Keys 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. First up, the Western Conference, featuring three former champions, the Seattle Storm, Los Angeles Sparks and Houston Comets, as well as perennial playoff contender and the regular season conference champion Sacramento Monarchs
With Doris Burke, WNBA.com
Sacramento Monarchs vs. L.A. Sparks
This is going to be a fun series as we know there is a history of great games here and it doesn't necessarily matter who has been playing well or who has has a better year. Seeding doesn't necessarily matter and home court advantage doesn't matter. Sacramento is an impressive team to watch in person. Sacramento's formula for success may not be sexy, but it is effective. This team's defensive philosophy is to keep fresh bodies on the floor at all times to apply great ball pressure, take away the high post/middle of the court, deny reversal passes and play very active post defense. Coach John Whisenant says he never watches the ball when his team is on the defensive end. Rather, he watches the feet and hands of the players off the ball. If he sees inactivity of any kind, he is making substitutions. The Monarchs thrive on rattling their opponents into mistakes and turning those into scoring chances. With Ticha Penecheiro playing perhaps the most well-rounded basketball of her career, a healthy Kara Lawson knocking down perimeter shots alongside Nicole Powell, Yolanda Griffith dominating the paint on both sides of the ball and a vastly improved Rebekkah Brunson filling in admirably for an injured DeMya Walker, Sacramento looks like the team to beat coming down the stretch. Los Angeles is getting healthier. Lisa Leslie's production has risen steadily all year and when all is said and done, she will once again be among the league's leaders in several major categories. Chamique Holdsclaw has been Chamique Holdsclaw in purple; her numbers are outstanding. I'm just not sure that this team can pull itself together and have the chemisty necessary in time to provide a serious challenge in the playoffs.
Monarchs point guard Ticha Penicheiro is playing as well-rounded a game of basketball as she has ever done. She has done a very good job of picking her spots this season. The reality is that her handle is so good, that she can get wherever she wants to go off the bounce. There is an art to being able to pick your spots. In transition, she is one of the most dangerous passers and decision-makers in the league. I feel like she has worked better in the half-court set this season, and that can only help Sacramento's chances. With Nikki Teasley out with an injury, Tamecka Dixon has been playing the point for the Sparks. She is obviously not a natural one and I think Sacramento's ball pressure and ability to take away the middle of the floor puts the onus on the people with the ball in their hands to be solid, steady, smart and able to take the pressure without getting flustered. That will be Tamecka Dixon's biggest challenge. She is a natural two-guard with a very good handle.
The Sparks will put Mwadi Mabika in the other guard spot. She has been inconsistent since coming back midway through the season. When healthy, Mabika is in the top three in terms of pure athleticism in the league. I love the rise on her jumpshot, love her in the open floor because she can stop on a dime and love that she can hit the three or attack the basket on any defender. When healthy. She will be opposite the two-headed monster of Chelsea Newton and Kara Lawson, who split time at that two-spot. They are two very different guards. Newton, for such a young player, has to be listed among the best defenders in the league. Her only weakness at this point is foul trouble. She comes from a Rutgers program with one of the best defensive minds in the history of the game. Lawson comes in off the bench, and when healthy, her ability to stroke shots has made her a player. You can see it in the way she steps between the lines with great confidence. Her ability to hit big shots is critical to Sacramento's chances of winning a title.
In the middle, we have Yolanda Griffith and Lisa Leslie. Wow. Another battle. Lisa started off the year so slowly because of the groin injury and a hamstring situation, but when it was all said and done this season, look where she finished in terms of scoring, rebounding and blocks. At or near the top. In the second half of the season, Lisa Leslie looked like Lisa Leslie. As she got healthier, her level rose. She is still a player that commands so much respect. She has a solid arsenal of post moves, very good defensive player. When you are talking about a center, she is the total package who can make an impact on both sides of the ball. Yolanda Griffith is a grittier, physical, blue collar player. She is a great offensive rebounder because she is relentless, has great footwork and is always working for position. She will be a challenge for Lisa because of that relentless nature and because she relishes the chance to play against someone of Lisa's stature. On the offensive end, you get the sense that things come a little bit easier for Lisa and her polished offensive game, but Yolanda is still effective.
Chamique Holdsclaw and Lisa Leslie have carried the Sparks down the stretch and into the playoffs. Chamique Holdsclaw has to just be Chamique Holdsclaw. That means great production in points and rebounds categories. She also has to take advantage of whoever is guarding her. Nicole Powell had a great season in Sacramento, but I'm not sure she can matchup against Holdsclaw, or if she will match up against Holdsclaw. Whoever has to check Holdsclaw will have a tough task, and that could be the most pivotal matchup in the series. Powell was a great acquisition for this team, has the ability to knock down shots despite some periods of inconsistency. You wonder how she will react to her first playoff experience. What I want from Nicole Powell is her making open shots. Stay within yourself, do what you've done all season long, play smart and make open shots.
Monarchs forward DeMya Walker is out at least until the Conference Finals, which means Rebekkah Brunson will fill the void. I have been really impressed with Brunson, and if I am a G.M. in this league and I can get my hands on Brunson in the future, I want her. She in young, athletic and relentless on the offensive and defensive boards. She is really starting to come around as an offensive player as well. Her upside is tremendous, and the way she stepped up her game in Walker's absence signals all that potential is there. Sparks forward Tamika Whitmore is not as athletic, not as tall and has never been a great rebounder, yet she can score against bigger defenders. She has a really good offensive game and her defensive is definitely solid, but she has to use all of that wily and defensive smarts in this series to score against a Sacramento team with great inside presence. I just question the Sparks ability to put it together this quickly against a team like Sacramento, who along with Connecticut, has been the most consistent team in the league all season long.
Seattle Storm vs. Houston Comets
Seattle is clearly a talented, well-coached basketball team, and until someone takes it away, they remain WNBA champions. We saw a team Saturday night that really impressed me and I'm not sure they will lose again at home. The concerns you must have if you are a Storm fan are these: a defense which has been porous at times this season and an inability to win on the road, just 6-11 away from Key Arena. The good news for the Storm, Betty Lennox made her return this week. Meanwhile, Houston boasts four Olympians with Swoopes, Thompson, Staley, and Arcain. With all that experience, this is a team which, despite its maddening inconsistency, that has got to worry teams. Swoopes is having yet another MVP season and has the ability to get hot and carry a team to wins. Thompson is a player that any coach would love to have in big spots. Dominique Canty continues to play solid basketball and has held down the starting job despite the addition of Staley. Staley, in tight spots, knows how to run a team and put the ball where it needs to be. Michelle Snow continues to improve and can be a factor in the paint on both ends. This is not a match-up I would want to face early in the playoffs.
I put Sue Bird on my First Team, All-WNBA list, but I originally struggled with that. I didn't think her level was as high as it was a season ago. But I think you saw on Saturday night against Phoenix exactly why she is a palyer you have to have in playoff time. Sue is a player who senses when there are big moments and she raises her level in those moments. When Lauren Jackson didn't play in the second half against the Mercury, Bird was much more productive. Comets point guard Dominique Canty has been playing a very good point guard with Dawn Staley coming off the bench. I love what Canty has done for Houston this season - played within herself and taken shots within the context of the offense. Van Chancellor is a coach that likes his point guard to get the ball to the big dogs. Tina Thompson and Sheryl Swoopes make a lot of shots, and you have to be very unselfish to play with them. Canty has handled herself very well. Sue Bird is a more natural one, someone who was born to play the point, the only position she has ever known. Consequently, with the level of decision-making that is needed in the playoffs, I'd give the edge to Seattle.
Seattle's Betty Lennox and Janeth Arcain make up the other key guard matchup in this series. These are two players who approach the game in disctinctly different fashions. Arcain might as well be the Rock of Gibralter because she is a player who has a history of being willing to change her game to fit in with the superstars around her. In her own right, she has the basketball skills and physical capabilities to be a star in her own right. On this team, she is the perfect complimentary player, but we've seen that she can score and carry a team when she needs to. She is just rock steady and can make big shots. On the opposite side, Lennox is a streaky player who experiences highs and lows. Some nights, she can carry a team (she was brilliant in the Finals last season) but has also shown her mortality at times. She is an incredibly hard worker and she will do all that she can to be ready after her injury. An interesting contrast in styles.
It is hard to compare Seattle's Lauren Jackson and Houston's Sheryl Swoopes other than to say they are the leading MVP candidates. They have such different styles. Sheryl is still the player best at beating defenders with her first step. She is explosive, gets to the rim and cannot be guarded one-on-one on the floor. Lauren is capable of scoring from anywhere on the floor. Both are capable of taking over or deferring to their teammates on any given night as well. Both of these players impact their team greatly on the defensive side as well. I'm not sure I could give an edge since those two can offset each other.
The other key forwards in this series are Tina Thompson for Houston and Iziane Castro Marques for Seattle. Honestly, for me, when a big shot needs to be made or the game is on the line, I don't know that there is anybody I want taking that shot more than Tina Thompson. Maybe Diana Taurasi, but it feels like Tina gets in a rhythm and a flow each and every game. Even though she missed a lot of time this season, I'd still want her out there. What if she makes two critical jumpshots late in a game. That can catapult a team into the next round or the Finals. She is still capable of having a big game, but you don't need it from her every night. If they ever got Tina and Swoopes going at the same time, they would dominate teams. I really Iziane Castro Marques and she has stepped in admirably this season. She is long, athletic, gets out in transition, though her scoring has been a little bit inconsistent.
At the center position, we have Seattle's Janell Burse and Comets All-Star Michelle Snow. These are two interesting players as far as the similarities and contrasts go. These are two long, lean, athletic centers who seem to get better as basketball players each and every time they step out on the court. Both are good on the defensive end, long and fast enough to block shots either on their own man or on help situations and both are up-and-coming as offensive players. It is still a challenge for them to absorb contact from phsyically-imposing centers and both have also had a penchant for picking up cheap fouls as well. They each need to recognize their value to the team by staying on the floor and not picking up those fouls. That is an even matchup for me. Either one is capable of having a special game.