Sept. 20 -- WNBA fans have an interesting postseason dilemma: So many intriguing storylines, so little time.
Luckily for WNBA fans, we have until Friday -- when the New York Liberty and the defending champion Detroit Shock tip off the 2004 WNBA Playoffs (8 p.m. ET, NBA TV) -- to sort through them all.
So since time is short, let's get to the point, shall we?
Sparks On a Mission
The city of Los Angeles was founded by Catholic missionaries back in the late 18th century, but the Sparks' mission in the early 21st century has nothing to do with establishing roots. It has everything to do with regaining what the Sparks once had.
After winning back-to-back WNBA titles in 2001 and 2002, the Sparks had their streak rudely interrupted by the upstart Detroit Shock in 2003. And for a while, it looked as if the Sparks would have a tough 2004 as well.
First, DeLisha Milton-Jones injured her knee in the 19th game of the season. Then the next day, the man who coached the Sparks to their two titles, Michael Cooper, left the Sparks to take an assistant's position with the NBA's Nuggets.
Lisa Leslie, L.A. Sparks
So, with 14 games remaining and without their starting power forward or their coach, you'd think the Sparks would have collapsed. Instead, they blew up, going 11-3 under co-coaches Karleen Thompson and Ryan Weisenberg. They went on to take the West and capture home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
But the most important constant in L.A.'s quest for title No. 3 has been all-world center Lisa Leslie who finished third in the league in scoring (17.6 points per game) and first in rebounding (9.9 rpg), putting her in the running to win her second WNBA MVP.
Add to that the fact that the Sparks want to prove they can do it without Cooper. And for 'Spoon. Sparks reserve guard Teresa Weatherspoon went to four WNBA Finals with the New York Liberty and came up short each time.
And, just in case you were wondering, the Sparks had home-court advantage throughout the playoffs when they won their previous two titles. It won't be easy this time, however, as the Sparks face the Sacramento Monarchs in the opening series. The teams split their season series, and the two playoff series in which these teams have met (in 2001 and 2003) have been knock-down, drag-out three-game affairs.
Still, Leslie has had her eyes on the 2004 prize since she fouled out of Game 3 of the 2003 WNBA Finals.
"I will always set my goals and work hard to be the best in the WNBA," Leslie said. "That will never change."
Mission accomplished ... so far.
Nature abhors a vacuum. So, it appears, does the Mystics' Alana Beard.
This is not to say her apartment is messy (we have no idea, really), but the rookie has filled the Mystics' leadership vacancy left behind by the injured Chamique Holdsclaw, who is out for the year.
In her last 10 games, Beard has not only bolstered her chances in the Rookie of the Year race by averaging 18.6 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game, but most importantly, she lifted the once-last place Mystics into the playoffs.
Can Beard sustain such excellence in her first-ever WNBA postseason? Her teammates have confidence in her and themselves. Plenty of confidence, in fact.
"We think we can win the championship," said Washington forward Murriel Page told the Washington Post.
They have the reigning regular season MVP in center Lauren Jackson. They have the best point guard in the WNBA in Sue Bird. And at 20-14, they have the second-best record in the WNBA.
Question is: Are the Seattle Storm ready to take that next step, which is win a playoff game, a series and eventually a championship? Even this season?
Lauren Jackson, Seattle Storm
"I know it's the time of year where it's time to play basketball," Storm guard Sheri Sam
told the Seattle Times
. "You just have to step up your game and our goal is to win a championship."
The Storm will need to step up their game against the scrappy Minnesota Lynx, who made the playoffs despite not having Olympian Katie Smith in the season's second half. Smith injured her knee in Athens and is out for the remainder of the year.
"[Seattle has] two of the best players in the league, with Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson, and it is a team that we have a lot of respect for," Minnesota coach Suzie McConnell Serio told the Seattle Times.
In addition to Jackson and Bird, three current Storm players -- Sam, Janelle Burse and Betty Lennox -- all former Lynx, would love to advance to the Western Conference Finals at the expense of their former team.
One year removed from winning the WNBA title, the Detroit Shock nearly lived up to their nickname for the second straight season. This time, it was nearly for all the wrong reasons.
As of Sept. 9, the Shock were 14-17 and in last place in the Eastern Conference. But thanks to three consecutive wins to close out the season, the Shock made the playoffs as the third seed in the wide open East. The Shock also showed moxie by making the postseason without All-Star forward Swin Cash.
"I'm happy for the ladies, because they had to win the last three games to get there," Shock coach Bill Laimbeer told the Detroit Free Press after a Shock win over Charlotte eliminated the Sting and vaulted the Shock into the postseason. "We've come together as a team, which is great. We've got players who can dominate at times, so I think we have a very good chance to win the East again."
Laimbeer is right. In a conference where the best record was one game over .500, the East is up for grabs. Still, the Shock must avoid the turnovers, improve their poor shooting, clamp down on the defensive boards, and stop falling behind early in games if they want to make it past the Liberty in the opening series.
And finally, for the first time in WNBA history, the Houston Comets won't be taking part in the postseason. Winners of the first four WNBA titles and participants in the last three, the Comets finished sixth in the West with a 13-21 record. Until this season, the Comets had been the only WNBA team to be in the postseason every year of the league's existence.