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"You Have to Try, You Have to Care!": The (Totally Subjective) Definition of a Playoff Team

There really is no way to predict who will end up making the playoffs, especially in the Eastern Conference.

However, the one thing that seems to be magnified as the post-season nears in a relatively small professional sports league with amazing parity is effort.

It seems sufficient to answer the question, "Who’s going to make the playoffs?" with the question, "Who wants it more?"

With each additional game played, the significance of the remaining games increases, particularly in the East. Meaning teams not only have to fight through the aches and pains collected during the season, but also the mental demands of the increasing pressure to win.

With the Eastern Conference playoff picture about as clear as the Swamp of Sadness, the playoffs will likely come down to the teams that are willing to fight through the looming threat of going home early.

Sadly, in watching the games last night you could see one team that has seemingly already lost its will to fight.

Watching the two late games last night – the Chicago Sky vs. the Washington Mystics and the Atlanta Dream vs. the Sacramento Monarchs – you could really start to see what separates playoff teams from those that will be adding lottery picks to their roster in 2010.

The Dream beat a Kara Lawson-less Monarchs team in Sacramento to win their second straight in the midst of a five game road trip. Rookie forward Angel McCoughtry strengthened her argument for Rookie of the Year with an impressive all-around game, recording 26 points, 10 assists, and 5 rebounds. Complementing McCoughtry in the post was Erika de Souza who finished with 27 points and 13 rebounds, helping the Dream dominate a traditionally strong Monarchs team inside.

The Dream did exactly what you want to see from a playoff team – they beat a limping team when they had to, even though they were in the middle of a road trip across the country. It makes you think they might be holding fast to the dream of their first playoff bid.

Then there’s the Chicago Sky.

Yes, the Sky beat the Mystics 92-86 to keep themselves in the playoff race.

But the score is actually deceiving – we 34.9 seconds left the Sky were actually down 85-84. The final score is more the result of an untimely turnover from Washington point guard Lindsey Harding and subsequent free throws.

Meaning the Sky were very close to losing this one.

That’s disturbing.

The Sky were essentially, though not mathematically, in a must-win situation at home on four days rest and center Sylvia Fowles returned to the lineup from injury. The Mystics were playing the second of a back-to-back, having beat the Seattle Storm at home the previous night. Oh yeah – they were playing without All-Star guard and standout defender Alana Beard.

No comment on rookie guard Kristi Toliver’s minutes.

It’s not uncommon for Golden State Warriors commentators to sum up the team’s 50th to 60th loss of a season by saying something along the lines of well, despite the narrow loss, it was a great moral victory. Since the NBA – nor any of the aforementioned imaginary basketball deities – has never recorded moral victories, this type of comment always works my nerves.

However, the Chicago Sky –the team that I will throw 100% of my fan fervor behind pending a clear strategy – have helped me to see the value of such a seemingly paradoxical claim by looking at its inverse:

Despite the narrow win, the Sky must be demoralized.

Ok, I know that immediately sounds ridiculous. But had you seen the game – or once you put the game in context – it all makes sense, though it still maintains a hint of absurdity.

If the Sky are not able to step up and put away a battle-weary team on their home floor, what reason do we have to believe that they can survive the fight to the playoffs?

With two of their remaining four games against the Detroit Shock, how will the Sky fend off a grittier, hungrier, and scrappier Shock team?

Looking at both their performance last night and their performance throughout the season, there is no reason to believe that the Sky have what it takes to win this race to the playoffs.

That’s a totally subjective opinion – obviously, I have no way of knowing what will transpire in the coming week. Maybe the Sky will suddenly wake up and play as though they know each other and might have been to a practice together once or twice.

In the meantime, I think they’ve given us ample reason to count them out.

And if that isn’t ample reason to make some changes in the off-season, I’m not sure what is.