We have two games to watch on ESPN2 today. While one is clearly more important to fans of the Seattle Storm than the other, both should be of interest.
The first airs at 4:30 PT and will feature former Storm and Aussie spark Tully Bevilaqua and her Indiana Fever as the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference, taking on the depleted New York Liberty and their All Star Becky Hammon. We will all be cheering for Tully in this series I am sure. She has handled herself admirably in Indiana this past season, putting up career best numbers in points and steals. I think her real contribution to this team, though, is her championship experience and her tenacious team defense.
The real game we Storm fans are concerned with immediately follows the Fever/Liberty matchup when the Seattle Storm take on the dangerous Houston Comets at 6:30PM PDT in Houston.
I talked yesterday about the team matchups...so today I will take a look at the individual matchups...
MVP Head to Head
They have been the top two candidates for the MVP award all season long. The votes may be in, but expect these two to continue their battle in this post season series. They play different positions, but they are the key to the success of their teams, and as important as the other players on the floor will be, the series may swing with the performance of either Seattle's Lauren Jackson or Houston's Sheryl Swoopes.
Sue Bird vs. Janeth Arcain/Dawn Staley
Sue comes into the post season after winning her first 2005 Player of the Week award, and her first WNBA assist leader title. She has overcome her second broken nose in two years and adjusted to the new mask she wears to protect her nose and her previously fractured cheek bone. According to coach Anne Donnovan Sue, along with leading scorer and rebounder Lauren Jackson, has stepped up her leadership role on the team with the exit of veteran leaders Kamilla Vodichkva and Sheri Sam from last years title winning team. She has been credited this season with improving her individual defense, even within the more team oriented defense implemented by coach Anne Donnovan. Despite ranking fourth in the league for Assist to Turnover Ratio, she has struggled at times throughout the season with turnovers, particularly against veteran guards. Janeth Arcain's value to the Houston Comets was demonstrated quite clearly last season when they missed the playoffs for the first time in franchise history while Janeth sat out the WNBA season to fulfill her commitment to the Brazillian olympic team. She knows coach Van Chancellor's offense and the capabilities of her teamates so well that her reduced production this year is more than offset. Combined with the brilliance of Dawn Staley, this makes a potent combination. Staley's numbers have suffered as the late season trade to Houston has transitioned her to a bench role. Van Chancellor runs the same plays in Houston that Staley executed for him on the US Olympic team, and she is very familiar with the play of Houston's two stars. Against the Storm, however, these advantages are not of as much value. Anne Donnovan was Chancellor's assistant on the Olympic team, and Sue Bird was Staley's backup. In Staley's play for Houston against the Storm this year Sue was calling defensive sets for every offensive set Staley indicated. Sue's combination of experience, speed and shooting ability give her the edge over the veteran savvy of Houston's point guards.
Betty Lennox vs. Dominique Canty
Betty is suffering from tendinitis in her right wrist and recovering from a ligament injury in her left wrist. Her six game rest at the end of the season, however, has allowed her a freshness she did not have when she won the 2004 Finals MVP award. She has put up strong numbers off the bench and in Saturday's return to the starting lineup, and more importantly has put up those numbers at the right times. She has injected passion, fire and energy into the Storm offense when it has started to sag, and hit her rhythm down the stretch. She and Sue Bird dominated the end of the game vs. the Mercury on Saturday with Lauren Jackson on the bench nursing a sore back. Canty has been solid, but unimpressive in her increased minutes with Houston this year. Expect Betty to dominate this matchup, forcing Houston to play Arcain at the two while Staley plays the point, to leverage the extra three inches of height Janeth brings to the defensive end of the floor.
Iziane Castro Marques vs Sheryl Swoopes
Despite Izzy's solid individual defense, expect MVP candidate Swoopes to dominate this matchup at both ends of the floor throughout the series. Swoopes has averaged 23.5 ppg against the Storm this year including her career high 34 in their last loss at Key Arena on August 9th. Izzy has managed 10 ppg in her three outings, having missed the first game in Houston after being suspended by the league for the game. Swoopes is also averaging 5 assists, 2.25 steals and 4.25 rebounds per game against Seattle. These numbers are all better than her season numbers, indicating she brings her best game when she takes on the Storm. Coach Dononvan has said that she will only alter the matchup if Sheryl gets hot. I will go farther and say that Anne WILL change the matchup because Sheryl WILL get hot.
Lauren Jackson vs. Tina Thompson
Despite the early attempt at melodramatic hype by ESPN's Nancy Lieberman, it is confirmed that not only will LJ play tonight, but she will be starting. In past years this has been a great matchup between two of the game's premier power forwards. This year, however, Tina has been slow to recover from the birth of her first child, only playing in the last 15 games of the season. She appeared to be returning to last year's form by the last few games, but even with a sore back LJ should be able to remind Tina who the best player in the world actually is, silver medal not withstanding. Tina may be finding her shooting touch, but she is still a step of two slow and will have trouble handling LJ on offense, and getting her shot off on defense.
Janell Burse vs. Michelle Snow
This is the one matchup where I disagree with Jayda Evans in her analysis for the Seattle Times. I believe that JB is the leagues Most Improved Player and will take advantage of Snow's help defense on LJ to put up solid numbers in this series. They have matched up pretty well this season.
It has been a very physical matchup with JB's numbers being adversely effected by her foul troubles. I expect the referees to allow more physical play under the basket in the playoffs, which should lead to more of an equal performance at the center position.
This is what will win the series for the Storm. The steady improvement of the bench particularly that of Tanisha Wright, will sway the series to the defending champions. Solid play from Suzy Batkovic will be required, as will consistent help from both Francesca Zara, Alicia Thompson and Simone Edwards. Tanisha and Suzy are the keys with the others merely needing to bridge the gaps and give the other seven players some rest in the rotation. Dawn Staley is the only real value on the bench for Houston who will have to play their starters significant minutes.
Van Chancellor is an icon in the WNBA and he led the Comets through their championship dynasty years. He continues to rely on the same plays, however, and the majority of the load falls squarely on the shoulders of his superstar player. Anne Donovan, in contrast, has demonstrated her coaching savvy and leadership skills becoming the first woman to win a WNBA championship and the first woman to 100 wins in the WNBA. She is already tagged to take over USA Basketball from Van and she took a team with two new starters, a new 6th "man" and more rookie minutes than any team in the WNBA this season to 20 wins, tying her championship team's 2004 record.