As I predicted last week, the Liberty dropped to fourth place in the Eastern Conference standings and are now in line to face No. 1 Indiana in the opening round of the WNBA playoffs. I wish that my forecast had been wrong.
If you look at the bottom line, yes, it’s true that the Liberty earned their spot in the East playoffs with a surprising road win against the league’s elite, Minnesota, last Friday. The optimist always says that you gotta be in it to win it. The devil’s advocate, however, will interject and say that a team backing into the playoffs will likely not survive. In New York’s case, I might be siding with the latter.
The Liberty have two more regular season games remaining: Friday night against the Fever, and Sunday afternoon at Connecticut. It will be an interesting conclusion to the 2011 campaign because the Libs will meet one of those two teams in the first round. Head-to-head, Indiana leads the season series against New York, 2-1. Connecticut leads its season series against the Liberty, also 2-1.
Let’s break down the possibilities. New York will clinch the three seed in the playoffs if they win both weekend games; or if they win one game AND Atlanta loses its regular season finale against Indiana. The Liberty own the season tie-breaker with Atlanta, having beat the Dream, 3-2, head-to-head this season. The Dream will take third place with two Liberty losses.
Whichever seed that New York gets, the first round opponent will represent a huge roadblock, especially for a team that has struggled mightily with consistency down the stretch of the season. As it stands right now, the Libs are 5-5 in their past 10 games and are just 9-7 since the All-Star break. If I was a betting man, I wouldn’t be comfortable playing the Liberty’s hand in the playoffs, even if they earn the three seed.
At this point, the best case scenario for the Liberty is to win these final two games. I know this might be the time to rest some banged up regular players for the playoffs (think Cappie Pondexter, Plenette Pierson and Nicole Powell) but these games are also crucial in building confidence. All-Star Essence Carson and Kia Vaughn need to recapture the form that made the former Rutgers stars such threats in the first half of the season. Leilani Mitchell must play the way she did in the win over Minnesota (24 points, 6-of-8 from 3-point land) and nothing less than that. Bench players Quanitra Hollingsworth and Kara Braxton need more action on the court. Reps will help players improve, maybe much more so than rest.
Yes, the team is already in the playoffs, but these two remaining games are as big as any others that have been played this season.