WNBA Conference Semifinals Preview

Kevin Pelton, storm.wnba.com | August 30, 2005
25-9 RECORD 17-17
25-9 EXP. REC 16-18
4-1 LAST 5 4-1
68.5 PF 68.4
95.7 Off. Rat. 93.4
61.6 PA 69.0
85.1 Def. Rat. 94.6
30.7 RPG 29.5
.529 Reb % .492
Exp. Rec: Expected record based on point differential
1. Sacramento vs. 4. Los Angeles

A year later, we find ourselves with the same First Round 1-4 matchup in the Western Conference, though with a twist - this time it's Sacramento that holds home-court advantage and enters the playoffs as the favorite in the Western Conference. The Monarchs Game 3 upset in Los Angeles last September sent Sacramento to within a game of the WNBA Finals and on a run that has continued with a (team) record-setting 25-9 regular season, while the Sparks responded by hiring Henry Bibby and trading for Chamique Holdsclaw and has ended up having to scramble to make the playoffs.

Based on the regular season, this matchup should dramatically favor the Monarchs, who took three out of four head-to-head meetings and won eight more games. However, nobody is quite certain what Sparks team will take the floor tomorrow. There's no question with regards to L.A.'s talent, but what accounts for the Sparks disappointing regular season? Bibby's coaching? Injuries? Pieces not fitting together? Between losing his debut to Sacramento and the season finale at Houston (in which he made liberal use of reserves), Bibby's replacement, Joe Bryant, coached the Sparks to four straight wins. Still, it's probably premature to say the old Sparks are back given three of the wins came at home and the other was a come-from-behind effort in San Antonio. L.A.'s injuries aren't completely healed; while Nikki Teasley is on the playoff roster and will play, she's far from 100%. Mwadi Mabika wasn't herself after missing the first half of the season with a knee injury, shooting a career-low 32%.

The Monarchs aren't healthy either, despite key guard Kara Lawson being cleared to play after suffering a subluxation of her left shoulder last Tuesday against Phoenix. Forward DeMya Walker, battling a sprained right knee, is not expected to play in this series. The Monarchs haven't missed Walker tremendously, with Rebekkah Brunson stepping up in her place to emerge as a nightly double-double threat, but Lawson is a different story. Sacramento is much more dangerous when she's hitting from outside. John Whisenant made an interesting point to me last week, noting that Lawson needs to be in good shape to hit from the perimeter at a high percentage. The stats back him up; Lawson shot 37.5% from 3 in limited June action, 40% in July and was at an off-the-charts 53.1% in August before going down.



In the middle, perennial All-Stars Yolanda Griffith and Lisa Leslie usually tend to play to a draw. To me, that means this series comes down to Holdsclaw versus Nicole Powell at small forward. Holdsclaw has to dominate this matchup against Powell - not considered a good defender, though she's held her own in Sacramento - for L.A. to have a chance. If Powell plays Holdsclaw to anything approaching a draw and stretches the defense, the Monarchs defense wins this series for them.

Verdict: The Sparks get everyone talking about a return to form after a blowout win tomorrow, but the Monarchs take two at ARCO (where they're 15-2 this season) to advance.

26-8 RECORD 16-18
25-9 EXP. REC 16-18
3-2 LAST 5 2-3
72.8 PF 66.1
100.7 Off. Rat. 87.8
66.0 PA 67.3
91.4 Def. Rat. 90.6
32.6 RPG 35.7
.500 Reb % .551
1. Connecticut vs. 4. Detroit

While there are great matchups all over the place, this is probably the marquee semifinals matchup this season. What's bizarre is that, on paper, it's the biggest mismatch. Connecticut won a full 10 more games than Detroit, the largest gap since the 28-4 Sparks faced the 18-14 Sting in the 2001 WNBA Finals. But Detroit won three of the four head-to-head matchups, making this series a popular upset pick.

Like the Charlotte Sting four years ago, 17-4 after a 1-10 start, there's reason to believe the Shock is better than its 16-18 record (the worst record for a playoff team since 14-18 Washington in 2000) would indicate. Since trading for All-Star guard Katie Smith during the last weekend of July, Detroit is 7-6 despite resting four starters in Saturday's season finale. Though the Shock has lost a pair of games to the lowly Sting, Detroit is 6-0 at The Palace of Auburn Hills with Smith and riding a seven-game home winning streak that started against the Sun. Connecticut doesn't exactly go into the playoffs on a high note after losing consecutive games at Mohegan Sun Arena to Indiana and New York recently.

The big question with regards to this series is how meaningful Detroit's head-to-head wins are.

"We have the guard play to match up with their guards; that's their strength," Shock Coach Bill Laimbeer told the USA Today. "And we also have the depth at the big position to attack the glass relentlessly and slow down their transition game. We match up very well with them."



The latter point seems more important to me. If the Sun has a "weakness," it's the glass, where Connecticut grabbed a straight-up average 50% of available rebounds. Detroit, meanwhile, posted the best defensive-rebounding season in league history in terms of rebound percentage, while also leading the league in offensive rebounding percentage. Yikes. All those boards do no good if the Shock can't score, as was the case in Detroit's loss in Connecticut early in the season. But the Shock got outstanding performances in their opening win from Deanna Nolan (11 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds for the league's fourth all-time triple-double) and in their win at Connecticut from reserve Plenette Pierson (17 points on 5-for-9 shooting).

But the biggest reason for the Shock's head-to-head success is that the Sun shot just 35.1% in the four games, as compared to 46.6% in all other games. That doesn't strike me as likely to be a fluke. Detroit has enough size in the backcourt to bother the Sun, and plenty of size up front to cause trouble. The Shock also prefers the same kind of up-tempo game as Connecticut. That's why this matchup has danger written all over it from the Sun's perspective.

Verdict: Detroit stuns the Sun in two. (I feel like being bold.)

21-13 RECORD 18-16
18-16 EXP. REC 18-16
4-1 LAST 5 2-3
63.8 PF 68.1
92.1 Off. Rat. 99.7
62.7 PA 67.2
90.4 Def. Rat. 97.4
29.8 RPG 28.6
.515 Reb % .470
2. Indiana vs. 3. New York

This was all prepared to be my upset pick of the semis. I had all this great statistical evidence to demonstrate why the Liberty had a better chance than anyone thought, and then BAM! Ann Wauters broke a bone in her hand on August 12 and isn't even on the playoff roster. The Liberty managed to win its first three games without Wauters, but heads into the playoffs on a three-game losing streak. (Adding injury to insult, center Elena Baranova suffered a sprained ankle last Thursday, though she is expected to play.) The WNBA public, which wasn't as high on New York as I was before the injury, has largely written them off now. As of last check, on a poll on WNBA.com, just 15% of fans picked the Liberty as the lower-seeded team most likely to pick an upset, with all three other lower seeds getting at least a quarter of the vote.

So why did I like the Liberty's chances? Point differential. Going into Saturday's regular-season finale, where the two teams played each other in a completely meaningless game, the Fever had outscored its opponents by 12 points on the season, New York by 56 points. Indiana, despite a sparkling 20-13 record, had a point differential that portended a record much closer to .500. Is it possible that this reflects a true ability of the Fever to win close games? Certainly. But it's more likely, based on the tendency of teams to play down or up to their differential the following season, that the Fever has gotten a few bounces that produced home-court advantage in this series.

You wouldn't know it from their scoring average, which ranked sixth in the league because of a slow pace, but the Liberty was outstanding on offense this season, ranking second in the WNBA behind Connecticut in Offensive Rating. Meanwhile, Indiana boasts the second-best Defensive Rating in the league, making this a matchup of strength and strength (and weakness on weakness when the Fever has the ball). Obviously, the Liberty offense isn't quite the same without Wauters, but her replacement, small forward Shameka Christon (in a smallball lineup) matches up much better with Fever MVP candidate Tamika Catchings. Kirkland native Cathrine Kraayeveld has also stepped up in a reserve role in Wauters' absence, averaging 8.7 points per game and shooting 7-for-16 from 3-point range.



For New York to win, I see a couple of keys. First, Becky Hammon has to be able to score and take care of the basketball going up against one of the WNBA's best on-ball defenders in Tully Bevilaqua. Second, the Liberty can't allow Fever reserve Tan White - who averaged only four points per game on 26.3% shooting in August - to provide timely offense off the bench. Still, this Liberty bunch looks just a little too banged up to take a game at Conseco Fieldhouse, where the Fever is 14-3.

Verdict: Indiana in three.