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Kevin Pelton, | August 24, 2006
In the first nine years of the WNBA, there has been only one inviolable playoff rule: The team with the best point differential always wins.

Okay, that doesn't hold in every series, but when it comes to the WNBA Championship, outscoring opponents in the regular season has always been a perfect indicator. Nine times in nine years, the team with the best point differential has won the title. That wasn't particularly meaningful in some years, when the best point differential belonged to the team that dominated in terms of wins and losses, like the 27-3 1998 Houston Comets (+12.6) or the 28-4 2001 Los Angeles Sparks (+8.6).

Sometimes, however, point differential has correctly predicted a champion who was not the favorite going in. In 2000, Los Angeles (28-4) had home-court against Houston (27-5), but the Comets league-record +12.8 differential presaged their upset over the Sparks (+7.8). In 2004, the Storm's +5.1 differential was far superior to the Sparks +3.9 mark, but Los Angeles won 25 games to the Storm's 20 and had won the season series 3-1. No matter; Sacramento bumped off the Sparks in the opening round and the Storm went on to the title.

Last year saw far and away the closest race in terms of point differential in WNBA history, with Sacramento (+6.9) and Connecticut (+6.8) separated by just six points over 34 games. Still, when Lindsay Whalen hurt her knee and turned an ankle, point differential held and the Monarchs celebrated a championship.

"Phillips' all-out style of defense helped the Sun allow just 65.7 points per 40 minutes with her on the floor, their lowest with any individual."
Ray Amati/NBAE/Getty
Whether he's aware of the point differential trend or not, Sun Coach Mike Thibault saw his team at last post the league's best mark in 2006 at +7.8. Nobody else was better than Detroit's +4.2, the largest gap between first and second since the 2000 Comets and Sparks. That hasn't changed the bad luck with playoff injuries that saw Wendy Palmer hampered in the 2004 WNBA Finals by a strained right shoulder and Whalen sidelined much of last year's Finals. In the final minute of Sunday's sweep-completing win over the Washington Mystics, the Sun saw guard Katie Douglas hobble off the court in obvious pain. On Monday, a CT scan and MRI revealed a hairline fracture in Douglas' right foot that leaves her doubtful for the remainder of the playoffs.

"It's obviously a big loss for our team," Thibault said Monday. "She has been an integral part of our success."

Of that, there should be no question. Plus-minus figures reveal just how important Douglas is to the Sun. As I mentioned in O&O's semifinals preview, Douglas led the team in net plus-minus, the Sun being 14.5 points per 40 minutes better with Douglas on the court this season. I also mentioned then that this figure was inflated by Connecticut's last two games of the season, blowout losses Douglas sat out with a sore right calf. Thanks to the yeoman's work of Paul Swanson of the Minnesota Lynx, I was able to go back to Aug. 10, before those final two games. As of that point, here's what the Sun's performance (per 40 minutes) looked like on offense and defense with and without Douglas:


While Douglas was an All-WNBA Defense First Team pick this season, the Sun did not miss her much defensively - in large part because the Sun's second unit was good defensively as a whole. In Megan Mahoney, Connecticut has a solid wing defender to play behind Douglas, but Mahoney was nowhere near the offensive threat Douglas was this season, and the Sun's offense fell off dramatically when Douglas was on the bench.

Because the Sun's starting lineup was so strong, using plus-minus data probably overstates Douglas' importance. At the same time, she was far and away the best Connecticut starter by this measure and probably the one player the Sun could least afford to lose. Douglas also had the team's best plus-minus (+33) in the series with Washington.

Against Washington - when Douglas' calf was a concern - I did not think rookie Erin Phillips could pick up Douglas' minutes because of the matchup with Alana Beard. In this series, that becomes something less of a concern, because defending Deanna Nolan is more about quickness than size. Philips gives the Sun much more offense than Mahoney, and her net plus-minus (+5.6 through Aug. 10) was fourth-best on the team. Phillips' all-out style of defense helped the Sun allow just 65.7 points per 40 minutes with her on the floor, their lowest with any individual.

The issue comes when the Sun goes deeper. Phillips, because of her style of play, is probably limited to about 30 minutes per game (she's never played more than 31). She averaged 11 minutes in the series with Washington, so she's adding about 20 of the 34 mpg Douglas played in that series. The rest will likely go to Mahoney and backup guard Jamie Carey, a decent shooter (35.0% from 3-point range) and well-regarded defender who nonetheless posted a -11.8 net plus-minus rating, worst amongst Sun regulars. Mahoney, a non-scorer who posted a dismal 40.7% True Shooting Percentage, was -5.6 in terms of net plus-minus.

Let us then change the question - with Douglas, just how much better was Connecticut than Detroit? My usual partner in crime John Maxwell's media notes helpfully point out not only the aforementioned correlation between point differential and championships but also that, after starting 4-4, the Shock was a +6.4 - not very different from the Sun's +7.8 differential. That was, however, helped by a 23-point Detroit win in the meaningless season finale.

There's also the issue of the Shock's 3-0 series win. You can throw out the last game, as I pointed out, but Detroit won twice in Connecticut - 77-73 in overtime in May and 70-64 in June. The Sun only lost at home one other time all season.

Sun fans can take hope in the fact that both matchups came early in the season, when Whalen was far less than 100% because of off-season ankle surgery. In the first matchup, Katie Smith absolutely destroyed Whalen, putting up 23 points, eight rebounds and eight assists while Whalen was scoreless on 0-for-6 shooting. Smith was again the leading scorer in the other matchup, scoring 21 points on 6-for-12 shooting to Whalen's six points on 2-for-10 from the field.

Whalen looked healthy against the Mystics, leading the Sun with 37 points in the two games and shooting 12-for-24 from the field while attempting a team-high 13 free throws. She had just five assists against seven turnovers, but nobody questions Whalen's passing ability; it was her scoring that was MIA at times during the regular season.

Verdict: If Whalen can win the matchup with Smith, the Sun has a legitimate chance. Connecticut still has home-court in this series and an All-Star-laden lineup. Of course, Detroit's lineup is full of All-Stars as well, and they're clicking in right now. Most importantly, Detroit is the healthiest team left in this postseason. That's why they'll win comfortably in Game 1, drop Game 2 against a rowdy Mohegan Sun crowd but pull out Game 3 down the stretch on the road and win this series 2-1. Sorry, point differential.

Los Angeles vs. Sacramento

If these matchups seem familiar, it's because they are. Detroit and Connecticut are squaring off for the third time in four seasons, including two conference finals. This is the fourth straight year L.A. and Sacramento have met in the postseason, and if we go all the way back to 2001, it's the third time in six years for an all-California Western Conference Finals. Los Angeles has won both of those series, but Sacramento has ended the Sparks season in the opening round each of the last two years. This is poised to be another epic clash.

"It's Griffith more than anyone else who has proven Leslie's nemesis."
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty
Though Sacramento is the lower-seeded team, the Monarchs have a lot going for them. They're playing good basketball, demolishing Houston in the first round. They've been resting since Saturday while Los Angeles finished off the Storm in a grueling three-game series. They're healthy, while Sparks forward Chamique Holdsclaw is a question mark because of a strained foot ligament and plantar fasciitis. And, yes, the Monarchs had the best point differential in the West at +3.9 to L.A.'s +2.9.

Again, the head-to-head series results tell a different story than the overall performance numbers. Los Angeles swept the season series 3-0. While you can downplay two June wins by the Sparks because the Monarchs were still struggling at the time and had yet to get a healthy DeMya Walker integrated into the lineup, both teams were at full strength for a matchup at the STAPLES Center two weeks ago yesterday won by the Sparks 69-58 behind 18 points and 10 rebounds from Lisa Leslie.

Overall, however, the Monarchs have been as good as anyone in the WNBA over the last two months. Sacramento was 13-6 from the start of July to the end of the season, outscoring opponents by 5.4 points per game in that span. The Sparks were slightly better - 13-5 - but with a point differential of +2.4. Even I was a little dubious that L.A.'s poor differential might be because of a 41-point loss at Minnesota early in the season, but during this stretch - with Holdsclaw in the lineup - the Sparks were barely blowing people away. Los Angeles did not lose once all season by less than eight points, winning all seven of their games decided by seven points or fewer. That trend held into the playoffs, with the Sparks earning a five-point win in Game 3 against the Storm, but it can't continue forever.

As much as we talk here in Seattle about the Leslie-Lauren Jackson rivalry, it's Yolanda Griffith more than anyone else who has proven Leslie's nemesis. In 2004, Leslie was hardly dominant, averaging 11.3 points and 8.7 rebounds in a three-game loss. Last year, Leslie was limited to 9.0 ppg and 6.5 rpg on subpar 35.6% shooting in the Monarchs sweep. With Holdsclaw ailing, if Griffith can neutralize Leslie again, the Sparks are in big trouble. Temeka Johnson stepped up with some much-needed offense from the perimeter in Game 3 against the Storm, scoring 14 points and handing out six assists, but the Sparks won on the strength of their defense against Seattle, and their zone probably will not have the same effect against the balanced Monarchs.

Verdict: Even if the Sparks were healthy, I would be awfully tempted to pick Sacramento in this series. Given Holdsclaw's potentially limited availability and the Monarchs recent dominance, I think Sacramento sweeps L.A. out for the second straight year.