Eastern Conference Playoff Race: Breaking Down the Schedules
By Wheat Hotchkiss
We’re entering the stretch run of the 2013 WNBA regular season, and the playoff picture is starting to take shape. On Wednesday night, Minnesota became the first team to officially clinch a playoff spot. Chicago and Los Angeles could follow suit as early as this weekend. Barring a historic collapse, Atlanta should also be a lock for the postseason.
The Fever aren’t living quite as comfortably. Thanks to a slew of injuries and inconsistent offensive production, the defending WNBA champions find themselves in a three-way race with New York and Washington for the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. After Wednesday’s 80-63 win over San Antonio, Indiana is currently nursing a small lead over both teams in the standings, but this battle figures to come down to the final week of the season (Sept. 15, three weeks from Sunday).
Which two teams will move on to the postseason? Which team will be watching from their couches? One good way to handicap the race is to look at each team’s remaining schedule.
INDIANA FEVER (View Schedule)
Current Standing: 12-14 (3rd in East)
Games Remaining: 8 (3 home, 5 road)
East/West: 7 East, 1 West
Average Opponent Win Percentage: .480
Tough Tests: @ Minnesota (Aug. 24), @ Atlanta (Sept. 4), @ Chicago (Sept. 6)
Need to Win: vs Connecticut (Sept. 7), @ Connecticut (Sept. 15)
Head-to-Head: @ New York (Aug. 30), vs Washington (Sept. 10), vs New York (Sept. 13)
WASHINGTON MYSTICS (View Schedule)
Current Standing: 12-15 (4th, 0.5 games behind Indiana)
Games Remaining: 7 (4 home, 3 road)
East/West: 7 East, 0 West
Average Opponent Win Percentage: .474
Tough Tests: vs Atlanta (Aug. 23), @ Atlanta (Aug. 28), vs Chicago (Sept. 8)
Need to Win: @ Connecticut (Sept. 6), vs Connecticut (Sept. 13)
Head-to-Head: @ Indiana (Sept. 10), vs New York (Sept. 15)
NEW YORK LIBERTY (View Schedule)
Current Standing: 10-15 (5th, 1 game behind Washington, 1.5 games behind Indiana)
Games Remaining: 9 (4 home, 5 road)
East/West: 6 East, 3 West
Average Opponent Win Percentage: .502
Tough Tests: @ Chicago (Aug. 23), vs Minnesota (Aug. 27), vs Atlanta (Sept. 6), vs Phoenix (Sept. 10)
Need to Win: @ Connecticut (Aug. 25), @ Tulsa (Sept. 1)
Head-to-Head: vs Indiana (Aug. 30), @ Indiana (Sept. 13), @ Washington (Sept. 15)
We learn several things upon closer examination. One of the first things that stands out is that the Liberty seem to have the toughest hill to climb. Currently in 5th, New York needs to catch either Indiana or Washington, but faces a significantly tougher schedule than either team. It’s not an impossible task, however. The Liberty get three of their toughest remaining opponents at home. And they’re currently tied with the Mystics and just one game behind the Fever in the loss column, so they still control their own destiny.
On paper, Washington seems to have the easiest road. While both the Fever and Liberty still have a game left against Minnesota, who sports the league’s best record, the Mystics avoid the Lynx (and the entire Western Conference). Washington is the only team of the three that currently has more home games remaining. The Mystics’ next two games are a home-and-home with Atlanta. If they can emerge from that 1-1, they should be in great position for a playoff berth.
The Fever’s schedule is somewhere in the middle. All of Indiana’s toughest games come on the road and the team plays their next four games away from the friendly confines of Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Fever also are the only team in this race that has to play a back-to-back (@ Chicago on Sept. 6, vs Connecticut on Sept. 7). But the Fever’s upcoming road trip is pretty spaced out, a major boost for a team that needs rest (head coach Lin Dunn bemoaned the compactness of the Fever’s recent three-games-in-four-days West Coast road trip as a major factor in the team’s 0-3 record in those games). And Indiana gets two of its three games against New York and Washington at home, a nice advantage should the race come down to head-to-head results.
Bonus thought: Each team has games remaining against Connecticut, games that I marked “need to win.” Typically, teams make the playoffs by beating the teams below them in the standings, but Connecticut is not your typical bottom feeder. The Sun was in the Eastern Conference Finals last year and features the reigning MVP in Tina Charles, so they’re not to be underestimated. Though they’ve had a disappointing and injury-riddled season, Connecticut will be out to play spoiler in the final weeks (and they’ve got a very slim chance of still sneaking into the playoffs if two teams stumble). In the three-way race between the Fever, Mystics, and Liberty, the teams that emerge might well be the ones that can handle the Sun.