WNBA Conference Semifinals Preview

Kevin Pelton, storm.wnba.com | Sep. 24, 2004
1. Los Angeles (25-9) vs. 4. Sacramento (18-16)

Leslie and Griffith are the best matchup in the first round.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty
In the eyes of the WNBA, this is the glamour first-round matchup, and I can't help but agree. It starts with a matchup of the two best centers in the league, Lisa Leslie and Yolanda Griffith. Of Griffith, Sacramento-area denizen Clay Kallam of Full Court Press notes, "A case could certainly be made that she's the second-best post player in the league." If Lauren Jackson is considered a post, we here in Seattle would certainly have her included in that discussion, but Kallam's point remains accurate - Griffith is the WNBA's forgotten superstar and very much belongs in the MVP conversation with Leslie and Jackson. Griffith shoots 51.9% (second-best in the WNBA), rarely turns the ball over, keys the league's best offensive rebounding squad and is a phenomenal defender who tied for the WNBA lead in steals as a center (if I had a ballot, I'd give Griffith Defensive Player of the Year by a hair over Leslie). Especially with Leslie playing out of her mind in September, the Sparks have an advantage in the middle, but it's not nearly so large as you'd probably imagine.

Everyone talks about the Monarchs problems from the perimeter (and Coach/GM John Whisenant's foolishness for not importing a shooter this winter), but this is an exaggeration at best. Sacramento shot 35.3% from downtown, slightly better than league average. The Monarchs 129 threes were below average, but not so low they couldn't overcome that. Thanks in part to their work on the offensive glass, Sacramento was a quality offensive team, ranking fifth in the league in points per 100 possessions, only slightly behind third-ranked Los Angeles.

The bigger reason the Monarchs slipped a bit this season was on defense. The league's best team at that end of the court in 2003, Sacramento was fourth this year - worst of the Western Conference playoff teams. As good as the Monarchs were on the offensive boards, they were almost as bad on the defensive boards, ranking 11th amongst WNBA teams in defensive rebounding percentage. Good news: The Sparks were a slightly below-average offensive rebounding team.

On the Los Angeles side, the Sparks come into this series having won six of eight since the break despite seeing their depth tested with Mwadi Mabika injured, Tamecka Dixon suspended for a game and rookie Laura Macchi absent playing for the Italian National Team. Mabika is (mostly) healthy and Macchi is expected to return midway through the series, and rookies Doneeka Hodges and Christi Thomas have gotten valuable experience. Add Leslie peaking at the right time and the Sparks are poised for the playoffs. The biggest question mark is how rookie Coach Karleen Thompson responds to her first playoff appearance at the helm.

No team in the WNBA is more confident going up against the Sparks than Sacramento, which split the season series 2-2 with Los Angeles this season (the only WNBA team to beat the Sparks more than once) and lost one of the other games in overtime. These teams staged a classic Western Conference Finals a year ago, and there's no reason to expect anything less from this series. For the underdog Monarchs to pull the upset, a few things would help. Exaggerated or not, they need to have Kara Lawson and Ruthie Bolton hitting from downtown to clear the paint for Griffith and company. The Monarchs could use foul trouble on the Los Angeles front line - Leslie committed the most fouls of any WNBA player this season (a fact lost on those who complain about her preferential treatment) and L.A. was second only to Phoenix as a team. Lastly, the Mabika-DeMya Walker matchup could be key. Walker has three inches on Mabika, but is giving up athleticism on the perimeter. Oh, and a good series from Tangela Smith, who hasn't had a great season, would be huge.

Verdict: Sacramento keeps it interesting, but Sparks in three.

1. Connecticut (18-16) vs. 4. Washington (17-17)

Containing Beard is key for Connecticut.
Mitchell Layton/NBAE/Getty
The 1-4 series in the East is equally intriguing, matching two of the league's hottest teams. Both Connecticut and Washington have won four of their last five games, in the Sun's case clinching home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoff while the Mystics secured a playoff spot. The Sun got a bad break, but not literally, when Katie Douglas left Wednesday's practice with a bruised nose after being hit. Douglas still expects to play, which is big for the perimeter-thin Sun.

At the start of September, I pegged Douglas as Connecticut's key player, and she stepped up to score 12.0 points on 48.4% shooting down the stretch, though she did struggle from three-point range. It's probably something less than a coincidence that the Sun finished so well as a team.

On the Washington side, it started with Alana Beard. Over the last 16 games of the season, starting July 17 in Seattle, Beard averaged 19.3 points on 47.3% shooting, 55.9% from downtown and 83.5% from the line. When combined with her phenomenal defense, Beard was the best guard in the WNBA over the last half of the season, and her performance was reflected in Washington's staying in the playoff picture without Chamique Holdsclaw. As WashingtonMystics.com reports (while managing to work in the movie Old School, something I've failed to do thus far), it wasn't just Beard: Chasity Melvin played like she did in Cleveland and Nakia Sanford made a strong, if ill-fated, run at Most Improved honors.

Beard's performance, along with that of Lindsay Whalen (10.6 ppg, 59.1% shooting, although only 3.3 apg in September) puts the lie to the notion that rookies will melt under the pressure of the end of the season. The playoffs are a different beast, but Beard and Whalen have played in plenty of big games during their college careers and neither side need be overly concerned about their reliance on a rookie.

More problematic for Beard should be the defensive effort of Douglas, who has really emerged at that end of the court this season and done a quality job working against the opposition's top perimeter players. In these teams' one post-Beard-rebirth meeting, Douglas held Beard to 14 points on 6-for-16 shooting, though the Mystics still came up with a one-point win in Washington. If Douglas can contain Beard, that spells trouble for Washington, as Taj McWilliams-Franklin should be able to handle Melvin. That would leave Connecticut with dramatic advantages at small forward and point guard, and the Mystics bench isn't good enough to overcome that and the Sun's home-court advantage.

Verdict: Connecticut gets the only Semifinals sweep after pulling out a nailbiter at the MCI Center.

2. New York (18-16) vs. 3. Detroit (17-17)

Ruth Riley and company could dominate New York down low.
Jesse D. Garrabant/NBAE/Getty
Both the New York Liberty and the Detroit Shock can enter this season rightfully boasting of being the favorites. The Liberty has the better record and home-court advantage, while the Shock is still the champions until Detroit is defeated. If the Shock was healthy, everyone would be picking them in this series, but Detroit lost Swin Cash, having a First-Team All-WNBA-type season, to a torn ACL with two games left in the season. Still, the Shock showed the heart of a champion in winning two critical games at Phoenix and against New York and then cruising past Charlotte in a winner-take-all battle for the final playoff spot in the East last Sunday at the Palace. Deanna Nolan's three-pointer to send the win over New York to overtime also suggested the Shock might have luck with it down the stretch.

The Liberty comes into the playoffs hot as well, having won its final three games to secure home-court advantage. Included in that stretch was an upset of the Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena and Sunday's win over Washington to determine who would host two playoff games. On the downside, New York has been battered by injuries. Forward Crystal Robinson played limited minutes against Washington because of a sore toe, and star center Elena Baranova injured her MCL in the game. Center Tari Phillips' season is over after she was left off the playoff roster because of a fractured right hand. Already, center Ann Wauters (broken foot) had been lost for the year.

The key numbers from the Shock's perspective are .528 and .466. Those are the rebound percentages for Detroit and New York, respectively. Only one WNBA team rebounded better than the Shock; only one did so worse than the Liberty. Do the math, and it adds up to a commanding rebounding advantage for Detroit. Baranova has done a fine job on the glass this season, but forwards Bethany Donaphin (forced into a starting role because of the injuries) and Robinson are both tremendous liabilities on the glass. Meanwhile, on the other side sits the WNBA's top rebounder, Cheyl Ford. This has the potential for New York disaster unless Liberty Coach Pattie Coyle shakes up her rotation and begins getting rookie DeTrina White, one of the league's top per-minute rebounders, more than the 10 minutes per game she averaged in September. (In fitting with the rest of her frontcourt teammates, White is also dealing with a dislocated finger, but she wasn't playing much before that.)

Worse still for the Liberty, after slumping much of the season, Ford has gotten it rolling in September, averaging 13.0 points and 10.1 rebounds per game and getting to the free-throw line regularly. She is poised for an outstanding series. Deanna Nolan also shot well in September, except from three-point range - fun fact: her game-tying three against the Liberty was her only three in 17 attempts during the month - and will be critical. New York's best shot in this series is to get hot from the perimeter. If Robinson, Becky Hammon and Vickie Johnson turn this series into a run-and-gun shootout from long distance, Detroit has no prayer of keeping up. Hammon in particular could dominate her matchup with Elaine Powell, who has never seemed to find her groove all season long. Still, in the traditional spirit of the Eastern Conference, this series should belong to the frontcourt, where Detroit - despite Baranova - has a big edge.

Verdict: The teams hold serve at home in the first two games, but Detroit pulls off the upset in the finale. Never underestimate the heart of a champion.