Becky Hammonís Insiderís Guide to the Eastern Conference
With Becky Hammon, New York Liberty
All-Star guard Becky Hammon and the New York Liberty will not be participating in the 2006 WNBA Playoffs, but that doesn't mean she won't be watching. As someone who knows the Playoff teams and players quite well, we asked the Liberty leader to break down the two first round series in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. Hammon takes us inside each positional matchup, but stops short of making predictions. After, she will have to play these teams again next season.
Washington Mystics and Connecticut Sun
Point guards - Nikki Teasley and Lindsay Whalen are two of the most creative playmakers in the game and both know how to make their teammates better. Each also has Playoffs and Finals experience. Whalen's injury in the Finals last year hurt Connecticut's chance to win the title, but she has worked all year to get back to full strength and is really starting to make an impact. When healthy, there are few people in this league who can make things happen like Whalen. And as someone who has been down that road before, it really does take about a full year to fully recover from any major surgery. Teasley led the WNBA is assists this season, her first with Washington. This will be the best point guard matchup of the 2006 Playoffs and will be very exciting and entertaining to watch.
Shooting guards - I see this matchup as the key to the series as both Alana Beard and Katie Douglas are All-Stars who have driven their teams' offense this season. They can score in bunches and are both shut-down defenders on the perimeter. Douglas was the All-Star Game M.V.P. and gets to play with an entire lineup of All-Stars. Literally. But Beard's growth is indicative of how Washington has improved into a title contender as well.
Small forwards - Nykesha Sales was out for nearly the entire second half of the season, but her return to the lineup will give the Sun an even added lift. Yet in winning so many games with her out of the lineup, additional players have gotten the chance to work their way into the rotation. Crystal Robinson's first season with Washington was a bittersweet one for me as we really missed her in New York, but I'm happy she is doing well with Washington and back in the playoffs where she belongs. Crystal is still one of the best one-on-one defenders in the game and one of the best clutch shooters I have ever seen.
Power forwards - Taj McWilliams-Franklin had another great season, scoring, rebounding and leading the Sun to their best season yet. DeLisha Milton-Jones missed some time with an injury, but is back and has been playing well. She presents matchup problems no matter who is defending her because of her versatile inside-outside game. Youngsters, get your pen and paper out, because seeing these two savvy vets go to work will offer some great lessons to learn how to get it done in the paint..
Centers - Mystics center Chasity Melvin is one of the most underrated players in the game, and when she gets it going, she can be a real handful for any defender. Margo Dydek is coming off one of her best WNBA seasons and is certainly credited for not just blocking shots, but also altering any shots that us little guards put up in her paint.
Bench - The Sun use their depth and balance perhaps better
than any team in the WNBA, with great talent coming off the bench for Coach Thibault.
Forward Asjha Jones is the best Sixth Man in the game and could really start on
any team. Her presence on the court is like having another starter out there and
in the event of an injury, she can come in and won't miss a beat. She does a lot
of little things to help her team win. Erin Phillips has been a lot of fun to
watch and brings a lot of energy off the bench for them as well. But do not underestimate
the Mystics... Nakia Sanford had a career-year and Coco Miller, Latasha Byears,
Laurie Koehn can all come in and impact a game.
Detroit Shock and Indiana Fever
Point guards - Katie Smith, who made the transition to point guard this season for the Shock, is one of the best shooters this league has ever seen while Tully Bevilaqua is my choice for Defensive Player of the Year. So in a sense, both of these players will have their hands full for the entire series. But what makes both of these players special in the same right is that they both have an incredible will to win. No matter what it takes for their respective teams to win, that is what they'll do. Katie is looking for that first ring while Tully is looking to win a second and flash a pair of rings.
Shooting guards - Deanna Nolan may very well be the most gifted athlete in this league and has the ability to take over games when she wants too. No one person is going to stop her. She requires special attention and preparation for any opposing team. But Anna DeForge can be deadly from the outside and has the ability to spread any defense out. She can never be overlooked. She also moves well without the ball, so you always have to know where she is. Anna is a smart player, so she'll find ways to help her team.
Small forwards - Now this is going to be a very interesting match up. Swin Cash and Tamika Catchings are two players who go all out every second of the game. Both are relentless on both ends of the court. Tamika is one of the top five players in the world. Just her prescense on the court makes life easier for her teammates. She is always hustling and always doing the little things AND THE THINGS that help the Fever win. She is a player anyone would love to play along side. Swin is also a gifted athlete who missed a lot of time, but is definitely back in form. After struggling with her knee injury, she looks comfortable and confident out there and is certainly a handful in her own right. Swin does her damage on the block and grabbing offensive rebounds.
Power forwards - I gave Miko (Tamika Whitmore) my vote for Most Improved Player, not because I think she is just sooo much better this year than last year, but because she is doing it sooo easily. This girl has got a feel for the basket that you just do not see with a lot of post players. She has such touch and finesse around the rim. Cheryl Ford is just like Tamika, except the opposite! Ford is a physical force and will probably end up as the WNBA's all-time leading rebounder by the end of her career. The more physical the game, the more dominant she becomes. Yet just like Miko, Cheryl has a knack for the rim and a knack for rebounding. She is the finest rebounder this league has.
Centers - Ruth Riley is another one of those players who you just love to play with... a consummate team player and professional, she demands respect on the offensive end and is a terrific defender, specifically an exceptional help side defender. If she gets the touches, Ruth will knock down shots. Oh yeah, she tends to make the "big ones," too. In her third season with Indiana, Ebony Hoffman is another underrated post player who, along with Tamika Whitmore, has exceptional shooting touch around the hoop. Ebony also has the ability to face up and take the jumper or put the ball on the floor. She has great hands and footwork in the post and is getting better every day.
Bench - Both teams rely heavily on their star starters, but you never know who will step up. Tan White is explosive and Linda Frohlich has been down this road before for Indiana. For Detroit, it could be Elaine Powell, Plenette Pierson or Kara Braxton. The bottom line is that the trainers need to have plenty of ice on hand because this is going to be an extremely physical match up.
Coaches - Brian Winters and Bill Laimbeer. This is classic. Both former NBA players, so both are extremely competitive. Brian Winters' club is extremely committed to adhering to their defensive schemes, which will suit them well in the Playoffs. He and his staff will have this club extremely prepared and focused. And Bill... hmmmm... are there any words for him? Bill is Bill... he's one of kind. His confidence and mental toughness exude onto the floor and into his players. We know it certainly worked one time for him, but will it work again? Either way, pound for pound and inch for inch, this will be one BIG, TALL order on the sidelines!