Ann Meyers’ Keys To the Series:
Western Conference Finals
By Ann Meyers, WNBA.com
The two best teams in the Western Conference this season, the Los Angeles Sparks and the Sacramento Monarchs, are set to square off in the Conference Finals, which is only fitting. While the Sparks finished with the best record and the top seed in the conference, the Monarchs are still the defending champions and do not get enough respect. Just think about this. Every season, the defending champion comes in with a target on its back, but do the Monarchs really have the target on their backs? Have they had that bulls eye? Probably not as much as past champions, so when they say they have not gotten their due respect, I'm inclined to agree. This team believes that it does not get its due respect and uses that adage to its advantage. It's a great motivator.
Regardless, this will not be an easy series to pick and I would not be surprised to see the series go three games. In all fairness, Sacramento lost all three games to Los Angeles this season. Sacramento is not a team known for its high scoring. The Monarchs make you play at their pace because they are such a good defensive team. This is a new season and the Monarchs are a different team this postseason. In their two games against the Comets, the Monarchs averaged 20 more points per game than they did in the regular season. Wow!
While the Sparks and Storm were battling it out to the end, the Monarchs have had a good chance to rest up a bit. Coming in fresh will only help bolster their defensive intensity, which has flustered teams all season once again. But in order to move back to the Finals, the Monarchs have to take care of the basketball, first and foremost. Both of these teams are very strong defensive teams. The Sparks really got a huge boost from their defense in the last series, which Lisa Leslie credited for their win. But Sacramento also showed that they can put points on the board, which is psychologically important. So even though they are coming in as the favorite, this will not be an easy series for L.A.
Looking at the matchups, I think it will be interesting to watch the matchup between Ticha Penicheiro and Temeka Johnson. Johnson really found a lot of success getting to the basket and creating shots against Seattle. The Monarchs also need great shooting out of Kara Lawson, who thrives on big games. She always seems to come up with those big shots. I see the Mwadi Mabika-Nicole Powell matchup as a wash, and could swing in the direction of who gets hotter. Between DeMya Walker and Jessica Moore, you have to give the edge to Walker. Moore does so many little things for the Sparks and her team has rallied behind her, but Walker has done a terrific job getting in shape and contributing after having her baby. Walker's return takes a lot of pressure off of Powell and Yolanda Griffith. Yo and Lisa is just a classic matchup. Lisa is so fluid, but faces the basket a little bit more than Yo. Griffith will stay at 15-feet and in and has been the best offensive rebounder in the game since she entered the WNBA.
Looking at the role players, Erin Buescher was the Most Improved Player in the WNBA, but the entire team gets solid minutes. This is a very long and athletic team that plays with a high level of intensity because they are kept fresh, but because everyone plays, there is a greater opportunity for more players to step up. Los Angeles has great team chemistry, as do all four of the playoff teams. But the x-factor for this series could come down to whether Chamique Holdsclaw plays, or how much. I believe it will be a game-by-game decision, but even two minutes could give them a psychological boost. The Sparks also get good contributions from their bench in the likes of Murriel Page, Lisa Willis, Doneeka Hodges-Lewis and Christi Thomas. Thomas has been plagued with knee problems, but she has solid, real important. Willis comes in and hits shots while Page does little things as well.
The Sparks like to get out and run, like they did in the first half of Game Three in the Seattle series. When they are moving the ball, they are a dynamic team and a lot of fun to watch. So if they are able to get the ball out quickly, push the defense and play frantic, it won't allow the Monarchs the time they need to set up their defense. The reason they got into trouble in that fourth quarter in the last game was because they quit passing the ball. Sharing the ball is key to the Sparks success. That said, I was impressed that the Sparks did not fold. Seattle cut that lead all the way to one point, but they never let the Storm tie the game and get over that mental hurdle.
Speaking of mental hurdles, it took the Monarchs finally beating the Sparks in the first round in 2004 to get over the block and finally win a title in 2005. The Monarchs do not have that flash, exciting star. They do not have anyone who will blow you away. They bring their hard hats and tools to work every day and just get the job done. Yolanda Griffith is their leader, her teammates feed off of her and she never lets them down. The Monarchs took a little while longer to come together this season because of Kara Lawson's pre-season health situation, Yo's bad and DeMya's pregnancy. But here they are, ready to go.
Finally, the Sparks will be hosting Game Two on this series not at the Staples Center on Saturday afternoon, but at Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim. "American Idol" auditions will temporarily displace the Sparks, so how will that affect them? Will they still feel that home court advantage?
In this classic battle, Los Angeles is still the favorite because they won the conference, they have the home court advantage and did go 3-0 against the Monarchs this season. But Sacramento is confident and rested, which could prove to be a deadly combination that adds up to an upset. My pick might fuel their motivation, as the doubts from so-called "experts" have fanned their fire all season long.