With a new mental attitude and a physique to match, Tamika Whitmore is in the midst of the best season of her WNBA career.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/WNBAE/Getty Images

NEW YORK, Aug. 29 -- Already boasting All-Star starters at the point guard and center positions, the New York Liberty have unleashed a new force on the 2002 postseason to form perhaps the most formidable low-post tandem in the league. Forward Tamika Whitmore, already a solid offensive player and the team's second leading scorer during the regular season, has turned the playoffs into her personal stomping ground, and the Liberty are looking to her to come up big once more against the defending champs.

Prior to this year, Whitmore's best season was in 2000, when she averaged 8.7 points per game and split time between starting and reserve roles. Her numbers dipped a bit in 2001 -- even after becoming a full-time starter -- but she came back in 2002 with authority, playing the best basketball of her career and ranking second on the team to center Tari Phillips in both scoring and rebounds.

"First year I was scared, second and third year I was probably just fat and out of shape," said Whitmore as she looked ahead to her third WNBA Finals appearance. "But this year, not only am I physically ready, but I'm mentally ready, and I attribute that to wanting to change for the better."

Change for the better indeed.

While Whitmore sprinkled a few big performances intermittently throughout the regular season -- she scored a career-high 28 against Phoenix in July -- she averaged 12.7 points per game while shooting a very respectable .477 from the field, both well above her career averages of 7.9 points per game on .432 shooting. It was her improvement on the defensive end, though, that really impressed her coach.

"First year I was scared, second and third year I was probably just fat and out of shape. But this year, not only am I physically ready, but I'm mentally ready."
-- Tamika Whitmore
"I think Tamika's made a difference all year and that's why we're here," said Richie Adubato, "the mental maturity and the game and the defense and her whole overall play. Before, we used two people at power forward -- Sue (Wicks) and Tamika -- Tamika we used for offense and Sue we used for defense. This year we were able to play Tamika in the defensive situations."

Sure enough, over her first three seasons, Whitmore never blocked more than 17 shots; this season, she swatted 43, ranking fifth in the league and earning a reputation as an enforcer in the paint.

"I take defense over offense any day," she said. "I told my teammates, I don't care if I don't score a point as long as I'm playing good hard defense and I'm stopping the player I have to guard on the court. Then we can get out in transition and anybody on our team can get 20 or 30 points a night. It doesn't matter where it's coming from."

The only problem with Whitmore's theory is that since the playoffs began, she's become the team's go-to scorer in addition to drawing the toughest defensive assignments.

In the first round, Whitmore simply lit up the Fever, averaging 19.7 points per game and knocking down nearly 66 percent of her shots, and was occasionally charged with guarding the smaller, quicker Rookie of the Year Tamika Catchings.

In the Eastern Conference Finals, Phillips resuscitated her game after a sub-par first-round performance and the Mystics got a taste of a pair of truly dominant inside players. Whitmore (16.0) and Phillips (18.3) combined for 34.3 points per game -- 44 percent of the team's total scoring -- and once again Whitmore defended a superstar in Washington's Chamique Holdsclaw.

"Now she is so good defensively, we played her on Holdsclaw and we played her on Catchings," said Adubato. "We couldn't even think about that a year ago."

Whitmore welcomed the challenge.

"I just had to come out and prove myself to let my teammates know that, hey, I can do this. I can contribute against two of the best players in the league."

But the job ahead is tougher still as Whitmore and the rest of the Liberty look for a way to combat the firepower of Lisa Leslie and the Sparks. Key for New York will be to control the tempo of the game, keeping the pace the slow and the score low to take advantage of its solid half-court defense. And, of course, Whitmore will again have a hand in guarding the best player on the floor as she and Phillips share the unenviable task of taking on Leslie down low.

"We definitely have to be physical with her, beat her down the court and beat her to positions to keep her from touching the ball," said Whitmore. "That's not going to happen, but you just have to throw everything in the bag at her and see how she deals with it."

However, while the Liberty are focused on achieving their goals defensively, watch for Whitmore to continue making big contributions on the scoreboard as well, a prospect that has even Leslie wary.

"Whitmore," she said, "is probably more dangerous as far as her ability to score because she can shoot from the outside -- from the free throw line and in -- she has nice post moves and she finishes well. She's a tough player."

For her part, Whitmore is looking at the impending challenge of the WNBA Finals as her chance to show she belongs with the league's elite.

"(Leslie) is probably the best player in this league and to play against her pumps you and makes you want to go out there and say, 'Hey, I'm coming. I want to prove myself to people.'"