Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Playoffs Preview, in brief (sort of)

Here are capsules previewing all of the first-round playoff series in the East and West. I might have a little something extra to post Friday when the Fever and Shock officially kick off, but hopefully, this helps give you some insight to each series. (Also, forgive some overlap in the New York-Connecticut box from previous posts. These capsules may or may not run in full in print.)

Eastern Conference Playoff Capsules

No. 1 Detroit Shock (22-12) vs. No. 4 Indiana Fever (17-17)
Season series
: 3-0, Detroit
Game 1: 7 p.m. Friday, Conseco Fieldhouse (Indianapolis), NBA TV
Detroit’s outlook: The Shock enter the playoffs with five straight wins, two of the league’s most-proven stars and a deep bench to hold it all together. And yet, they’re flying as far under the league’s radar as they have in quite a while.

“Yes and no,” coach Bill Laimbeer said. “The ‘no’ part is because we are the Detroit Shock and we are arguably the villains or whatever moniker you want to put on us. … But I would say we’re under the radar only because we’ve changed our ball club with lots of rookies, we’ve had significant injuries and we lost a couple games we shouldn’t have lost. Other than that, we might have the overall best record.”

Not having Cheryl Ford (torn ACL) for the postseason hurts, but Taj McWilliams-Franklin (10.7 points, 6.7 rebounds in seven games) has been solid if not spectacular in her place.

She’s helped Detroit keep its place as the league’s best rebounding team, and between Katie Smith and Deanna Nolan (a combined 30.5 points per game), the defending Eastern Conference champions are still the favorite to repeat that feat.

Indiana’s outlook: All season, the Fever have underachieved. Inconsistency and injuries have plagued them, and they haven’t lived up to their own defensive standards, even if they lead the East in fewest points allowed.

But outside the lingering knee pain of Katie Douglas, who will play, Indiana is as healthy as it’s been and the time on the court showed in the season’s final weeks. It won four of seven and topped 74 points six times, its best offensive stretch of the year.

“Before the Olympic break, I don’t know if we had five practices all together,” coach Lin Dunn said. “The thing we’re looking forward to is playing Detroit at full strength. We think we match up well with them, we have a lot of respect for them, but we think we can cause them some problems.”

Having an in-shape Tamika Catchings (13.3 points, 6.3 rebounds) helps, and Ebony Hoffman (10.4, 7.8) is a leading candidate for the league’s Most Improved Player award. The question is if Tammy Sutton-Brown is ineffective or gets into foul trouble, does Indiana have enough post play?

“This will be a defensive series. It’s, ‘How do you score?’ Laimbeer said. “That’s how I look at it.”

No. 2 Connecticut Sun (21-13) vs. No. 3 New York Liberty (19-15)
Season series
: 2-1, Connecticut
Game 1: 7 p.m. today, Madison Square Garden (New York), NBA TV/MSG
Connecticut’s outlook: Despite three losses in their final four games, the Sun hardly feel they’re entering the playoffs in a poor spot. League assists leader Lindsay Whalen has rested most of the last week to allow her sprained right ankle to heal and Asjha Jones (17 points per game) has been perhaps the East’s most consistent forward this season.

They feel they hold a trump card, though, in Tamika Whitmore who can surpass San Antonio’s Vickie Johnson for the WNBA record for career playoff appearances given a long run. Also, her career best scoring marks have all come in the playoffs.

A key will be breaking both New York’s full-court pressure and adjusting to their constant double-teams in the post. Avoiding a shooting cold snap is also paramount.

New York’s outlook: The league’s youngest team, New York is also experienced. It played its way into last year’s playoffs before nearly knocking off Detroit, and returned virtually its entire team, while adding a stand-out rookie in Essence Carson.

There are many things it does well: shoot 3s (first in the East), force steals (second) and spread the responsibility past go-to players Shameka Christon (15.7 points) and Janel McCarville (13.7). The coaching staff is keeping an eye on McCarville’s balky back while hoping to return top reserve Tiffany Jackson, who may not play because of a stress fracture.

But as one of the few teams that can match the Sun’s depth not that they’ve added Erin Phillips and Svetlana Abrosimova, New York has split many opinions on who will emerge from this series.

Western Conference Playoff Capsules

No. 1 San Antonio Silver Stars (24-10) vs. No. 4 Sacramento Monarchs (18-16)
Season series
: 2-1, San Antonio
Game 1: 9 p.m. today, ARCO Arena (Sacramento, Calif.), ESPN2
San Antonio’s outlook: A general consensus around the WNBA has San Antonio pegged as far and away the league’s best team. That’s probably right. Sophia Young (17.5 points, 5.6 rebounds) may just be this year’s MVP, and if she’s not, Becky Hammon and her 17.6 points and 4.9 assists per game have a shot.

But besides those players’ improved play, a huge difference in this year’s San Antonio team is Ann Wauters. The Belgian center has given the Silver Stars a dangerous post presence and a defensive authority in the paint, a huge asset it lacked a year ago when it reached the Western Conference finals.

Sacramento has a strong frontcourt, too, with Rebekkah Brunson, Nicole Powell and an improved Adrian Williams-Strong, but San Antonio made be too good, here. It ranks second in the league in fewest points allowed and no team has shot better than it this season.

“They’ve got too balanced an offense on the perimeter,” ESPN analyst Carolyn Peck said of San Antonio.

Sacramento’s outlook: The Monarchs have played the underdog role all year, so why can’t it succeed here again? Despite some youth, they have veterans in Kara Lawson, Brunson and Ticha Penicheiro who have played major roles in six straight playoff appearances, and before the Olympic break, they were the West’s hottest team with seven wins in eight games.

Lawson, the league’s Defending Sixth Player of the Year, transitioned wonderfully to the starting lineup, where she averaged 12.2 points. Nicole Powell (a career-high 78 3s) has remained one of the top 3-point shooting forwards in the league.

The problem is this Sacramento team has hardly been the defensive squad of past years. Of all this year’s playoff teams, it’s allowed the most points and ranked dead-last in the league, tied with the expansion Atlanta Dream in opponents’ field goal percentage (45 percent).

It held San Antonio to fewer than 70 points twice this season, but their last meeting on Saturday was not pretty: The Silver Stars shot 59 percent from the field, even without their starting backcourt.

No. 2 Seattle Storm (22-11) vs. No. 3 Los Angeles Sparks (20-14)
Season series
: 2-1, Los Angeles
Game 1: 10:30 p.m. Friday, Staples Center (Los Angeles), NBA TV
Seattle’s outlook: This is a matchup of talented teams with major issues, perhaps first and foremost the Storm’s health.

Sue Bird has played at an MVP-level since the Olympic break, averaging 19 points per game before playing a scoreless three minutes in the regular-season finale. But Sheryl Swoopes (concussion) and Swin Cash (back pain) haven’t played since Sept. 6, and while Swoopes may return, Cash remains questionable. Lauren Jackson is back with the team following ankle surgery, but the defending league MVP won’t be available for at least a few weeks.

The Storm enter the playoffs as the league’s top defensive team and with the WNBA’s best home record (16-1), but how those absences affect their ability to control Los Angeles and its three-headed Olympian remains to be seen.

Camille Little (9.7 points) and Tanisha Wright (7.9) will have to come up big.

Los Angeles’ outlook: No one doubts the Sparks’ ability to win this series with imminent Rookie of the Year Candace Parker, Lisa Leslie and DeLisha Milton-Jones. Together, they average 47.5 points and 25 rebounds a game and represent one of the best frontcourts to ever play in the WNBA.

But L.A. has never gotten the consistent play it hoped for out of its backcourt, and that’s why many consider its No. 3 seed a huge disappointment. Marie Ferdinand-Harris is shooting 37 percent from the field, Temeka Johnson has had a difficult season both on and off the court, and rookie Shannon Bobbitt — all 5-foot-2 of her — hasn’t proven she can be the leader at point guard.

But the Sparks’ greatest strengths come in areas where Seattle has been weakened, as Yolanda Griffith can’t handle Parker and Leslie by herself. Los Angeles also owns the second best road record in the league, though 8-9 is hardly something to cheer about.

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