By Lucas Gulotta, Associate Basketball Editor
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Although the Western Conference entered the 2014 season with three viable title contenders, the Eastern Conference does not appear to have a weak link in its six-team field.
Chicago had been limiting its opposition to only 72.3 points per game on 39 percent efficiency from the field before giving up 102 points to Los Angeles on Friday. The Sky had not allowed 100 points in regulation since August 2009 before its shaky performance against the Sparks.
"We just were not ourselves at all and we didn't come out very strong," said Sky forward Elena Delle Donne. "As a leader I think about what I could have done, but the good thing about this league is we have a game tomorrow to right the wrong quickly."
It didn't happen that way, though, as the Sky came out flat in a 97-59 loss the next night in Atlanta. The Sky hit on only 33.8 percent of their field goal tries, including a 2-of-9 clip from 3-point range versus the Dream.
Delle Donne tallied only seven points in 25 minutes of action, while Angel McCoughtry and Erika de Souza provided 20 points apiece for Atlanta. Despite the off-night against Atlanta, Delle Donne has been spectacular throughout the early portion of her sophomore season, as she is second among all players in scoring with an average of 22.3 points per game.
Atlanta tied Chicago atop the Eastern Conference at 5-3 with back-to-back wins to close out the week. Before the rout of the Sky, the Dream opened the week with a 93-85 home triumph over Los Angeles.
The Dream's recent surge came after a nine-point loss to a Connecticut team that is currently at the bottom of the conference with a 3-6 record. In addition to de Souza (18.5 ppg) and McCoughtry (18 ppg), who rank sixth and seventh in the WNBA in scoring, Atlanta has also received stellar play from rookie guard Shoni Schimmel. The 5-foot-9 floor general out of Louisville is handing out an incredible 9.3 assists per 40 minutes in her first season as a quarterback of a professional offense.
Washington and Indiana are both sitting at the .500 mark, just one game behind the first-place tie between the Dream and Sky.
The Fever have leaned heavily on Briann January, who was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week on June 2.
"(January) understands that I don't want her to be just good; I want her to be great," coach Lin Dunn said of her prospective All-Star point guard. "I'm going to push her and demand that she gets better all the time."
January and relentlessly tough team defense allowed Indiana to reel off four wins in a row, but it ran out of steam on Saturday and dropped an 88-71 decision at Connecticut. Prior to the loss, the Fever had held their previous three opponents to 66 points or less. January is contributing 14.1 points and 4.9 assists for Indiana, while Natasha Howard, Erlana Larkins and Marissa Coleman are all carrying double-digit scoring averages as well. Larkins is also one of the WNBA's most frequent rebounders with 11.0 per tilt.
The Mystics had a chance to join the leaders, but they were dismantled on Sunday at the Verizon Center in an 81-64 loss to New York. Washington All-Star point guard Ivory Latta was denied open looks and finished just 1-of-3 from the field. Cappie Pondexter was nearly perfect for the Liberty, sinking 10- of-11 field goal attempts en route to a game-high 21 points. New York's decision snapped a three-game slide, but it should be able to climb in the rankings if Pondexter can consistently play at a high level alongside Tina Charles, who is posting 14.8 points and 10.6 rebounds.
The Eastern Conference now has a combined record of 24-25, compared to the 24-23 ledger of the West. However, eight of the Western Conference's wins and only one loss have come courtesy of the WNBA's clear favorite to win it all, the Maya Moore-led Minnesota Lynx.
Minnesota's first blemish came Friday in a 65-62 loss at Seattle. The Storm did a solid job of containing the Lynx's one-two punch of Moore and Seimone Augustus, who combined for only six points in the final quarter of the loss. Minnesota bounced back with an all-around great outing on Sunday, coasting to an 85-72 win over Los Angeles at the Staples Center. Augustus poured in 26 points, while Moore and Damiris Dantas both recorded double-doubles. Moore is pacing the entire league in the scoring column with 24.1 points and Augustus is ranked fourth at 19.7.
Los Angeles was expected to be Minnesota's biggest obstacle in the way of a return to the WNBA Finals, but the Sparks have compiled a 3-4 record to rank fourth in the Western Conference race. Reigning MVP Candace Parker notched a double-double with 24 points and 11 boards in the loss to Minnesota and Nneka Ogwumike had 10 points, but the Sparks' usually reliable backcourt duo of Alana Beard and Kristi Tolliver combined to shoot 6-of-19 from the field.
While Los Angeles has been disappointing, Phoenix has appeared to be a well- oiled machine in the early going. Diana Taurasi's fierce style of play resulted in 19 points, seven rebounds and five assists in the Mercury's 91-79 double-overtime victory at San Antonio on Saturday. Brittney Griner dominated the paint with 18 rebounds and 16 points, while Candice Dupree lit up the scoreboard en route to 26 points, nine boards and five helpers. The Stars' balanced attack kept them in the contest until the second extra session, where they were outscored 14-2 by Phoenix.
Tulsa finally earned its first win this past week as it topped the Mercury, 94-78, thanks to a 20-point and nine-assist outing by second-year guard Skylar Diggins. Glory Johnson provided a double-double of 16 points and 12 boards to help the Shock put their first check in the win column. Although Diggins and Johnson were both exceptional, 5-8 rookie guard Odyssey Sims stole the show as she netted a career-high 21 points and held Taurasi to a 5-of-12 clip from the floor.
"When we are in the flow and running, it doesn't matter who has the ball, we're tough to stop," said Diggins after the triumph.
1. Minnesota (8-1)
2. Phoenix (5-2)
3. Atlanta (5-3)
4. Chicago (5-3)
5. San Antonio (4-5)
6. New York (3-5)
7. Los Angeles (3-4)
8. Indiana (4-4)
9. Seattle (3-6)
10. Washington (4-4)
11. Connecticut (3-6)
12. Tulsa (1-5)
THIS WEEK'S KEY MATCHUPS
Tuesday, June 10
Seattle at Chicago - The Sky will attempt to stop the bleeding as a very capable Seattle unit visits Allstate Arena. The Storm's Crystal Langhorne is one of the most efficient players in the WNBA, as she is tallying 14.8 points on 65.5 percent shooting from the field, along with a team-best 9.0 rebounds. Langhorne will have her hands full with Delle Donne, while veteran guard Sue Bird and Tanisha Wright will go head-to-head with the league's assist leader, Courtney Vandersloot.
Friday, June 13
Minnesota at Atlanta - The Lynx are clearly the team to beat in the WNBA, but they rarely dominate for a full 40 minutes. Minnesota will have a tough task trying to defeat one of the Eastern Conference's best and hottest teams on the road. Schimmel will have to figure out a way to prevent Minnesota's Lindsay Whalen from controlling the tempo, as the Lynx seem to be a much more devastating opponent when all three of their scorers show up to play.
Sunday, June 15
Phoenix at Minnesota - The Mercury have an opportunity to gain some ground in the standings as they square off with Moore and Augustus for the first time. Griner's size and athleticism make her capable of changing a game, but Moore can completely take over a contest due to her all-around excellence, much like LeBron James of the NBA. The point guard matchup of Taurasi and Whalen will pit two of the WNBA's most accomplished ball handlers against one another.
06/09 14:34:45 ET