Playoff race will go down to wire

August, 3, 2010

Seattle's Brian Agler is in the position that the other 11 coaches in the WNBA wish they occupied. His team has the best record in the league, 25-4, and has secured home-court advantage for the duration of its stay in the playoffs. And the Storm are 15-0 this season at KeyArena.

Yet if you think Agler is just cruising through the end of the regular season and blissfully drifting off to sleep each night … well, no, it's not like that. Such is the nature of being a coach: There is always something to worry about.

And in Agler's case, it's time management for his players over the Storm's past five games: at Connecticut, at Washington, home versus Minnesota, at Phoenix and home versus Los Angeles.

All five of those foes have something to play for in the last week-plus of the regular season. The Sun are in dire straits, realistically needing to win out. Being three games behind fourth-place Washington, Connecticut is in desperation mode. The Mystics, just like Indiana, New York and Atlanta, conceivably still could wind up first in the Eastern Conference. So they will be pushing hard to the end. Same with Minnesota and Los Angeles, both trying to grab a spot in the playoffs out West.

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Svetlana Abrosimova
Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE via Getty ImagesIf Seattle -- which has home-court advantage throughout the playoffs -- rests its starters, Svetlanta Abrosimova will see added minutes.

Phoenix -- which would clinch a playoff spot with a loss by Los Angeles on Thursday -- appears to be pretty set in second place in the West, but the Mercury still want to finish strongly. Plus maybe put a little doubt in the Storm players' minds about this matchup. Seattle won the teams' previous four meetings this season, so the Mercury would like to let the Storm know they're not invincible.

So … weighing all this and other factors, how much does Agler play his starters for the rest of the regular season? At this point, the wins and losses don't exactly mean much, except to pretty-up the Storm's record. But how do you gauge the value of rest versus not giving away any edge?

Do you worry about players losing their timing in some way? Are you concerned that if your stars' stats decline a little over the final week as they sit, it might impact voting on individual awards? And while some might say, "Oh, that shouldn't matter," the reality is that there is a monetary value to those honors, and it's not as though WNBA players are just so rich that they would scoff at that.

That said, nothing is more important than winning the league title, and that's definitely how the Storm players are looking at this. Agler values the opinions of his players and listens to them. But he'll still make playing-time decisions based on both planning and instinct.

Tuesday night in Atlanta, for example, the idea was to play the starters in the first half and then mostly rest them in the second half. But the Storm weren't clicking early, thus the reserves carried Seattle for most of the first half. Then the starters closed the deal. It still meant that nobody played more than 25 minutes in an 80-70 victory.

Seattle has gone through the frustration of not having Lauren Jackson in the postseason the past two years, and the Storm want her to be in the best shape possible for the 2010 playoffs. Sue Bird has been an iron woman throughout her WNBA career, but she does have a back issue to think about. And certainly for the Storm's other starters -- Swin Cash, Camille Little and Tanisha Wright -- some rest wouldn't hurt.

Furthermore, it will help the Storm's bench to get a little more time before the postseason. It won't be surprising at all if Seattle ends up getting some key performances from players such as Svetlana Abrosimova, Le'coe Willingham or even Jana Vesela during the playoffs.

Coaching is, by nature, a pretty inexact science. That's not to say you don't have good models to follow about what usually works. It's just that there is no absolute right answer for some situations, and the position that Seattle is in now is one of them.

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Taj McWilliams-Franklin
Dale Zanine/US PresswireTaj McWilliams-Franklin and New York have won six straight and are tied for second place in the East.

These are relatively rare occurrences, really, in most sports. Certainly in the WNBA, more often than not, it's a hard push through all 34 games because something is hanging in the balance right until the end.

Whatever the Storm do, there might be second-guessers, but there's no point worrying about that. The maturity and focus of this team is such that I think getting a little rest for the starters is the right move, and I wouldn't be concerned about it negatively impacting anything.

For a lot of other teams, though, the outcome of their last week-plus of games is vitally important.

The hottest of the East's teams, New York, has won six in a row and eight of its past nine. The Liberty have four games left at home and two on the road. East-leading Indiana has two at home and three on the road.

Atlanta, which has played in streaks most of the season, is on a three-game slide now. The Dream have three games left at home, one on the road. And Washington, which has been as hard to predict as any team, has three games at home and two on the road.

As for the West, Minnesota and San Antonio have not shown a significant difference between home or away results. In fact, the Silver Stars have won more on the road (six) than they have at home (five). Those numbers are reversed for Minnesota.

Still, by conventional wisdom, the Lynx have the harder of the two's remaining slates. Minnesota plays four of its last six on the road, including the final three. Meanwhile, San Antonio has five games left, with four at home.

Los Angeles is not out of the playoff picture. But the Sparks have the second-worst road record -- 3-11 -- in the league, better only than Tulsa's 2-12. And three of the Sparks' last five games are away from home.

So while the Storm understandably fret about fine-tuning in preparation for the playoffs, everyone else will be concerned with trying to win.

Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women's college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women's basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.


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