Game on

When the WNBA resumes play tomorrow, the dogfight for playoff spots will resume in earnest after a month-long pause.
The hottest two races are in the Western Conference, between the 1 (San Antonio, 18-9) and 2 (Seattle, 17-9) spots; and number 3 Sacramento and 4-spot Los Angeles, both with a 15-12 record. No time will be wasted determining placements, as the Monarchs and Sparks face off at 7:30 p.m. PDT Thursday night in Los Angeles.
Unlike the Monarchs, the Sparks began the season with high expectations, due largely to the pairing of number-one draft pick Candace Parker and returning Center Lisa Leslie. For a while, Los Angeles was ranked first in the West, but a couple of long losing streaks caused them to tumble. If they had lost their last game before the Olympic break, they would have been fifth place in the Western Conference, and not in playoff contention.
Before the season began, Sparks radio commentator Larry Burnett remarked that this was the most talented Sparks roster he had seen in his 11 years with the team. Interviewed recently, Burnett said talent is not the problem right now.
“I don’t think this team has the chemistry of past championship teams,” he said. “I’m not sure they’ve figured out how to play with each other yet, and that surprises me. I thought they would have a great inside-to-outside game, but it’s not there yet.”
This year’s Sparks are an especially close bunch – something that Burnett has noticed as well as fans. He said that in the early days of the Sparks, team members used to interact on the bus during road trips, but then players began retreating into what he called “iPod mode.”
“Past teams used to sing, talk and play games, and that’s back this year,” he said. “I sit in the front of the bus and laugh at what goes on behind me.”
But Burnett said team closeness isn’t always a formula for success. He sited a few Major League Baseball teams where team members would fight bitterly before games, but then go out on the field to thrash opponents.
“I know (Head Coach Michael) Cooper stays up all night trying to figure it out,” Burnett said. “You can have the best game plan in the world, but if the team doesn’t execute it, it’s not going to work.”
Burnett said the thing that concerns him most about this year’s Sparks is their seeming lack of fundamentals – especially defense, getting rebounds and shooting free throws. Nevertheless, he sees Los Angeles making the playoffs this year.
“Their first three games back will be huge in showing how they’ll go into the playoffs,” Burnett said. “If they struggle, they will continue to see challenges.”
Another unpredictable was thrown into the Sparks’ mix yesterday, as 7’2″ WNBA veteran Margo Dydek was signed. Who could have predicted that?
The Seattle Storm may be in trouble in the last half of the season, as all-star Lauren Jackson announced last week that she would have surgery on her knee after the Olympics. She may miss the rest of the season. Forward Swin Cash is also iffy as she contemplates surgery for a herniated disc in her back.
In the Eastern Conference, Connecticut (16-10) is in first place and New York (15-10) and Detroit (16-11) are tied for second. Over the Olympic break, the Shock traded with the Washington Mystics to acquire veteran center Taj McWilliams-Franklin. Detroit hopes she will fill the void left by Cheryl Ford, who tore her ACL in the July 22 game against Los Angeles.
I predict a lot of predictions over the next few days as to who will end up in what place by season’s end. But with this close of a race, and so many intangibles, I dare not even try. I only say this: let the games begin. It’s been a long, long break. Too long.