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WNBA Conference Finals Preview

Kevin Pelton, storm.wnba.com | September 8, 2005
HEAD-TO-HEAD
25-9 RECORD 19-15
25-9 EXP. REC 19-15
2-0 FIRST ROUND 2-1
68.5 PF 67.9
95.7 Off. Rat. 97.3
61.6 PA 66.6
85.1 Def. Rat. 94.4
30.7 RPG 28.2
.529 Reb % .500
1. Sacramento vs. 3. Houston

For the third consecutive season, the Sacramento Monarchs are in the Western Conference Finals, and for the third consecutive season, they face a different opponent, having previously lost to Los Angeles and Seattle. With both of those teams eliminated in the First Round of the playoffs by these teams, the Monarchs for the first consecutive season have home-court advantage against the Houston Comets.

On paper, this matchup should dramatically favor the Monarchs, who won six more games in the regular season and two out of three head-to-head matchups. A couple of factors, however, even this one up. The first is how well the Comets played last week in taking two games at KeyArena and bringing the Storm's season to a surprising ending.

It dawned on me during the course of the series that the key to the Comets is Tina Thompson, as evidenced by this stat: Houston is 8-2 when Thompson scores double-figures (with her back in the lineup), 1-7 when she doesn't. The predictor held for all three games against the Storm, and by the end of the series Thompson looked near her old self, even if she did say afterwards, "If I had to put a number on it, I would say (I'm) about 70 percent." If Thompson can make opponents pay for leaving her to pay attention to Sheryl Swoopes, then look out for the Comets.

Of course, Swoopes was as brilliant as ever in Game 3, recording the first playoff triple-double in WNBA history. But you expect Swoopes to be brilliant; what you don't necessarily expect is a couple of clutch 3-point daggers from Dawn Staley. In Staley's first game with the Comets (a win over Detroit), she hit a couple of big baskets in a row late, and it reminded me of her doing something similar early in the second half of her last game with the Sting (which was in Seattle). The moral of this story is that, when she puts her mind to it, Staley is still an offensive threat. She also came up with four steals in Game 2, including the game-saver inside the last 30 seconds.

KEY PLAYERS

HAYNIE

THOMPSON
The other critical factor favoring the Comets is a sprained left ankle suffered by Monarchs guard Ticha Penicheiro earlier this week during practice. It's uncertain whether Penicheiro will see any action in the series.

"This could not have happened at a worse time," Sacramento Coach John Whisenant told the Sacramento Bee.

In Penicheiro's absence, the Monarchs will start rookie Kristin Haynie. Haynie is a quality rebounder from the point-guard spot and looks to score more than Penicheiro, but Sacramento will sorely miss Penicheiro's playmaking skills as well as her defense at the point. Houston now owns a massive experience advantage over Sacramento's backcourt of Haynie and fellow rookie Chelsea Newton. Kara Lawson, not really a true point guard, will surely play heavy minutes at the position, which will ease the pain of Penichiero's absence if she finds the range from long distance.

Even without Penicheiro, the Monarchs defense is good enough to hold Houston in check. The Comets averaged less than 60 points in the three meetings, and Swoopes shot just 16-for-45 (35.6%) against Sacramento despite the fact that there isn't a great matchup against her (Newton is a bit too small, Nicole Powell too slow). Also in the Monarchs favor: Sacramento boasted the WNBA's best regular-season point differential (+6.9 ppg), and the team with the best differential has won every WNBA Championship to date.

Verdict: Houston cruises to its third straight win tonight, but the Monarchs get Penicheiro back for spot minutes over the weekend and take the series in three games.

HEAD-TO-HEAD
26-8 RECORD 21-13
25-9 EXP. REC 18-16
2-0 FIRST ROUND 2-0
72.8 PF 63.8
100.7 Off. Rat. 92.1
66.0 PA 62.7
91.4 Def. Rat. 90.4
32.6 RPG 29.8
.500 Reb % .515
1. Connecticut vs. 2. Indiana

In the East, the top two seeds square off to decide the conference's berth in the WNBA Finals. Both teams swept in the first round, neither with overwhelming victories in either game but taking early leads and holding off late challenges. Even without Ann Wauters in the lineup for New York, the Fever did an impressive job of dismantling the Liberty, while the Sun was never really tested by the Shock in a series some observers (this author included) foolishly thought might end in an upset.

Like Detroit, Indiana had some success against Connecticut in the regular season; the teams split the season series, each winning one time on the other's home court. Unlike the Shock, the Fever was able to sustain its success against other teams, a good sign for Indiana in this series.

Defensively, the Fever matches up well with Connecticut. Tully Bevilaqua gave Lindsay Whalen some problems in last year's WNBA Finals, and Whalen - who keyed the Sun sweep with 27 points in Game 2 and is quickly establishing herself as one of the WNBA's all-time top playoff performers - was held to a paltry 7.8 points per game against the Fever, going for two points and three points in two matchups. Connecticut's balanced offense can overcome Whalen not scoring, but the Sun is at its best when she is aggressive offensively.

KEY PLAYERS

WHALEN

WILLIAMS
Indiana could really benefit from getting quality production from veteran center Natalie Williams, who could be playing her last WNBA games (she plans to retire after the season). Williams had 13 points and 10 rebounds in the finale against New York and played better as the season went along. The Fever could really use some scoring from her because the top-notch defensive wing duo of Katie Douglas and Nykesha Sales will keep Indiana from getting much production from the perimeter (some timely Bevilaqua 3s, like she hit in the first round against the Liberty, would also be a big help).

Ultimately, the Sun is just the better team in this matchup, boasting not only five more regular-season wins but a vastly superior point differential. The Fever has overcome its lack of offense with great defense and a faith in themselves, but it's one thing to use that against a weakened Liberty lineup and another against the loaded Sun.

Verdict: It will be ugly, as the Fever's defense should slow down the Sun's attack somewhat, but Connecticut sweeps back into the Finals.