Just like the players, Basketball Hall of Famer and ESPN analyst Nancy Lieberman
is stepping it up for the playoffs. Lieberman, who was an original member of
the Phoenix Mercury in 1997 and a former general manager and head coach of the
Detroit Shock, takes a look at each of the first-round playoff series. The Eastern Conference features a matchup between the previous two representatives in the WNBA Finals, the Shock and the New York Liberty, as well as two somewhat surprising teams, the Connecticut Sun and the Washington Mystics.
Western Conference first round matchups
York Liberty vs. Detroit Shock
Detroit and New York, who split the season series at two games apiece, will
play the first game on Friday night (8 p.m. ET NBA TV) and get the 2004 WNBA
Playoffs started. The playoffs really give teams new life. So while Detroit
stuggled to make the playoffs, what happened in the regular season does not
matter anymore. The only thing that really means anything for Detroit is that
they finished the regular season winning three games in a row, won four of their
last six games and did qualify for the playoffs. If the Shock can win that first
game at home, they will have every opportunity in this playoff format to win.
Detroit is coming in with a lot of confidence, winning at Phoenix, at home
against New York and then playing well against Charlotte to qualify. Cheryl
Ford was the leading scorer and rebounder in those last few games.
If she can stay out of foul trouble and stay on the court, I think they have
a great chance in this series.
| Cheryl Ford, Detroit Shock
Over the final few games of the regular season, the Shock also proved that they
can win games without Swin Cash
Would it be easier with her in the lineup? Of course, because she is their legit
star. But I also think that teams are now proving that they can win with a star
missing from their lineup. The Lynx got it together without Katie
, the Mystics have gotten it done without Chamique
and the Sparks played half a season without DeLisha
. Teams are not going to let that be a distraction or an excuse.
At this level, parity means just that - parity. A lot of players are good. Players
can't be worried about anything beyond what their job and responsibilities are.
While the Detroit Shock are the defending champions, the New York Liberty were
in the Finals just two seasons ago and also have a lot of confidence. New York
is a team that has been through this before, and it is always important to have
people in your lockerroom that can tell a story or remind players what they
need to do in a particular situation.
An "Outside" Chance
New York is a savvy, veteran team. They are mentally tough and know that if
they can play well and win that first game in Detroit, they are in the driver's seat.
The Liberty lost three out of four games down the stretch, but then rallied
when they needed to most, beating Indiana, winning at Connecticut and then beating
a tough Washington team to get into the playoffs. Over that stretch, their stars,
Crystal Robinson, Becky
Hammon, Elena Baranova
and Vickie Johnson, have
gotten it done for them. Their big four will continue to play a lot of minutes - between
35 and 40 minutes each - and their contributions are going to have to be significant.
New York needs balance - at least three of their starters all have to be close
to double figures in scoring.
This is a really good outside shooting team, connecting on well over 200 3-pointers
this year. That will be the key for New York: they have to knock down outside
shots to win this series. They are very consistent from the foul line and have
a lot of people who know how to get to the line because they are veterans. They
have to work very hard at their shot selection. Also, and it may sound like
coach-speak, but the Liberty have to take care of the basketball and cannot
give Detroit extra possessions. They have to move the ball around, attack the
hoop, get to the foul line and make Detroit come out and guard them.
The Liberty have to figure out a way to rebound with Detroit. The Shock are
the best reboundiung team in the league while New York's weakness is in the
post. Detroit also likes to get out and run. How do you stop a team from running?
Scoring and hitting the offensive glass. Yet, the Liberty only
average 7 offensive rebounds per game while Detroit averages 11 offensive rebounds
per game. It is not insurmountable, but New York needs to make this a half-court
game, hold Detroit down and make this series about posession-by-possession basketball.
Sun vs. Washington Mystics
Many may think the Connecticut Sun winning the Eastern Conference is a bit
of a surprise, but let's take a closer look. Yes, the Sun traded away a starting
Olympic guard in the offseason, but it's not like they got nothing in return.
They got Lindsay Whalen.
Like Alana Beard, Diana
Taurasi and Nicole Ohlde,
Whalen is a difference maker. This is not chopped liver here. She is a stud
and has played great basketball this year. Plus, of the players that Coach Mike
Thibault already had, Nykesha
Sales, Taj McWilliam-Frankin
and Wendy Palmer are All-Stars
and Katie Douglas has had
two or three really good years in a row now.
| Lindsay Whalen, Connecticut Sun
The Sun do not turn the ball over very often, averaging only 13.5 turnovers per
game. On the contrary, they move the ball extremely well - Whalen, Douglas and
Sales can deliver the ball and McWilliams-Franklin is also a very good post passer.
They also have a nice inside-outside balance and are difficult to guard. Teams
have to put a body on Sales, Whalen and Douglas on the perimeter, and that just makes the inside
players' eyes light up because they get one-on-one opportunities down low.
The Sun are a very good basketball team, a veteran team, but young and not
necessarily very deep. Off the bench, Asjha
Jones has elevated her game and is getting pretty sufficient minutes and
Debbie Black will get some
time at the point. But this is a starter-heavy team.
A Mystical Run
For the Mystics, this is a very different team than the one we saw just a few
months ago. Beard is not much of a rookie at this point. She has gone through
so much over the last 34 games, coming from Duke, playing with one of the best
players in the league in Holdsclaw, then it becoming her team in the blink of
an eye. She has already proven that she is more than capable of carrying a heavy
load, something she must continue to do against Connecticut. In June, she averaged
seven points per game. In September, crunch time, she averaged 19.5 points per
game, shooting 44% from the field, 44% from 3-point range and 81% from the free
throw line. She is also getting rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. I have
a lot of admiration for her because I'm sure she didn't think that she would
have to come in and do what she is doing.
But Beard is not the only one who has raised her game down the stretch for
Washington. Chasity Melvin,
who is a former All-Star, has been big for them. Stacey
Dales-Schuman is a tremendous role player and knows what she needs to do
for that team. The players that I really think are key are Murriel
Page, Nakia Sanford and
Tamicha Jackson. Their
contributions to this team are huge. If Jackson can continue to play the way
she has, it would be a major help. This is the core that got more playing time with
Holdsclaw out of the lineup and must continue to be supportive of Beard, Dales-Schuman
The Mystics are a pretty good 3-point shooting team, they are quick defensively
and I like everything about them. But more important than what I think is what
they think, and they have supreme confidence right now. They have won seven
of their last ten games and embody the word "team" better than anyone else I
know. I think Washington will be just fine and I expect this will be another
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