Lynx, Silver Stars race to the finish line
Western Conference's final playoff berth still up for grabs
Here we are with two weeks of the WNBA regular season left. And while the Eastern Conference playoff race -- other than Indiana -- is still a complete grab bag of possibilities, the drama in the West is more whittled down.
Phoenix and Seattle have their spots locked up, and resurgent Los Angeles has all but wrapped up at least third place, short of a complete collapse. Considering the only game of their past eight that the Sparks have lost was to Phoenix without Candace Parker playing, we are declaring L.A. collapse-proof.
Technically, last-place Sacramento at 10-20 is still in the playoff mix, and the Monarchs did stun the Fever in Indianapolis on Saturday night. Plus, the Monarchs have all four of their remaining games at home.
Still, the most likely candidates for that last West playoff spot are Minnesota and San Antonio, both a less-than-sparkling 12-17 but still hanging on for dear life to their postseason hopes.
The Lynx and Silver Stars meet up Tuesday at the AT&T Center for the fourth time this season. The teams faced off back-to-back on June 10 and 12, winning on each other's home court. Then San Antonio won again in Minneapolis on Aug. 9, thanks to Ann Wauters' buzzer-beating shot.
The Silver Stars pulled one out of the fire Saturday, as they got down against visiting Detroit, came back, seemed to have the game in hand, lost the lead and needed a late baseline jumper from Sophia Young (plus a miss at the buzzer by Deanna Nolan) to get to overtime.
Then, Becky Hammon took over, scoring 12 of her 32 points in the extra period. Hammonites celebrated with ecstatic glee, both because the Silver Stars had snapped their four-game losing streak and their idol had bounced back so decisively from her scoreless performance in the previous game against Indiana.
There's still far too much left to do for the Silver Stars to call Saturday's game a season-saving win, but it was very big nonetheless. Especially considering what San Antonio has left: the Lynx at home, consecutive games against the Sparks at home and in L.A., a game at Sacramento, and the finale at home against Seattle.
The Silver Stars made the WNBA Finals last season, falling to Detroit, but this year's team has been defined by inconsistency. Of course, part of that is Wauters' late-late arrival because she needed some downtime after competing in Europe. The advantage, though, might be that she's relatively fresh for the stretch run.
And Young, who has been good all season, has been especially terrific the past month. In the Silver Stars' last 10 games, she is averaging 22.3 points.
Meanwhile, the Lynx -- who fell Sunday at Washington -- have been as much all over the map as San Antonio, which the teams' identical records would suggest. A big difference, though, is that Minnesota lost its centerpiece player, Seimone Augustus, after just six games with a knee injury.
Leading the way in her absence have been two of the chief protagonists of the 2008 Final Four: Candice Wiggins and Nicky Anosike. The Lynx were preposterously young even with Augustus, who at 25 passes for "veteran" on this team. Minnesota has one player who has reached the "30" threshold: Kelly Miller will be 31 in September.
So Tuesday's game is almost the kiddies versus the grannies. Six Silver Stars players are 30 (Ruth Riley just hit the 3-0 milestone Friday), with the oldest being 37-year-old Vickie Johnson.
There's no way to measure this, of course, but VJ may be the player who has the most sentimental support among neutral WNBA fans. She is one of four currently active players to have been with the WNBA since the beginning in 1997, along with L.A.'s Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson and Indiana's Tamecka Dixon.
Those three have won WNBA titles, but Johnson hasn't. Leslie and Johnson have both announced they are retiring at season's end. And while Leslie would love to go out with a championship, she has already gotten everything she could want from the sport.
VJ, however, has had a wonderful career that -- going back to her Louisiana Tech days -- still has left her without that ultimate happy ending. A review of it all is somewhat painful, actually.
Here's how it went for her in college: In 1993, her freshman year, Louisiana Tech lost in the NCAA Elite Eight to top-seeded Vanderbilt. In 1994, she and Tech were seven-tenths of a second from winning the national championship before North Carolina's Charlotte Smith hit her legendary 3-pointer.
In 1995, Tech lost by one point to Virginia in the Sweet 16, which prevented a matchup with eventual champ UConn in the regional final. Then in 1996, Tech was a No. 1 seed and 28-1 entering the tournament. But a knee injury to teammate Maquisha Walker and the fact that Georgia was in the same region prevented VJ from reaching another Final Four.
The breaks didn't get any better when she entered the pro ranks. She went to the playoffs seven of the nine seasons she was in New York. The Liberty lost in the inaugural WNBA title game to Houston in 1997. And in subsequent appearances in the Finals, in 1999, 2000 and 2002, New York fell to Houston twice and Los Angeles.
VJ went to San Antonio in 2006; the Silver Stars made the Western Conference finals in 2007 (losing to Phoenix) and the WNBA Finals last year (swept by the Shock).
You wonder how one player could get close so many times to winning it all but never actually do it. And at this point, even if the Silver Stars make the playoffs, they have to be considered a long shot at best to finally give VJ a championship.
One thing the franchise will definitely do, though, is give VJ her own celebratory night, which will be Tuesday against the Lynx. She has played in more WNBA games (405) than anyone, and started all but two of them. At 5 feet, 9 inches, she has been one of the better rebounders at guard in the league, and she just seems to have a knack for grabbing the ball or tipping it to a teammate at crucial times.
And remember, it was her inbounds pass to Young last year that set up the buzzer-beater in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals against L.A., which kept the Silver Stars' season alive.
Taj McWilliams-Franklin is another popular veteran who it seemed might not win a WNBA title -- until she did last year after joining the Shock. That left VJ really as the oldest of the unfulfilled sentimental favorites.
So that's one of the main things WNBA fans will be following in these last two weeks. While we can't eliminate Sacramento, the storyline really might crystallize to this: the young Lynx hoping to get to the playoffs for the first time since 2004 (and do it improbably without Augustus) versus the Silver Stars trying to give VJ one last chance.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
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