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Basketball Hall-of-Famer and ESPN analyst Nancy Lieberman answers your questions and e-mails throughout the year. Click here to submit a question of your own.
With the Conference Finals matchups finally set, Nancy, how do you see each
of the series playing out? And who do you see as some of the important players
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Let's take a look at the Conference Finals. Having sat in the studio at ESPN and watched all four Game 3's really closely, I think we're in for a terrific final four.
Detroit vs. New York
Detroit is a "cause" team. If they don't have a cause pushing them, they'll just go about their business and still win a lot of games because they're so talented. But if you give them that extra cause or motivation, you make them edgy and they're capable of bringing their play to a totally different level. And that's what you saw last night at the Palace.
The Plenette injury allowed the players and coaches on the Shock to rally around each other. There is such immense loyalty, trust and belief in that locker room. I truly believe that Bill Laimbeer is phenomenal for our league. He radiates this confidence in his team and he defers to the players a lot in tough times. He's a lot more brilliant than most people give him credit for. He really knows how to handle people.
He helped create an "us against the world" mentality in that locker room and that kind of thing can make a mediocre team a little bit better but with the Shock, a group of already motivated, future Hall of Fame, world-class athletes, it can take them to an even more extraordinary level of commitment.
Katie Smith or Deanna Nolan could put 25 on you every night if they truly wanted to. But they're so entrenched in winning titles and in being the best they can be for everyone around them, the stat line doesn't do them justice. And there's no stat line for unselfishness.
And another piece of Laimbeer's success: How come 10 other teams didn't get Taj McWilliams-Franklin? She is a terrific, gritty veteran who has seen it all in this league and she has come in and become a part of the Shock system in no time. And she's not just a stop-gap for the injured Cheryl Ford. It's not like Bill is trying to squeeze just one more series out of Taj. She's signed through next year, her numbers compare very well to Cheryl's and she might be a better team defensive player not individually, but team defensive. She stretches the defense because she can play down low, on the high post and can shoot the three. Just a brilliant move by the Shock.
And we've been saying this for years, but I'll say it again. When Kara Braxton decides that she wants to kick everyone's behind, she goes out there and kicks everyone's behind. She has extraordinary talent. It's off the charts. People pray to have that kind of natural ability.
So the logical question, then, is what can New York do to take Detroit away from its normal game?
New York has to continue to play that tough, gritty style that they've been playing. Take the ball side to side and be aggressive in taking the ball to the rim, because they'll have to get Detroit in foul trouble. They also have to hit the boards with tenacity to keep up with the Shock and they also have to keep hitting those three-pointers. I would screen-and-roll Detroit until they show that they can stop it. I think that could be one of the keys to this series. Rebounding, too, will be big. L.A. and Detroit were the two best rebounding teams in the league this year. And New York will have to get on the glass against Detroit.
At this point, Katie and Tweety will have to score each game probably in the high teens, at least. They'll have an interesting matchup with New York's running-and-gunning youngsters, who Patty Coyle will run in and out throughout the game depending on the situation: Loree Moore, Essence Carson, Ashley Battle, Erin Thorn, Leilani Mitchell and Lisa Willis. Because of all that depth on the Liberty's side, Bill will be cognizant of playing time for Katie (because of her legs and body) and Nolan (because of her toe) and be wise with calling and managing timeouts at the right times to keep them fresh.
On the topic of the Liberty's young guards, Leilani Mitchell was a sparkplug against Connecticut! Loree Moore has her job to do, you know Essence Carson is a big-time, big-game player she's played in these kinds of big games her whole life, it seems. Ashley Battle is a tough player who can slash to the basket. This is a really tough team! We'll see what happens especially after Patty Coyle and her team got some playoff experience last year against Detroit. Patty is a fabulous coach and her kids are ready and they're so confident. Their body language is so positive. It's really gonna be a battle.
Janel McCarville is another hugely important player for the Liberty. I'm not sure who Bill will use to guard Janel - maybe Taj, maybe Braxton, maybe Olayinka Sanni, but whoever it's against, Janel will have to keep her head and stay out of foul trouble. She and Braxton could end up playing similar roles for their teams. They're both X-factors here. They must be on the court and they must be productive.
Prediction: I'm gonna go with the home-court advantage in this one. Detroit will win it, but I think it's gonna go three games.
San Antonio vs. Los Angeles
The Storm gave it their all last night in Seattle, but Candace Parker and Lisa Leslie were just too good. The Sparks' backcourt of Temeka Johnson and Shannon Bobbitt did a very solid job of taking the ball to the hoop and getting it into the hands of the right people. They also did a nice job of managing the team and cut down a bit on the turnovers. They also hit some shots from the outside. Candace and Lisa have to continue to step up and knock down shots. Marie Ferdinand-Harris -- also great last night -- has to keep her confidence up and give them another option slashing to the hoop.
And they just have to be smart with the ball a lot of which, of course, comes back to the point guards. Lisa Leslie, though, too, averaged six turnovers a game against the Storm. That can't continue.
I'll be curious to see if the Silver Stars post players -- Ann Wauters, Sophia Young and Ruth Riley -- can stay with Candace, Lisa and DeLisha Milton-Jones. I think the Silver Stars will pack the paint with size, make it tough for L.A.'s bigs to move around, make you reverse the basketball, take away the dribble-drives and force the Sparks to shoot from the outside. If L.A. can hit some threes, they may be forced to extend it a bit, but they'll mostly stick to the paint. The Silver Stars are a foot-in-the-paint team. Everyone has her foot in the paint on defense.
Wauters is a better defender than she gets credit for and Sophia is known for her offense and rebounding, but she was a first-team all-defensive player! She's no slouch and may be able to do a little of what Camille Little did in trying to slow down Candace. She's a little shorter, but she's quicker and more active and can box her out a little bit. They'll run different looks at Candace and make it as tough on her as possible.
At the same time, L.A. won't have an easy time defending Becky Hammon. If you ask me, they should take a page out of what the Monarchs did: trapping her and forcing her shoulders toward the sidelines. The secret to Becky's success is keeping her dribble. She's so good at that.
Sidebar: I always joke that Becky's behind-the-back dribble might be the slowest behind-the-back dribble in basketball history. It can take her a half a quarter to get the ball from the left side to the right behind her back. In fact, one time, I got up to get a Coca Cola when she started her behind-the-back move and by the time I got back to my seat, she was only about halfway done ;)
But nobody stops her! Nobody ever stops her because she's so savvy in the way she changes directions. Her basketball IQ is just off the charts. She toys with defenders. She knows how to use screens, moving her marks in and out of them. And she has one of the quickest shots in the West and I'm not talking about the Western Conference I mean the Wild, Wild West. Her gunslinger mentality is perfect for the San Antonio fans she plays in front of.
And how often does Becky Hammon have the chance to be taller than the two players likely to guard her (Johnson and Bobbitt)?!?! That's a rare occasion that she can actually post somebody up. ;) But Becky will get her points because L.A.'s just not as fierce a defensive team as the Monarchs.
But my X-factor in this series is Erin Buescher. Who on L.A. can do the dirty work that Erin does for San Antonio? Sidney Spencer can do it, but she just hasn't gotten the amount of minutes needed to make a serious difference. But when it comes to shooting those weak-side threes, Sidney can hit those shots. She could come on and play a big role in this playoff series.
Prediction: I'm going with San Antonio in three. I'm sticking with my Finals picks. I think we'll see some tight, hard-fought games in this series, but I think San Antonio has the tools to get it done.