The Brazilian Connection
When the Houston Comets and Seattle Storm square off, a primary topic is usually the Olympians that dot rosters on both sides. This year, the focus is not so much on Americans Sue Bird, Sheryl Swoopes, Tina Thompson and coaches Van Chancellor and Anne Donovan or even Australian Lauren Jackson, but instead the Brazilian contingent. Janeth Arcain and Iziane Castro Marques teamed up to lead Brazil to a fourth-place finish in Athens last August, but they'll be on different sides tomorrow (7:30 p.m., FSN, ).
The 36-year-old Arcain, a Brazilian legend, missed the 2004 WNBA season to train for and play in the Olympics. Without her, the Comets went 13-21 and missed the postseason for the first time in franchise history. 23-year-old Castro Marques, considered the future of Brazilian basketball after finishing second to Arcain in scoring in the 2004 Olympics, is expected to make her first start for the Storm at small forward.
"She is a big, big sporting person in Brazil," Castro Marques said of her countrywoman after the Storm practiced Thursday. "She's considered now the second person - first is Pele, the soccer player, and then is Janeth. So for us basketball players, she's like an idol. I would always watch her when I was little and even before I played basketball, I watched her on TV."
"She makes them 10 times better," said Bird. "I'm going to say this without even playing them yet. She's another ballhandler, another decision-maker, somebody who can score and make big, big shots, plays defense. I think they really missed her last year. The point guards, if you notice, on Houston, they do the point guard thing. They pass to Sheryl, they pass to Tina, so the point guard spot's not that hard to fill but I think Janeth was really hard to replace."
After scoring eight points in nine minutes in Saturday's opener against the Los Angeles Sparks and playing well in practice this week, Castro Marques figures to play a larger role tomorrow. Donovan told reporters that Castro Marques will likely start, though she could change her mind.
Castro Marques had relatively little to say about starting, but words couldn't have told more than the broad smile on her face as she met the media after a lengthy individual shooting session following practice.
"She (Donovan) thinks I'm comfortable now to be in the starting position," said Castro Marques.
Starting at small forward against Houston brings with it the challenging assignment of defending two-time MVP Swoopes, who has started this season looking to score more in Thompson's absence. Swoopes scored 26 points in the Comets opener and followed it up with 27 points on Sunday as Houston swept a season-opening back-to-back. Her 26.5 points per game and 23.5 Efficiency rating both lead the WNBA thus far.
Swoopes is healthy and having more fun than she did during a trying 2004 season.
"I feel like I'm back to the old Sheryl," she told the Houston Chronicle before the season started. "I'm back to enjoying the game again. And I think that's a big key."
Castro Marques has plenty of experience defending Swoopes despite her limited WNBA action. The two, along with Bird, played in Russia this past off-season, Swoopes for Russian Superleague Champion VBM-SGAU.
"Especially against us in one game in Russia, she changed the rhythm of the game and she got the win for them in that game," recalled Castro Marques. "She's a very good player. She's been in the league a long time, and she's a very difficult player to defend. But it's not one person; all the team has to be aware of her, so I think that group defense is going to help us to stop her."
Having Castro Marques in the starting lineup also moves Jackson back to her usual power forward position after a difficult opener in which Jackson took 12 of her 15 shots from behind the 3-point lane and failed to score double-figures for the first time in nearly three seasons.
"Lauren's obviously not in her comfort zone when she's out on the wing," said Bird, "so I think for her to get in the low post, get a feel for things down there and then maybe move it out as the game goes on, I think it will be great for her."
Jackson's right ankle, which she sprained during Monday's practice, remains "a little bit tender," according to Donovan, but Jackson was able to practice today and should be in the starting lineup tomorrow.
Both Bird and Donovan defended Jackson from recent criticism about the shape she's in.
"People keep talking about her conditioning - this is a kid who hasn't been able to get into a game and get in game shape," said Donovan. "She's had groin injuries, a quad injury, the re-injury of her ankle. She's done a great job in her off-court stuff; it's game shape that can only come one way. We haven't had her out there long enough."
Bird believes any issues stem from Jackson trying to learn a new position as she spends time on the wing at small forward.
"She's good at the banging, she doesn't get tired from that, but we have her running around like a crazy person. It's a different kind of tired."