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

New 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.

Cash-ing Out
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 Smith, the Mystics have gotten it done without Chamique Holdsclaw and the Sparks played half a season without DeLisha Milton-Jones. 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.

Connecticut 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 and Melvin.

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 great matchup.

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