We're entering the last week of the WNBA's regular season, so it might seem odd to lead off with a team we already know isn't going to the playoffs. But how can we not start with guard Riquna Williams' 51-point performance for Tulsa on Sunday?
It set the WNBA single-game scoring record and gave meaning to what was otherwise a nothing contest between the two Western Conference teams that won't be moving on to the postseason: Tulsa and San Antonio.
Williams had a difficult and murky end to her college career at Miami -- she was suspended by Hurricanes coach Katie Meier before the NCAA tournament her senior year --- and that contributed to her stock plummeting in the 2012 draft.
Tulsa has been the beneficiary of that; the Shock took Williams in the second round, with the 17th pick. She's averaging 15.8 points a game and seems likely to win the Sixth Woman of the Year this season. (She has come off the bench 21 times in her 25 games.)
Tulsa's 98-65 victory Sunday in the Alamo City puts the Shock and Silver Stars in the West's cellar at 11-21. That is about where you might have expected San Antonio to be, especially after Becky Hammon suffered a torn ACL in July and joined Sophia Young on the shelf for the 2013 season.
For Tulsa, though, not making the playoffs is a disappointment, especially because it seemed as if San Antonio and Seattle -- with injuries to their respective "dynamic duos" -- were vulnerable Western Conference teams.
Still, the Shock have improved on last season's 9-25 record, and this is a young team. In regard to coach Gary Kloppenburg, who is finishing his second season with the Shock, it makes sense for Tulsa to give him at least another year at the helm. He has made progress, even if the fans and the organization are frustrated the Shock haven't made the playoffs during their four seasons in Tulsa.
This is a case when patience probably would be prudent. Look to Chicago, for example, which didn't advance to the postseason in the franchise's first seven years but will be going in 2013 as the Eastern Conference's first-place team.
It is coach Pokey Chatman's third season with the Sky. This is not to say Kloppenburg will win the West next season -- or even make the playoffs, for that matter. But it does seem he has the Shock headed in the right direction, even if the postseason is no longer in the picture for 2013.
As for what to watch for in the WNBA this week in regard to the upcoming playoffs, here goes:
Seattle gives its best
Tulsa would get kudos from Seattle for how well the Shock can play when things are clicking. The Storm are 0-3 against the Shock; the teams meet Thursday and Saturday to finish the regular season.
But despite Seattle's issues with Tulsa thus far, Storm fans should be very proud of this season. Minus Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson, Seattle still will make its 10th consecutive playoff appearance.
That will allow surefire Hall of Famer Tina Thompson the chance to close her career in the postseason, which is appropriate. Thompson (13.9 PPG) is the leading scorer on a balanced Storm team that really has defined professionalism this season, and Brian Agler is a contender for coach of the year.
The Storm, at 15-16, will need to figure out how to beat the Shock if Seattle is to have any chance of overtaking Phoenix for third place in the West. The Storm close with Minnesota (at Seattle) and then the two games versus the Shock, one on the road and one at home.
Phoenix is 17-13, and it finishes with road games at New York, Chicago and Los Angeles and one at home against San Antonio. If Seattle and Phoenix end with the same record, the Storm have the tiebreaker by virtue of having swept their season series.
Delle Donne, Griner in prime time
The Mercury's game versus the Sky on Wednesday (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET) gives us another regular-season look at the top two rookies this season.
Chicago's Elena Delle Donne, who is averaging 18.1 points and 5.6 rebounds, seems sure to be named rookie of the year. If so, it will be the first time since 2007 that award will go to a player who wasn't drafted No. 1; the winner that year was also with the Sky at the time: No. 3 pick Armintie (Price) Herrington.
However, the top selection in 2013, Brittney Griner, still has had a good season. She has dealt with some injury issues, and the Mercury have gone through an in-season coaching change. Griner is averaging 13.2 points and 6.9 rebounds and has three double-doubles in her past five games.
Griner becoming more of a force on the boards is exactly what Phoenix is hoping for going into the postseason. She'll get a big test Wednesday going against Chicago center Sylvia Fowles, who's having an MVP-caliber season. For that matter, so is Phoenix's Diana Taurasi.
The Sky and the Mercury have met only one previous time this summer: in the season opener in Phoenix on May 27, a 102-80 victory by Chicago in which Delle Donne had 22 points and eight rebounds and Griner had 17 and eight.
It's interesting to look back at that day and what a statement game that was for the Sky. We know now that it wasn't an early-season fluke but a real indication of how good Chicago was.
Race for position
Although the Sky already have their top spot set in the East, Atlanta will be trying to hold on to second place. At 17-14, the Dream finish with three games on the road. Defending champion Indiana, 15-16, is in third. Washington, 14-17, is one win -- or one New York loss -- from the Mystics' return to the postseason after finishing last in the East the previous two years.
Meanwhile, in the West, Minnesota, 24-7, will try to secure first place in the conference for the third consecutive year. All the Lynx need to do that is win one of their remaining three games: at Seattle, at Los Angeles or home against Chicago.
The Sparks, 22-10, must win both their remaining two games and have Minnesota lose all three for Los Angeles to finish first. If that were to happen, the Sparks would have a 3-2 series edge, and thus the tiebreaker, against the Lynx.
Minnesota did have a three-game losing streak in August, but it has won six in a row and seven of eight since.
The Lynx will finish the regular season at home on Saturday against Chicago -- a matchup that just might be a preview of the WNBA Finals.