. Reigning MVP Candace Parker had 16 for the Sparks, who have lost three in a row to fall into the cellar of the conference standings.
While Los Angeles has fallen into a rut, Tulsa has emerged as a force. The Shock have nearly dug themselves out of their lackadaisical 0-5 start, as Sunday's 85-79 victory over Seattle marked their franchise record fourth triumph in a row. Second-year guard Skylar Diggins was unstoppable en route to a career-best 26 points for Tulsa, which also received double-doubles from Courtney Paris (16 points, 12 rebounds) and Glory Johnson (12 points, 13 rebounds).
The Storm are somehow managing to compete on a nightly basis in defiance of their averages of 69.5 points and 27.4 rebounds, which rank last among all WNBA teams. Seattle's veteran backcourt duo of Tanisha Wright and Sue Bird have combined to handle the point guard duties quite nicely and Crystal Langhorne's play out of the forward slot has been exceptional, but the Storm's inability to compete on the glass will continue to hurt them going forward if adjustments are not implemented.
There has been a major shift of power in the Eastern Conference as well. Chicago, which lost only one of its first six games, has dipped down to fourth place after four straight losing decisions. The Sky have been held under 80 points three times and outscored by an average of nearly 17 points during their current slide. Friday's 79-68 loss to Washington was somewhat expected, as Chicago was without star Elena Delle Donne for the second straight game to receive treatment for a reoccurrence of Lyme disease.
Atlanta has caught fire to take control of the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Coach Michael Cooper's unit had an impressive week consisting of an 85-82 win over Minnesota and a 75-67 conquest in the nation's capital. The Dream's unselfish approach has resulted in a WNBA-leading average of 20.0 assists per tilt, and they also rank third in scoring (82.5 ppg) and second in rebounding (37.5 rpg). Atlanta hit only 38.2 percent of its field goal tries, including a 3-of-15 clip from 3-point range on Sunday, but it's non-stop effort led to 17 offensive boards and four starters scored in double figures. Erika de Souza will be named to the All-Star team for the second time in her career if she continues to produce at her current rate. The Brazilian forward is ranked eighth in the WNBA in scoring at 18.0 points and also pulls down 9.6 rebounds, the fourth most in the league.
Cooper also has a bona fide scoring machine in Angel McCoughtry (18.3 ppg), a top-notch rebounder in Sancho Lyttle (9.5 rpg) and a playmaking rookie floor general in Shoni Schimmel (5.4 apg).
Indiana also surpassed Chicago in the standings and sits 1 1/2 games behind the Dream. Coach Lin Dunn's squad has come out with a victory in five of its last six games, including a 76-68 win over Seattle in its only action this past week. Dunn was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday. She is 124-89 in six-plus seasons as the Fever's head coach, including a 2012 WNBA championship.
"I do think I want to be remembered as somebody who coached teams that got better," said Dunn, who has already announced she intends to retire at the conclusion of the 2014 season. "If you played for a Lin Dunn-coached team, you got better. You may not have liked her. You may not have agreed with her. But you got better."
Briann January and Erlana Larkins have both shown Dunn's desired signs of progress this season for the Fever. January, who owns career averages of 8.9 points and 3.5 assists, has contributed 13.4 points and 4.9 assists for the surging Fever. Larkins is averaging a double-double with 11.9 points and 11.0 rebounds, which is the second-highest rebounding mark in the WNBA behind only Tulsa's Paris.
The Sun are also on the rise. Connecticut ended Week 4 with a decisive 16- point win over Indiana before beginning this past week with an inspired 96-95 victory over Phoenix. Even though the top pick in the WNBA was absent due to her Stanford graduation, the Sun completed a sweep of a home-and-home series with New York. Chiney Ogwumike played Friday in an 83-75 win, but her absence Sunday was a great deal to overcome considering she is posting team-leading averages of 16.5 points and 8.5 rebounds. Connecticut overcame the odds as all five of its starters scored in double figures in a 76-72 triumph.
The Liberty sit in the East basement. They have lost three in a row and are 1-5 away from home this season.
1. Atlanta (7-3)
2. Phoenix (7-3)
3. Minnesota (8-3)
4. Tulsa (4-5)
5. Indiana (5-4)
6. Connecticut (6-6)
7. Chicago (5-5)
8. San Antonio (5-6)
9. Seattle (5-8)
10. Washington (5-6)
11. New York (3-8)
12. Los Angeles (3-6)
THIS WEEK'S KEY MATCHUPS
Tuesday, June 17
Indiana at Connecticut - The Sun's star rookie will return for Tuesday's matchup with the second-place Fever. The battle on the interior between Larkins and Ogwumike will be epic as two of the Eastern Conference's hottest teams battle for positioning. With both sides clearly capable of filling it up on any given occasion, this matchup will most likely keep the scoreboard attendant busy from tip-off until the final buzzer.
Wednesday, June 18
Minnesota at Phoenix - The Lynx will not have to wait very long to attempt to avenge their loss to Phoenix. Minnesota will also be in action on Tuesday at Los Angeles, which means it will have to overcome some physical and mental fatigue along with the Mercury's home-court advantage. Moore and company really struggled against Phoenix's defense when these teams met last week, but it is nearly impossible to stifle the league's leading scorer on a consistent basis.
Sunday, June 22
Tulsa at Chicago - At some point, the Sky will regain their form as a contender to win the Eastern Conference. Chicago's strength during its early season dominance was its superb defense, but it has since been as sturdy as a revolving door on that end of the floor. If Delle Donne is able to return, the Sky will surely begin to start heading back in the right direction. However, the outstanding play of Diggins has made Tulsa unbeatable in recent weeks. The potential duel between two of the top sophomores in the WNBA could provide answers to whether or not these teams are legitimate contenders.