Nikki Teasley embraces the WNBA Championship Trophy after hitting the winning shot in 2002.
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images
Just about every season, the WNBA Playoffs gives us something that players, coaches, fans and even experts would never have expected. Teams get hot, shots fall short, players get injured and emotions elevate play. And while statistics and past performances help enthusiasts make predictions, accurately predicting how games will turn out is so difficult. Until the game is played and the final whistle is blown, the future is unknown. That is why generations of sports fans have packed arenas, gathered around transistor radios and big screen television and keep on coming back for more .
Before the Houston Comets won four championships, they were just trying to win one during the inaugural 1997 season. Cynthia Cooper was the superstar of superstars and scored a league-best 22.2 points per game, but the team faced the prospect of playing the 1997 WNBA Championship game without center Wanda Guyton, who suffered a concussion during the semifinals. The New York Liberty featured a strong inside combination in Rebecca Lobo and Kym Hamption and many Houston fans feared the worst. But reserve center Tammy Jackson, who averaged 4.1 ppg and 4.1 rpg during the regular season, came up huge for the Comets in that winner-take-all Finals game. Jackson scored seven points and grabbed 11 rebounds as the Comets claimed the victory, beating New York, 65-51. After the win, Comets reserve Fran Harris recalls critics predicting that the Comets would finish "dead last."
Entering the 1998 postseason, the regular season stats and records led many experts to believe that the Cleveland Rockers would have no trouble with the Phoenix Mercury in their first round matchup. The Rockers had the best record in the Eastern Conference, came into the Playoffs riding a four-game winning streak and held the advantage in many of the statistical categories including record, free throw percentage, field goal percentage and three-point percentage. Yet Phoenix prevailed by a score of two games to one in one of the epic semifinals series in history. The image of Michele Timms standing on the scorer's table is etched into our permanent memory banks and Jennifer Gillom established herself as a perennial All-Star in the years to come. The Mercury did fall to the Comets in the Finals.
After winning the first two championships in league history, it would only be natural to presume that the Houston Comets simply recycled their highly effective strategies from the past two years to beat the New York Liberty to win the title in 1999. But it proved to be one of the biggest challenges that the Houston Comets, or any sports team in recent memory, ever ccomplished. The team endured a season of both tragedy and triumph, as they lost star guard Kim Perrot to lung cancer and Cynthia Cooper's mother to breast cancer. Perrot was the team's starting point guard and a fan favorite, yet was stricken down tragically at the premature age of 32. What was so shocking for the team was the speed with which Perrot fell ill and passed away.
The Comets were also able to overcome the biggest shot
in WNBA history, a nearly-full-court, desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer by
New York's Teresa Weatherspoon in the final seconds of Game Two. Up 67-65 with
only three seconds to go, Weatherspoon's heave snatched victory from the clenches
of defeat, stunned the Comets on their own court and forced a deciding Game
Three. The Comets finished off the Liberty, but it needs not be said that the
Comets overcame an incredible amount of turmoil to earn their three-peat. Cooper
celebrated what the team called "#3 for #10" and Perrot was posthumously
awarded a third championship ring.
After winning three championships, the Houston Comets entered the 2000 season as the clear-cut favorites to win again. Sheryl Swoopes, Cynthia Cooper and Tina Thompson were all at the top of their game, but no one told the Los Angeles Sparks that. Lisa Leslie and the Sparks finally emerged from the Comets shadow and entered the postseason with the best record in the league. The Comets won only one fewer game than the Sparks in the regular season and both swept their first round opponents. Los Angeles was a prohibitive favorite in the Conference Finals series, but the Comets embraced their underdogs status and clawed its way to a fourth straight title. Houston swept Los Angeles in the Western Conference Finals and then New York in the WNBA Finals. They never lost a game in the 2000 postseason.
The Sparks and Comets met again in the 2001 Playoffs, but this time in the first round. This time, the Sparks weren't going down easy. In fact, L.A. swept the Comets and knocked off the Monarchs in the Conference Finals to qualify for their first-ever WNBA Finals. But their opponent in the Finals certainly was a surprise. After starting the season with a 1-10 record, the Sting went on a 17-4 tear to make the Playoffs and stayed hot up to the Finals. But they ran into a force named Lisa Leslie who had already blossomed as a superstar, but was about to establish her legacy as a champion as well. Leslie averaged 24 points, 10.5 rebounds, five assists and 4.5 blocks in the two-game sweep, including a dominant 82-54 victory in Game Two. The superstar stunned fans, coaches and players with her unparalleled performance as she became the first player to be awarded All-Star MVP, regular season MVP and Finals MVP all in the same year.
No strangers to the WNBA Finals by this point, the New York Liberty and Los Angeles Sparks were tied at 66 point apiece with just 2.4 seconds left on the clock in the second game of the 2002 Finals. The Sparks were already leading the series, 1-0, but the Liberty had already rallied from an 18-4 opening quarter deficit. Despite having All-Star teammates Leslie, Mwadi Mabika and DeLisha Milton-Jones on her team, Sparks' rookie Nikki Teasley found herself with possession of the ball as the clock ticked down and no open teammates. With the championship on the line, Teasley sank a 21-foot 3-pointer to give Los Angeles its second consecutive title.
Who would have imagined that the Detroit Shock would bounce back from a franchise worst 9-23 record in 2002 to actually win the 2003 championship? Former Detroit Pistons Bad Boy Bill Laimbeer engineered the epic turnaround as coach of the Shock by adding the remaining the pieces to a young, athletic and physical nucleus. Laimbeer, who joined the team in the middle of the 2002 season, led the squad from start to finish in 2003 and helped Detroit flip the switch and beat the Sparks in the Finals, two games to one. Center Ruth Riley, who had six points in Game One and 11 points in Game Two, erupted for 27 points in the deciding Game Three.
The 2004 WNBA Playoffs was as much about surprising plays and performances as any postseason in WNBA history. First in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, as the deciding Game Three matchup between the Shock and Liberty came down to the wire, the Liberty got a historic basket from an unexpected source. Many expected the Liberty veterans Becky Hammon, Crystal Robinson or Vickie Johnson to take the last shot, but it was Bethany Donaphin who hit the eight-foot jumper to win the game and a series win. New York moved on to lose the Eastern Conference Finals to the Connecticut Sun. The very fact that the Connecticut Sun and Seattle Storm met in The Finals was a surprise, but their entertaining, competitive and back-and-forth series was quite entertaining. Betty Lennox re-emerged as a star in the WNBA and was named the unlikely Finals M.V.P. despite playing with All-Stars like Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird. Lennox averaged 22.3 ppg in the three games.
Losing in that tough, three-game series the season before, the Connecticut Sun were back in the Finals competing for the title again in 2005. This time, they met another newcomer the the party. The Sacramento Monarchs had come close before, yet always managed to lose the Sparks in the Playoffs. This time around, veterans Yolanda Griffith and Ticha Penicheiro finally got a chance to win a ring. The Sun held the home-court advantage and had swept the Monarchs in the regular season, yet quickly lost that advantage after dropping the first game. They needed a miracle in Game Two just to stay in the series and avoid going back to Sacramento down 2-0 in the first-ever best-of-five series. Down by three points with the clock approaching zeroes, reserve forward Brooke Wyckoff drained the game-tying 3-pointer and gave the Sun the momentum heading into overtime. The Sun would cruise to victory, but were unable to steal a game in Sacramento and lost in the Finals for the second straight season. Despite the factors that tilted the scale in Connecticut's favor, it was the Monarchs who were crowned queens of the court..
Eager to earn their place in WNBA dynastic lore, the Sacramento Moanrchs returned to the WNBA Finals again in 2006 to defend their crown. The back-and-forth series was nearly over in four games as the Monarchs could taste the title on the tip of their tongues. But the Shock refused to be blown out again after an embarrassing Game Three loss in Sacramento and returned the favor in Game Four with a 72-52 victory. As the series returned to Detroit for Game Five at the Joe Louis Arena, Detroit shocked the world again with an 80-75 win to win their second championship. The Shock had underachieved in each of the previous two seasons and for much of the 2006 regular season. But with a shot at mortality on the line, first-time Finalist Katie Smith and backcourt running mate Deanna Nolan proved why they are the best guard tandem in the WNBA.
So now we come to 2007. Detroit owns the first seed in the East, injured Indiana Fever superstar Tamika Catchings remains a question and both the Phoenix Mercury and New York Liberty are on fire. That is how the regular season ended. As the postseason begins, the only thing we know for sure is that there will be even more surprises. This quick blast from the past proves no conclusions can be drawn and that the only thing we can expect... is the unexpected.
There were some of the biggest surprises in WNBA postseason history, but if there are others we're missing, let us know in the WNBA Fan Voice.