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‘Clark fever’ lifts WNBA while NBA playoffs heat up

Jimmy Myers
‘Clark fever’ lifts WNBA while NBA playoffs heat up
(left) Caitlin Clark of the Indiana Fever dribbles up the court. PHOTO: Indiana Fever/WNBA (right) Jaylen Brown of the Celtics and Tyrese Haliburton, Indiana Pacers.

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Since her recent WNBA debut, the Caitlin Clark phenomenon continues to impact the league, with the trickle-down effect of her presence raising viewership and marketability.

Clark struggled in her first two games against the Connecticut Sun and New York Liberty before scoring 22 points — on 9-for-17 shooting from the floor, her best outing as a pro — in her third contest against New York.

Her Indiana team lost all three games, including a nailbiter against the Connecticut Sun on ESPN. Clark rolled her ankle in the second quarter, which prompted her coach, Christie Sides, to remark: “I was worried. A lot.” Clark bounced back to score 17 points and hand out 5 assists, but that was a secondary fact to her appeal to mass audiences.

Over 44,000 fans across sellouts in three different cities flocked to witness the 2024 number one draft pick and the NCAA Division all-time leading scorer take the floor for her initial professional basketball games.

Over two million viewers and scores of others watched her season opener as a member of the Fever in the most-watched WNBA game since 2001.

Aliya Boston of the Indiana Fever PHOTO: JOHN MAC

After three WNBA games, Clark is averaging 17.0 points on 40% shooting (32.1% from 3-point range), with 4.3 rebounds, 5.7 assists, and seven turnovers.  In all fairness, the Indiana Fever’s woeful team performance to date comes from a lack of defense and poor offensive execution. Aliya Boston missed a layup with seven seconds left that would have tied Monday night’s game. Clark is part of the problem, particularly her high turnover rate, but not the whole problem. Her critics quickly state that she has not been the solution she was supposed to be —unfair but true.

But even her detractors must grudgingly admit that she has been a marketing boon for the WNBA. Before Clark arrived on the WNBA scene, only Candace Parker (recently retired) had a lucrative signature shoe deal with Adidas — the Ace Commander and Ace Versatility in 2010-11.

Las Vegas Aces star center A’ja Wilson is one of the few active WNBA players (Breanna Stewart, Sabrina Ionescu, Jewell Loyd, and others) with her signature shoe deal – the “A’One” for the NIKE brand. Thus, Wilson becomes the first Black player since Candace Parker with her signature shoe.

Speaking of the two-time defending WNBA champion Aces, they are under investigation following the announcement that Aces players were awarded $100,000 each through a Las Vegas tourism sponsorship deal. While the investigation is ongoing, the Aces (2-0), along with the New York Liberty (3-0), Connecticut Sun (2-0), and Minnesota Lynx (2-0), remain the four top teams in the league following their early solid season starts.

NBA Playoffs

The National Basketball Association reached its final four stages of postseason competition, with the Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers, Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves moving into the conference finals.

Following victories over the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers in the first two rounds, the number one-seeded Celtics will face the sixth-seeded Indiana Pacers in a best-of-seven series for the NBA Eastern Conference Championship. At the same time, the Timberwolves will battle the Mavericks in the best-of-seven Western Conference Championship final.

Jrue Hollidy and Derrick White of the Celtics talk strategy. PHOTO: BOSTON CELTICS/NBA

The Celtics beat two injury-depleted teams, the Heat and the Cavaliers. They will now have to deal with a healthy Indiana team coming off a game seven victory over the number two-seeded New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Madison Avenue advertising moguls and some members of the NBA executive branch were hoping for a Celtics-Knicks Eastern Conference final. 

But it was not to be, and the injury-depleted Knicks finally succumbed to the overall depth of the talented Pacers. The final blow came from the broken left hand that sent Knicks star guard Jalen Brunson to the sidelines for good in the third quarter of the team’s 130-108 defeat. The Celtics will be without the services of injured 7’ 3” center/forward Kristaps Porzingas (calf strain) for the first two games of the best-of-seven series against Indiana.

This series has some other exciting elements, the first being the “Larry Bird Factor.” Remember that Bird left the Celtics franchise after the team elevated Rick Pitino into the executive hierarchy above him.  It is reported that he returned to Indiana with bitter feelings toward the franchise he gave so much to during his 13 glorious years as one of the greatest players in the history of the NBA.

Bird’s name would help the Indiana Pacers build their current arena. He coached the team and hired Rick Carlisle, one of his best friends, during their years as teammates on the 1986 Celtics championship team. It would be a sense of sweet revenge should the Pacers upset the Celtics drive for NBA title number 18.  The Celtics will be out for revenge, seeing that the Pacers knocked them out of the inaugural NBA in-season championship series won by the Los Angeles Lakers, the Celtic’s long-time rival.

The story of the NBA Western Conference is one of shock and disappointment for the defending NBA champion Denver Nuggets, who became the sixth straight NBA champion to fail to advance past the second round of postseason competition.

The second-seeded Nuggets blew a 20-point lead (58-38) in the third quarter and wound up on the losing end of a 98-92 decision against the third-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves in game seven of their series. Strange is the only way to describe their best-of-seven series where the lower-seeded Timberwolves beat the higher-seeded Nuggets in games one, two and seven on the defending champions’ home court.

Of all the back stories emerging from this series, the narrative around Michael Porter Jr., the sharpshooting forward of the Nuggets, was perhaps the most impactful in the final outcome. Porter faced constant distractions from events surrounding his three brothers.

Jountay Porter was banned from the NBA for life for violating the league’s gambling policy, even to the point of betting against his own team, the Toronto Raptors.  Coban Porter was recently convicted of drunk driving and sentenced to six years in prison after killing an Uber driver. And his younger brother, Jevon Porter, is currently awaiting trial for a drunk driving arrest and investigation. Michael Porter Jr. failed to score in double figures for the final three games of the team’s series with the Timberwolves.

Nuggets head coach Michael Malone failed to distinguish himself by poorly managing his squad during the final game and his classless display of temperament during the post-game interview session.

The Timberwolves, winning their first seventh game since 2004 (20 years to the day that the team won a seventh game to advance to the Western Conference Championship series), put on their classless behavior display by dropping F-bombs during their post-game interview session. Here’s hoping someone in the Wolves organization will talk to Anthony Edwards and Karl Anthony Townes, veterans who should know to temper their language better, especially before a live television audience.

Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks PHOTO: ERIK DROST

The talented but very immature Timberwolves will now take on the fifth-ranked Dallas Mavericks, who knocked out the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder in game six of their best-of-seven conference semi-final series.

The Mavericks are led by Luka Doncic, the leading scorer in the league this regular season and one of its biggest complainers.Doncic has drawn the reputation (and 13 technical fouls) of being one of the most disliked individuals by players, referees, and spectators for his boorish behavior on the court. It is sad because Luka Doncic is one of the best players to come into the NBA in years. His coach, Jason Kidd, and teammates have tried their best to deal with him, but he remains a problem.

I credit Kidd for his handling of Doncic, the enigmatic Kyrie Irving, and a few other characters — and I don’t mean good characters — on his team.

If the Mavericks and Celtics meet in the NBA Finals, the dynamic between Kyrie Irving and the Boston Celtics crowd will be interesting. For those with short memories, Irving left the Celtics on bad terms a few years back. Since his departure, he has been loudly booed whenever he touches the basketball on the Celtics’ home court. Stay tuned for more in this drama, should the Celtics and Mavericks meet in the NBA Finals.