Keys to the First Round Series:
All season long, ABC and ESPN's Doris Burke has been breaking down games, offering her expert analysis for key games, matchups and other league-related events. She is a veteran of many WNBA Playoffs and Finals and is back once again to offer her take on the first round matchups. Next up, the Eastern Conference pits two of the fiercest rivals in the WNBA, the Connecticut Sun and Detroit Shock, as well as two teams that met in the 2002 Playoffs, the Indiana Fever and New York Liberty.
With Doris Burke, WNBA.com
Connecticut Sun vs. Detroit Shock
Connecticut has its concerns now after an impressive regular season. Coach Mike Thibault's frustration boiled over and led to his ejection after two technical fouls in their loss to Indiana on Tuesday. The Sun had been among the league leaders in scoring throughout the year, but have lost a bit of their flow or mojo on that end. In suffering only their second two game losing streak of the year, Connecticut scored only 58 and 63 points against New York and Indiana. With Thibault at the helm, look for Connecticut to be ready. Oh, the possibilities. Detroit is 3-1 vs Connecticut in 2005 and has outscored the Sun in the paint, 146-74. Detroit is one of the most physically-imposing teams in the league and one has the feeling this would be both a physical and mental challenge for Connecticut. This series is full of All-Stars.
For Detroit, Deanna Nolan is starting at the point guard. According to Bill Laimbeer, she really likes to play the position. To me, she is the person most responsible for Detroit being in the playoffs. She has been one of the more dominating backcourt players in the league. I almost get the sense that Deanna is not aware of how good she could be. She is a player who likes to blend and get along with her team and remains very much a reluctant superstar. She is one player who is talented enough to, on the strength of her own skills, carry a team to win. When she is hitting her jumpshots, everyone in the building knows her shots are going in from the second the ball leaves her fingertips. There is no one who can catch her with the basketball in an end-to-end race. This is a really hard matchup. Katie Douglas does a great job shutting down the opposing team's best perimeter player, whether it is Becky Hammon or Sue Bird, and there are a couple of reasons why I think you put Douglas on Nolan. Douglas is such a smart, savvy defender who has learned to play angles. She has the desire to play this role and has relished it. She has proven on a night-in-night-out basis that she is as valuable as any player on that Connecticut Sun team.
Katie Douglas then impacts Lindsay Whalen more than you think. Whalen can then guard the second-best perimeter player, which makes her job a little bit easier on the offensive end. I really thought Lindsay Whalen's second year would be an adjustment. I thought that teams would be able to take angles away from her and would be more committed to stopping her, but she has proven that she is no fluke. She worked hard in the offseason and got better at understanding defenders, how they are coming at her and trying to guard her. Her decision-making is better. I think she warrants serious consideration for one of the point guard spots on the next Olympic team in 2008. Her frame is durable and allows her to take contact and still score. She is so creative and can get by people, which forces defenses to adjust and more options to open up.
Bill Laimbeer acquired Katie Smith for two reasons. He needed a shooter and he needed leadership, and he was able to get both in one package. But she has not shot the ball as well since coming over, but at any time, she can go off and start lighting a defense up. It doesn't matter who you put on her. Over her career, she has proven that she can stick jumpshots with defenders draped all over her. She can get to the free throw line and really tax a defense. I think the thing she has really provided is stable, veteran leadership on a young basketball team. She has been in a lot of big spots over her career, from Olympic gold medal games to an NCAA title game and the WNBA playoffs. She brings a lot of assets whether she is scoring or not.
Connecticut's preference is to get out and run, but you need to rebound to be able to do that. Detroit is a big, strong rebounding team. That is the reason that Detroit is 3-1 against the Sun this year. Detroit won many of their games this year on second-chance opportunities. They are a physically-imposing basketball team that looks to wear you down, and they have the bodies and the depth to do just that. So at the center spot, we have Ruth Riley for Detroit versus Margo Dydek. At 7-2, you would think that Dydek would be a dominant rebounder. Instead, she has been a spotty rebounder. On some nights, she get double digits, on others she doesn't come close. In this series, Margo Dydek has to be a factor on both sides of the ball. All season long, Mike Thibault has asked her to be fundamentally sound, something no one has made Margo Dydek do. They let her play to her height. In this series, she has to stay in the defensive stance and find a body, the nearest big body whether it is Cheryl Ford, Ruth Riley or Kara Braxton, and put a body on that player. Her ability to board is crucial. Ruth's confidence has been shaky all season. You think back to Game Three of the 2003 Finals, but we haven't seen that dominance since. The ability is there and she can be more effective than she has been. At 6-5, she has a good jump shot and you can't leave her alone at the free throw line. I think Swin Cash's injury impacted her more than it did anyone else as Cash could draw multiple defenders and Ruth could always find that spot and hit those shots.
Taj McWilliams-Franklin is a mother figure in that lineup, the elder stateswoman, the player most likely to make sure everyone is feeling good. She has to be willing to come out of this series with bruises up and down her body, willing to be as physical with Detroit as they are with hern but do that without getting over-emotional or losing focus on the offensive end. She is a savvy veteran who will need all that experience and all of her tricks and apply them to Detroit. Points in the pain will dictate how this series goes, and she is crucial to that. At the very least, she has to play them even in this spot. Asjha Jones is also important in this series. She is strong, has good footwork and knows how to defend big players. One substitution for Connecticut and it drastically changes how you play the game. Kara Braxton is also important, and she will be as good as she allows herself to be. A physically gifted offensive scorer, she is long and runs the floor like a deer. She killed the Sun in that first game that Connecticut lost this season.
Rounding it out, Nykesha Sales and Swin Cash are two University of Connecticut alum who have played in a lot of big games in their careers. Swin has been inconsistent since returning from her knee injury at the All-Star break. She has had some good offenseive games and some off-nights. I don't think Swin is going to really be Swin until next season. Swin will have to be effective in spots as she continues this comeback, but with her speed in transition, she can get some uncontested shots. I still think she is capable of double-digit scoring and you cannot ignore her at all. Some people say that Nykesha Sales should be considered for the MVP. We've already seen that she can dominate for stretches in games. The key to Sales is taking good shots. She can get into a zone where she takes tough, off-balance shots, but when she is set, she will hit her shots. She is also sneaky and will get an offensive rebound put-back, will make plays defensively and turn that into points going the other way and is really just a scorer.
Indiana Fever vs. New York Liberty
Indiana and New York will square off in round one of the playoffs. Indiana is a team that wins games on the strength of their defense. Tamika Catchings should be the Defensive Player of the Year in the WNBA. You can also make a real case for Brian Winters as Coach of the Year as they finished with the third best record in the league and no one would have guessed that prior to the year. New York has been impressive in the absence of injured All-Star center Ann Wauters. Guard Becky Hammon has performed at a First Team All-WNBA level all season, but when Wauters went down, Hammon raised her level even more. Vickie Johnson, when healthy, is still a capable scorer. When she is putting points on the board, the Liberty go to another level offensively.
Let's give some credit to this organization for the acquisition of Tully Bevilaqua. When that trade was made, my initial thought was good, but I thought you'd want a point guard for the future that would score more than Tully does. She helped Seattle win a championship last year as the first person off the bench and made Sue Bird a better player in practice everyday. When you evaluate the impact she has had, it's pretty impressive. Bevilaqua is a tough on-ball defender and, along with Catch, gives the Fever the top leaders in steals in the WNBA. She has a no-quit mentality, doesn't quit and doesn't seem to fatigue. She is one of those rare players that seems to get stronger as a game goes on. She is out in front of a tough Indiana defense that has won them 21 games. There is such a contrast with New York's Becky Hammon. Becky is a natural two playing the one. She has made the adjustment beautifully and really balanced her own scoring with making the people around her better. She puts her teammates in a comfortable position to score while still being assertive and aggressive and using her ability to put points on the board. She cut her turnovers from a season ago, which was the weakest part of her game. She has made the adjustments. Her transformation from an undrafted free agent to a multi-year All-Star has turned her into a formidible force in this league. She had as good a year as anyone in the guard spot. This will be a crucial matchup in this series. It could dictate the outcome of the series.
Rookie Tan White is a combination guard just repetitions away from being a great player in this league. She has great physical gifts: speed, good off the dribble, good frame to score on big guards and has the elevation in the lane to get over them. She has a chance to be really special. On the other hand, New York starts a three-guard lineup. The strength that the Liberty must rely on is their experience. Hammon, Vickie Johnson and Crystal Robinson have been together for a long time now and really know how to play with each other. When Vickie Johnson is healthy, she is still a very capable scorer. She took some time off this offseason and that really helped her. When V.J. is scoring, their offense moves to another level. Typically, her mentality is to defend and rebound which has been preached into her head from back at Louisiana Tech. But with Ann Wauters out, Johnson has to have a scoring mentality in this series. That means attacking off the dribble going left and staying spread in transition and trying to get that three-ball down.
The good news for Crystal Robinson is that she was able to score 19 points in the final games against Indiana on Saturday. It was a throw-away game in terms of the standings, but for her confidence, dealing with the finger injury in a season in which she was up and down all year long, it was huge. If there is a night where Hammon, Johnson and Robinson are all shooting the ball well, I would not want to have to contend with New York. Crystal has always been a stalwart on the defensive end. A versatile defender and so good on the perimeter, I think we will see her match up against Tamika Catchings. She has handled a lot of really good perimeter scorers and has even played Chamique Holdsclaw very well in her career. But Catch will pose a challenge to Crystal to keep her off the glass. To me, Catchings is the type of player I would show someone if I was trying to teach them how to play the game right. I had her third in my MVP voting and she was my Defensive Player of the Year. She plays as hard as anyone, has a great passion, highly skilled offensively, scores back to the basket, face up, off the dribble, mid-range, long-range, offensive boards put-back and post-up moves. She is as hard to guard as anyone in the league.
Indiana center Natalie Williams will be a tough player to guard. Years of playing has taken a toll on her body, but she is still a force in the paint. She takes up a lot fo space, understands how to use her frame to get rebounding or scoring position and without Wauters in the lineup, she could make a difference. Elena Baranova suffered an ankle sprain in the loss to Charlotte last week and the Liberty need her in the postseason to be successful. But she is not really a banger down low. Hats off to G.M. Carol Blazejowski and the coaching staff for the acquisition of La'Keshia Frett in '04 and Cathrine Kraayeveld in '05. Both players fit into Coach Coyle's system and stay within their box. Both don't mind the dirty work, setting screens, playing defense or boxing out. And neither takes bad shots. Look for one of them to be matched up against Williams in the big spots.