Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Changing face of the East

Two weeks ago, following the WNBA All-Star break, the Eastern Conference playoff picture seemed pretty predictable:

The Detroit Shock and Indiana Fever, fresh off two of the best first halves in conference history, looked to be locked in a battle for the regular-season title; the Sun, building momentum, were playing the New York Liberty for third; and the Chicago Sky, then losers of five straight, seemed to be playing themselves out of contention. The Washington Mystics, meanwhile, were a dangerous team but probably too outmatched to make a push for a postseason berth.

But this is why they played the second half.

Between injuries, a few unexpected runs and a few more unexpected stumbles, the stretch run for the Eastern Conference playoffs should make for an interesting three weeks.

Detroit, though seemingly comfortable up four games in first place, lost All-Star Game MVP Cheryl Ford for the rest of the regular season to a knee injury and possibly for the playoffs.

Indiana, after losing Tamika Catchings to a foot injury, is suddenly in a free fall, losing six straight after starting the season at 16-4.

Meanwhile, the Sun, as many around the team and league expected, have turned it around and with two straight wins over New York, are still climbing the standings. New York has also lost six straight, despite playing well in many of those games; and the Sky are riding a stretch of four wins in five games and took down Detroit last week.

The Mystics are still in last place but are by no means out of it. At 10-14, they are tied with New York and sit just a game back of Chicago (12-14) for the final playoff spot.

Indiana’s fall from grace may be the most interesting – and surprising – development. Catchings, who partially tore the plantar fascia in her left foot, was a big blow, and, according to Sun Mike Thibault, may force the Fever to find a different identity with her sidelined. She is expected to miss two to three weeks after suffering the injury on July 20. If she stays on schedule, she would return either for the end of the regular season or right before the playoffs, given the Fever make it.

The Sun are currently two games behind Indiana and two games up on Chicago for third. Here are the full standings on WNBA.com.

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