Post-Break Preview - West

After a month off to allow some of its elite players to turn their attention to the Athens Olympics, the WNBA is back, with the 18-day run to the playoffs starting Sep. 1. offers quick refreshers on what the league's teams have done so far and what can be expected from them the rest of the season. After discussing the Eastern Conference yesterday, today's focus is on the West, where the Los Angeles Sparks and Seattle Storm (good) and San Antonio Silver Stars (bad) have separated themselves from the pack, but four teams remain strongly in contention for the last two playoff spots.

Houston Comets

Despite getting no rest in the Olympics, Swoopes and Tina Thompson will have to carry the load for the Comets.
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What happened: With unheralded guard Janeth Arcain staying home in Brazil to prepare for the Olympics and an injury that cost All-Star forward Tina Thompson eight games, the Comets struggled during the first two months of the season. On Jul. 14, Houston was 8-12 and had lost five straight games; Houston's unblemished record of making the postseason (a claim no other WNBA team can make) seemed to be history. From then until the break, however, the Comets won four of their last six games, losing only to the top two teams in the WNBA on the road by a combined seven points. Despite a sub-.500 12-14 record, Houston has outscored its opponents by 1.3 points per game, a good sign the Comets have played better than their record indicates. Houston was been stingy on defense, playing the league's second-best defense by points allowed per 100 possession, but had had issues on offense. Those issues were less dramatic when Thompson was healthy and playing well. Her 19.8 points per game would be a career high, as would her 42.3% shooting from three-point range. Point guard Sheila Lambert was a pleasant surprise, starting 19 games at the point, but newcomer Kedra Holland-Corn hasn't been the answer at shooting guard.

What lies ahead: No WNBA team was affected more by the Olympics than Houston, which had Sheryl Swoopes and Thompson starting for the U.S. team and Van Chancellor on the sidelines instead of leading practice in Houston. As veterans, Swoopes and Thompson could have fatigue issues down the stretch. The schedule is reasonably favorable as the Comets try to move ahead of Phoenix and Sacramento in the West standings. Houston is done with L.A. and Seattle, has four games left against the three teams most affected by injuries (Minnesota, San Antonio and Washington) and plays the other four games (even home-road split) against Phoenix and Sacramento, putting destiny in their own hands. The bad news is Arcain has reportedly chosen not to return to the Comets after the Olympics.

Key player: Holland-Corn. The Comets need a reliable fourth scorer after Swoopes, Thompson and center Michelle Snow, and Lambert is too inconsistent to fit that role. Holland-Corn was terrific as a reserve in Detroit, and a return to that role seemed to spark her in July. In five games as a reserve, she shot 56.0% from the field and 43.8% from downtown.

Los Angeles Sparks

Leslie is the only WNBA player averaging a double-double.
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What happened: The coach (Michael Cooper) quit in the middle of July; an Olympian (DeLisha Milton-Jones) was injured the game before the coach left, and, oh, yeah, the Sparks won 11 of their last 12 games to take a lead of a game and a half over the Storm into the break. On June 25, Los Angeles was 8-6 and looking beatable, but the real problem was an arduous schedule that saw the Sparks play 10 of their first 14 games away from the STAPLES Center, where they are 10-1 this season, losing only to the Sacramento Monarchs. Not to take anything away from Cooper or his interim replacement, former assistant Karleen Thompson (officially sharing coaching duties with Ryan Weisenberg, but getting credit for wins and losses), but the Sparks are a veteran-laden team that hasn't been outwardly affected by the change. And a roster four-deep with stars was able to overcome the loss of Milton-Jones to a torn ACL.

What lies ahead: The home-road slant of the schedule will even out down the stretch, as Los Angeles plays a league-high six of its eight games at the STAPLES Center. However, the Sparks may be without forward Laura Macchi (and guard Raffaella Masciadri), who were placed on the suspended list during the break as they returned home to Italy. Macchi had emerged as Milton-Jones' replacement in the starting five and had been one of the league's most productive rookies. With Tamika Whitmore likely in the starting lineup, the Sparks bench is incredibly thin, with only rookie post Christi Thomas averaging more than 10 minutes per game so far this season.

Key player: Nikki Teasley. After Teasley broke onto the All-WNBA second team last season, it was expected she'd take another step forward in her third season in the league. While she does lead the league with 6.0 assists per game, her scoring has been inconsistent. With the ranks of Sparks scorers thinning, Teasley may have to look for her own shot more.

Minnesota Lynx

Smith's loss is a blow to the Lynx's playoff chances.
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What happened: After trading starters Janell Burse and Sheri Sam to the Storm and apparently losing Svetlana Abrosimova to a commitment to the Russian national team, the Lynx were given little hope of repeating as a playoff team in the loaded West. However, with strong contributions from rookie center Nicole Ohlde and a vastly improved defense, Minnesota went into the break third in the West. 7-9 on July 8, the Lynx reeled off six straight wins to move four games above .500, which is where they finished the first portion of the season. A vastly-improved defense was the key. Playing smallball much of 2003, Minnesota was ninth in the league in Defensive Efficiency. So far this season, the Lynx lead the league, giving up just 91.1 points per 100 possessions. Ohlde has been better than advertised defensively, blocking 1.4 shots per game, while the Minnesota reserve group has been scrappy and active on defense. Point guard Helen Darling, who emerged as a starter, has also keyed the defensive effort, and her move into the starting lineup coincided with Minnesota's run.

What lies ahead: The warm fuzzies of the Lynx's first half were interrupted by a bruised knee suffered by star wing Katie Smith in late July. Smith missed three games with a knee contusion, but Minnesota won two of those three games to go into the break strong. Still, it came as devastating news when Smith tore cartilage in her knee and was ruled out for the season. The injury robs the Lynx of their best player and one of just two double-figure starters. Given the Minnesota offense was already the second-worst in the WNBA on a per-possession basis, the Lynx may really struggle to put the ball in the hoop in September. At the same time, the defensive intensity should be even greater in Smith's absence, and anyone who doesn't take the Lynx seriously down the stretch will be in for a rude surprise.

Key player(s): Ohlde, Svetlana Abrosimova and Tamika Williams. These are the three main players who are going to have to step up to try to replace the points lost with Smith's injury. Ohlde has impressed on defense, but she hasn't been the high-percentage scorer she was at Kansas State, shooting 41.6% from the field. Still, in Smith's absence, she is the team's leading scorer. Abrosimova wasn't 100% before the break because of a herniated disk in his back, but she averaged 10.0 points in Smith's absence and is the team's best player at creating her own offense. Williams once again leads the league in field-goal percentage, but her points per game have fallen for the second straight season, a trend she needs to reverse.

Phoenix Mercury

Taurasi is looking to add Rookie of the Year to the numerous honors she's won this year.
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What happened: The Mercury went from one of the worst offenses in WNBA history to the league's second-best offense in terms of points per 100 possessions. Credit for that has to go to rookie Coach Carrie Graf's system, but obviously the big difference has been adding Olympians Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor. Along with holdover Anna DeForge - finding her and adding Taurasi and Taylor has made Phoenix's dismal 2003 well worth it - the Mercury has the highest-scoring trio in the WNBA at 44.5 point per game. Not surprisingly, Phoenix also leads the league in field-goal and three-point percentage. The key to the Mercury's success has been getting contributions up front as well. Working towards that goal, Phoenix dealt center Adrian Williams to San Antonio for forward Gwen Jackson, and Jackson has averaged 6.6 points and 3.0 rebounds per game in five games with the Mercury. Second-year post Plenette Pierson has also been a productive option, averaging 8.8 points and 4.3 rebounds and starting 16 games.

What lies ahead: Phoenix got good news when 6-8 Russian center Maria Stepanova, who has not played in the WNBA since 2001 - when she averaged 10.4 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game - decided to re-join the team after the Olympics (though Graf maintains she's still not counting on Stepanova until she sees her with the team). Stepanova should be a major upgrade over Slobodanka Tuvic in the middle and gives Phoenix a chance to do big things if she can quickly be integrated into the lineup. However, with three Olympians on the roster, fatigue may be a factor for the Mercury. Phoenix can't afford to start slowly because of the fierce battle for the last two playoff spots in the West. The schedule is tough, with two games apiece against Detroit, L.A. and the Storm.

Key player: Stepanova. There's a line of thinking amongst Mercury fans that the team hasn't done more to upgrade the center position because it's been waiting for Stepanova to return and be the answer. That means there could be a lot of pressure on Stepanova if she actually appears in a Phoenix uniform. Stepanova's performance won't break the Mercury's season, but it could make the difference in the battle for playoff spots if she comes in motivated and effective.

Sacramento Monarchs

The Monarchs will need Lawson's outside shooting down the stretch.
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What happened: Sacramento was one of the league's biggest early disappointments. After a furious finish to 2003 that culminated in the Western Conference Finals, the Monarchs were expected to battle for West superiority once again. Instead, Sacramento opened the season 2-6. While the Monarchs haven't gotten all the way back to .500 yet, they have put themselves in a tie with the Mercury for the final playoff spot in the West and given themselves a chance to make the playoffs. Center Yolanda Griffith can't be blamed. Griffith finally got some of the spotlight when she was a key player for the U.S. off the bench during the Olympics, but she remains the league's second-best center after Lisa Leslie, averaging 13.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 1.2 blocks per game. Offense (particularly perimeter shooting) is often cited as the reason the Monarchs have struggled, but, partially because they lead the league in offensive rebounding, the Monarchs are fourth in the league in Offensive Efficiency. After leading the league in Defensive Efficiency last year, Sacramento has slipped to fourth this year. The Monarchs have outscored their opponents by 1.4 points per game, which means it's partially bad luck that they are below .500.

What lies ahead: The Monarchs face arguably the most brutal schedule in the league, including an arduous five-game road trip that lasts 13 days (assumedly, the team won't be on the road that entire time, returning to Sacramento a few times between games). All told, six of Sacramento's remaining nine games will be away from ARCO Arena, a difficult obstacle to overcome in the battle with Houston, Phoenix and Minnesota. Sacramento does have only two games left against the Storm and Los Angeles.

Key player: Kara Lawson. A popular breakout pick before the year, Lawson started slowly because of injuries but had a great July, averaging 9.7 points and shooting 48.3% from downtown. Lawson has been more effective as a starter (in place of veteran Edna Campbell, who has spent two stints on the injured list), shooting 52.8% in nine starts (Sacramento is 5-4 in those games). Lawson is the best bet to supply the perimeter punch that the Monarchs could use.

San Antonio Silver Stars

Because of injuries, Johnson hasn't been herself this season.
Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty
What happened: Because of injuries and poor chemistry, the Silver Stars rank as this season's biggest disappointment. Expected to contend for the playoffs after adding Shannon Johnson, LaToya Thomas and Agnieszka Bibrzycka, the Silver Stars were never able to put together the right combination under Dee Brown, who resigned as coach during the final weekend of July. Injuries didn't help that process. Thomas started the year on the injured list, Johnson has been bothered by a bruised knee and Marie Ferdinand was lost, in all likelihood, for the season with a dislocated elbow suffered early in July. How much have the Silver Stars struggled? They're last in the league in both offense and defense on a per-possession basis. The biggest positive so far has been the play of rookie guard Toccara Williams. The third-round pick (one of just three currently on a WNBA roster) has demonstrated that her defense and passing are good enough to keep her in the league and has played well when asked to replace Johnson in the lineup.

What lies ahead: For the second straight summer, Shell Dailey takes over the Silver Stars on an interim basis. Last year, San Antonio was 6-6 under Dailey after starting 6-16 under Candi Harvey. Dailey might have had a shot at the full-time job had she not given birth to her first child this winter. Dailey will have to establish a new rotation without both Ferdinand and Bibrzycka, who will return to Poland after San Antonio's Sep. 1 to play with the Polish national team in the 2005 European Championship qualifying round. The Silver Stars are already all but eliminated from the playoff hunt, and even catching any other team in either conference would be a monumental task. That makes the rest of the season important mostly to getting everyone on the same page for another playoff run next year.

Seattle Storm

Lennox is a candidate for Most Improved Player.
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What happened: The Storm put together a terrific two months, going 17-8 and leading the WNBA much of the season. Seattle did have one three-week stretch extending into the start of July where it lost five of seven games, but rebounded with seven wins in the last eight games before the break. As of the break, the Storm is second in the West, a game and a half behind the Los Angeles Sparks. Following Smith's injury, the threat from below is limited, as the Storm has a lead of 2.5 games on Minnesota and five games on anyone else in the conference. Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird were their usual All-WNBA selves during the first half of the season, but the difference was the upgrade Betty Lennox and Sam provided to the team's supporting cast.

What lies ahead: The Storm's two weeks of August practice were almost entirely conducted without stars Bird and Jackson as well as Coach Anne Donovan; only the Houston Comets were similarly interrupted. The Storm plays five of its final nine games on the road and has two matchups with the Sparks to try to gain on them for the top spot in the West.

Key player: Lennox. She was terrific and consistent before suffering a broken nose against Houston. After returning to the lineup, she had some great games but disappeared at other times. The month off helped her nose, and Lennox looked great over the break, good signs for the Storm.

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