- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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Sacramento Monarchs (20-17), West No. 4
What's working: The Storm's offense has been terrific, operating very efficiently in the halfcourt and also pushing tempo to get easy baskets when possible. Seattle has moved the ball very well, averaging only 13.5 turnovers in the first round, and though the Storm have struggled from beyond the arc, they are hitting the mid-range jumper and shot 44 percent from the field in their two playoff games so far.
Lauren Jackson (above) continues to come up big night after night, and Sacramento will no doubt focus its defensive energies on her, trying to employ the same strategies it used on L.A.'s Lisa Leslie. Though she lacks Leslie's experience, Jackson is much more versatile than the Sparks center, and nobody can truly guard Jackson one-on-one. While Leslie is a post player who extended her game outward, Jackson's a 6-foot-5 perimeter player who, with the help of coach Anne Donovan, has worked diligently to learn how to utilize her height and skill to be successful on the block.
Still, Jackson (12-for-22, 54.5 percent accuracy from the field in the playoffs) is deadly off the dribble and from 3-point range, where she ranked third in the league in the regular season with 45.2 percent accuracy. She's also a great shot-blocker who's in the best shape of her career.
Obviously a lot hinges on point guard Sue Bird, who will play despite suffering a broken nose less than three minutes into Tuesday's victory over Minnesota. The injury requires surgery, tentatively scheduled for Oct. 3, in between Games 2 and 3, to allow time for the swelling to decrease.
In a conversation earlier this week, Bird said the injury wasn't as bad as it looked on TV, and in fact, told the Associated Press on Thursday she has "no pain." Bird, however, will play with a protective mask that might affect her vision looking down. Still, though she might need some time to adjust to it, Bird should be as effective as ever in this series.
Seattle doesn't go deep to its bench, but on Tuesday, we discovered that the Storm reserves can come up big. After Bird got hurt, Tully Bevilaqua came in and notched nine points, five rebounds, four assists and no turnovers in 27 minutes. Not bad for a player -- who, by the way, some argue should have made Australia's Olympic squad this year -- averaging less than 11 minutes per game.
Lastly, Seattle's team defense continues to be impressive. Minnesota averaged 10 fewer points than Seattle's regular-season opponents. While the Storm aren't great one-on-one defenders, they play, without a doubt, some of the best team defense I've seen. Again, that is a testament to Donovan's system. She's a tremendous coach, and as a result, Seattle is very fundamental and very savvy.
What's working: Do the Monarchs execute better in the halfcourt than Seattle? No. But Sacramento is clearly more athletic, and the Monarchs' physicality and defense were outstanding in the first round.
Sacramento just took Los Angeles out of its game. The Sparks, who averaged a league-best 73.4 points, were held to a 60.3 scoring average in the first round. They averaged 15.6 turnovers in the regular season, but were harassed into 21 turnovers in Game 3. And L.A. shot five percentage points lower from the field (39.4) and 3-point range (32.5) in the first round than during the regular season.
Still, for as impressive as those numbers are, Sacramento's best accomplishment was limiting Lisa Leslie, a player no one has been able to stop. Leslie averaged 17.6 points in the regular season, but averaged just 11.3 points -- and almost four more turnovers -- against Sacramento.
The Monarchs' defense made all the difference, especially the interior defense of Yolanda Griffith, Tangela Smith and DeMya Walker. They continuously trapped Leslie, forced her to be a passer and frustrated her into what must be statistically the worst three-game performance of her career. In the past, Leslie had averaged three more points in her career playoff average than her career average alone.
Defensively, the Monarchs play the percentages and force you to make decisions with the basketball. They play 5 vs. 3, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. If you put the ball inside, they trap you with the opposite post while Ticha Penicheiro denies the pass back out to the guard who initiated the entry pass. That forces the opponent to make the pass on the cross-court diagonal, which is the area of the floor Sacramento is comfortable guarding.
The Monarchs hope to turn Jackson into a passer, too, which would put the pressure on Seattle's Vodichkova or Janell Burse to beat them. Sacramento will run at Jackson anytime she gets the ball on the block, sending two players to double team her.
More than anything, Sacramento -- which averaged 10 steals in the first round -- has finally blended into the defensive team that coach John Whisenant has been hoping for. The Monarchs' white-line defense is fantastic, and that's because they are so long on the perimeter. Penicheiro, who's 5 feet 11, is one of the league's top perimeter defenders, and the athleticism of the starting frontcourt, as well as players such as Hamchetou Maiga and Rebekkah Brunson, is unmatched.
What's most surprising, however, was Sacramento's shooting. The Monarchs aren't the best halfcourt team and have struggled with their perimeter shooting this season, but got some really good looks and knocked down some shots against L.A. They seemed really patient in the halfcourt offense, which hasn't been their MO this season.
What needs work: The only possible red flag was their 7-for-20 performance (35 percent) on 3-pointers. The Storm shot 38 percent from downtown in the regular season. Also, Seattle shot just 68 percent from the free-throw line in the first round.
And Seattle must be careful not to look past Sacramento now that the Storm's longtime nemesis, L.A., has been eliminated.
What needs work: Defensively, Sacramento must be wary of Jackson's ability to read the double team and go to her left shoulder baseline. Jackson is quick enough and smart enough that she can sometimes catch the ball and turn before the trap even arrives. Sacramento must get there in time or have a backup plan to counter Jackson's quickness.
X-factor: Sheri Sam and Betty Lennox must continue to be productive and exploit their mismatches. Lennox is extremely tough to guard off the dribble, and Sam is playing her best basketball of the season. If Sam (9.0 ppg in the first round) and Lennox (7.5) can continue to combine for 16 or 17 points on the perimeter as they did against Minnesota, Seattle will be very hard to beat.
And of course, Kamila Vodichkova remains the unsung hero and glue that holds the Storm together.
X-factor: After combining to average 34 points in the regular season, Griffith, Smith and Walker combined for 42.4 points in the first round. If they can continue playing at this level -- Smith is averaging 6.5 more points in the playoffs than in the regular season -- the Monarchs are tough to beat.
Sacramento's bench remains a factor, too. Kara Lawson, who's averaging two more points in the playoffs (up to 10.7 from 8.6), shot 6-for-13 from 3-point range (46.2 percent) against L.A.
In the regular season: On paper, Seattle appears to be the overwhelming favorite, going 3-1 against Sacramento in the regular season. And in the Monarchs' lone win, in the teams' last meeting on Sept. 1, the Storm were without Jackson, who was in Australia visiting her grandmother shortly before her death.
Bottom line: Sacramento is playing the best defense of any of the four teams still playing, and the Monarchs are hoping the old saying "Offense sells tickets but defense wins championships" holds true.
Still, don't overlook Seattle. The Storm aren't as long or athletic as Sacramento, but they are deceptive and get things done very efficiently in their more-structured offense.
Both teams are playing with supreme confidence. Seattle reached the conference finals for the first time, and Sacramento is riding high after finally knocking off the Sparks. The Monarchs have been on a mission, and said they were going to beat L.A. when the playoff matchups were set. And they also look like they're having fun for a change.
More than anything, I look forward to the strategic battle between coaches Donovan and Whisenant.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.
Will Sacramento's athletic frontcourt or Seattle's systematic halfcourt offense prevail in the Western Conference finals?