Just like the players, Basketball Hall of Famer and ESPN analyst Nancy Lieberman is stepping it up for the playoffs. Lieberman, who was an original member of the Phoenix Mercury in 1997 and a former general manager and head coach of the Detroit Shock, takes a look at each of the first-round playoff series. The Western Conference features a rematch of the 2003 West finals between the Sacramento Monarchs and the Los Angeles Sparks in one series, and the Seattle Storm vs. the Minnesota Lynx in the other. Check back later in the week for Lieberman's Eastern Conference preview.


Los Angeles Sparks vs. Sacramento Monarchs

Of all the teams that L.A. could be playing, Sacramento is one team that has had success against the Sparks this season, splitting the season series at two games apiece. The Monarchs' strength is their inside game and it matches up well with L.A. Yolanda Griffith is tall and athletic and knows Lisa Leslie's game. Along with DeMya Walker and Tangela Smith, those three average almost 33.9 points and 15.7 rebounds per game and have a lot of fouls to give. With Rebekkah Brunson, they also have some depth in the post. I like this matchup because the two teams match up well athletically.

Yolanda Griffith, Sacramento Monarchs
The Monarchs' backcourt of Ticha Penicheiro and Edna Campbell has been inconsistent this season. The two of them average 9.5 points per game, but then Ruthie Bolton and Kara Lawson come off the bench and average 13.0 points per game. But perimeter scoring is Sacramento's weakness. More scoring from the outside would open up higher-percentage shots inside.

On defense, Sacramento is going to try and shut down L.A.'s transition game. I'm sure the Monarchs want to make this as much a half-court game as they can, because the Sparks led the WNBA in scoring at more than 73 points per game. They will focus on preventing L.A. from reversing the ball. The Sparks are very good at taking the ball side to side. If they don't have it on one side, they reverse it and beat you from the other side. I also think that Sacramento should trap L.A. if they can and make someone other than Leslie beat them.

L.A.'s starting lineup is very balanced. For the Sparks to be successful, the have to take care of the basketball. Because they are such great passers, they sometimes have a propensity to go for the home-run pass, and sometimes the ball flies around the gym. L.A. also has the best shooting percentage defense in the league, which means they do a good job of contesting shots because they are so athletic.

This is going to be a really fun series.

Seattle Storm vs. Minnesota Lynx

Seattle has superstars in Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson, and there is no doubt in my mind that they will be very important in Seattle's production. But I really think the key for Seattle in this series will be Betty Lennox. She is the only player on Seattle's team who can really take her opponent off the dribble and create her own shot even if there is nothing there. It is very important for her and Sheri Sam to be consistent throughout the series. It will give the entire rest of the team a lot better open looks. They are not a very good man-to-man defensive team, but they are a very good "team defense" team. They rotate to help each other out.

Betty Lennox, Seattle Storm
This will also be an interesting series because Janell Burse and Sam were traded from the Lynx this offseason, while Lennox also used to be a member of that team. So we have a little history here. Maybe those three feel like they have something to prove. They are competitors, so I would imagine that they want to show their stuff.

Without Katie Smith, the Lynx are in the hole with perimeter scoring, but rookie center Vanessa Hayden has been averaging 15-plus points and seven rebounds per game over her last three games. She is emerging right now, but Nicole Ohlde, who has exceeded everyone's expectations, has been fantastic all season and just has incredible footwork. As tough as it will be for Minnesota to guard Jackson because of her versatility, I think it will be very hard for Seattle to guard Ohlde. Had Smith gone down a week or so ago, it would have been very tough for the Lynx, but they have had a chance to play together without her and know what they have to do. I give them a lot of credit. They hung tough without their best player.

I think this is going to be a good matchup as well because the two coaches, Seattle's Anne Donovan and Minnesota's Suzie McConnell Serio, are both old school. They'll push the tempo when it's there, they are very fundamental coaches, they want to get at their opponents on the defensive end. I think this is a really good series.

The only thing I question about Minnesota is that they have a lot of young players. When you get to the playoffs, you have to pick it up another level. Veterans like Helen Darling, Teresa Edwards and Tamika Williams, who went through this last year, have to be a presence in the locker room. They need to explain to these newcomers what this next level is all about.

Minnesota doesn't really score a lot, but they play really good defense and will run if they can on offense. Tthe leadership from that point guard position will be very important. If Minnesota can win Game 1 at home, it puts pressure on the higher-seeded team. One bad game and it could be over. Minnesota won the first game last year in the first round against L.A., but then the Sparks came back and won the next two at home.

In short, the Lynx just can't turn the ball over. To upset the Storm, they have to play smart, solid basketball. They have to take good shots and not get over-anxious, which will be a challenge for a young team. They must keep Seattle's role players from getting off and beating them. If the Lynx can do that, it will be a very competitive series.

Send Nancy a question or comment