- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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Houston (19-15), West No. 3
WHAT'S WORKING: The defending champs have proven that it's not about how fast you start but about how well you end. Shortly after the All-Star break, Seattle was 8-10. But then the Storm won six straight and went 6-2 to wrap up the regular season. And now, despite injuries to key players such as Sue Bird (broken nose) and Betty Lennox (hand), Seattle enters the playoffs with the exact same record as it did a year ago en route to the league title.
As always, the Storm revolve around MVP candidate Lauren Jackson (above) -- who is expected to play despite sitting out the second half Saturday after suffering a back injury -- and Bird, and the two help make Seattle's offense very diversified. The Storm can hurt you from inside and outside, and as a result, are the league's No. 1 scoring team at 73.5 points per game. They also rebound well, ranking third with about 32.3 boards per game, which allows Seattle to run. But the Storm might be even better in the half court thanks to terrific passing and a 43.9 percent accuracy from the field (fourth in the WNBA). They also rank second in free-throw shooting at 79.1 percent.
Seattle's not a great defensive team, giving up more points (70.8 per game) than anybody else in the league and ranking second to last in steals per game (5.9). But individually, the Storm are very good at rotating behind the ball and play good help defense.
Lennox (12.4 ppg), last year's WNBA Finals MVP, is one of four Storm players in double figures, and combines with Iziane Castro Marques (8.2 ppg) as great slashers and open-court players. Seattle goes nine deep; Suzy Batkovic and rookie Tanisha Wright have been invaluable off the bench.
WHAT'S WORKING: The Comets live and die by their starters, going only six deep. Of course, half of them are some of the best players in the game and include MVP favorite Sheryl Swoopes (above). She never forces anything yet leads the league in scoring at 18.6 points per game. Both Swoopes and Tina Thompson only get better as the season progresses, especially Thompson, who has only played 15 games since coming back after giving birth in May. Both players have been on fire lately, and guard Janeth Arcain has been as solid as ever, too, averaging 10.1 points.
Houston's best asset might be its experience. Every key person on the roster has either been part of a WNBA championship, played in the Olympics or at least competed at the Final Four in college. They are big-game players who will not be intimidated by the postseason.
While Thompson and Michelle Snow solidify Houston's inside game, Dominique Canty and Dawn Staley keep things organized and flowing in the backcourt. Canty seems to have stepped up her game, too, turning the ball over just twice in 37 minutes against Phoenix last week.
Houston keeps things simple, and in a "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mold, coach Van Chancellor is notorious for running the same plays as long as they work. Expect the Comets to penetrate and pitch, spread the floor and work off the high-screen roll and side-screen roll. They're also a very good free-throw shooting team (about 77 percent accuracy) and make opponents pay down the stretch if put on the foul line.
WHAT NEEDS WORK: Though Bird -- who leads the league with 5.9 assists per game -- sports a 2.0 assist-to-turnover ratio, the rest of the Storm could take better care of the ball. Seattle averages 15.2 turnovers a night, the fifth-highest amount of giveaways in the league.
WHAT NEEDS WORK: The Comets need to contest their opponents' 3-point shots a little bit better. Foes shoot 35 percent from 3-point range, which ranks as the fourth-highest mark in the league. When Houston's playing too lax on the perimeter, it allows the Comets' opponents to stay or get back in the game. That almost had huge consequences against Phoenix last Tuesday, but Houston managed to hold on and locked up a playoff berth.
X-FACTOR: Jackson's back is obviously something to keep an eye on, though at this point, it appears coach Anne Donovan was perhaps just being cautious and opted not to play Jackson in the second half Saturday. Either way, all eyes are on the 6-foot-5 post, who has done a great job coming back from offseason surgery. With each week that has passed, Jackson -- who's averaging almost 17.6 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.0 blocks, 1.7 assists and 1.1 steals -- looks much more confident.
Jackson's size, along with 6-5 Janell Burse (who has started all 34 games and is averaging 10 points) and 6-4 Batkovic, give Seattle a bigger, strong low-post presence than Houston.
Outside, four players have nailed at least 24 3-pointers this season, but Seattle hits just 33 percent of its treys. Bird's 45 are a team high, as is her 44.2 percent accuracy downtown.
The Comets are at their best when Michelle Snow (6.8 rebounds and a career-high 12.0 points per game) is focused, and they need to keep her involved at both ends. When the 6-foot-5 center's running the floor well, reward her with the ball in transition. On the low block, Houston must get her a lot of touches and let her use her signature moves -- those baby hooks and step-throughs -- to get plenty of shots. She needs to stay in the game both mentally and physically, and when she does, Houston's rebounding especially benefits.
This season, the West featured some of the best posts in the world -- Yolanda Griffith, Lisa Leslie and Lauren Jackson are all past MVPs -- and Snow responded. She has grown up and expanded her game. And since Thompson is not ready to defend Lauren Jackson for 40 minutes, Snow's abilities against the Australian superstar will be on center stage.
SEASON SERIES: Seattle and Houston split the season series with both teams sweeping on their home courts. In three of the games, the team with the most rebounds also was victorious.
Swoopes has dominated the series, averaging 23.5 points on 50 percent (35-for-70) shooting from the field. She netted a career-high 34 points in a three-point loss on Aug. 9. In that same game, however, Lauren Jackson scored 27 points. She has scored at least 17 points in three of their matchups, though her 17-point average for the series doesn't reflect it. That's because Jackson scored just six points in a 71-67 loss on June 28. That's the game Donovan benched Jackson -- who was 2-for-4 and played just 21 minutes -- shortly into the second half for unspecified reasons. In the series, Jackson's 24-for-42 (57 percent) from the field.
BOTTOM LINE: Houston has to make this series a defensive battle. Seattle leads the league in scoring and it will be difficult for the Comets to keep pace.
These teams are both athletic and match up well. Seattle even comes close to matching Houston's experience since every key Storm player -- with the exception of Wright -- has championship or national team experience.
But as the regular-season series indicates -- and as evidenced by Seattle's ability to fight a 14-point deficit at home to win their first matchup this season against Houston -- home-court advantage will play a key role. Seattle -- which won two straight at home last year to fight a 0-1 deficit in the WNBA Finals -- plays very well at KeyArena in front of its fans.
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.
The top two MVP candidates go head-to-head in the West as the second-seeded Storm continue to defend their 2004 title.