- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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Editor's note: This breakdown was written prior to knowledge of Sun point guard Lindsay Whalen's injury, which initially was expected to sideline her for at least Games 1 and 2. However, just hours before Game 1 was to tip off Wednesday, Whalen was expected to be game-time decision. Jennifer Derevjanik will start if Whalen is not able to play.
Sacramento (4-0), West No. 1
(25-9 in regular season)
POINT GUARD: Breaking down this matchup obviously depends on whether Sacramento's Ticha Penicheiro, who missed the West finals with a severely sprained ankle, will be able to play. Prior to the injury, Penicheiro was playing some of the best basketball -- especially offensively -- of her eight-year WNBA career, doubling her scoring production in the playoffs (she averaged 11 points on 53.8 percent shooting in the first round after shooting 31.4 percent to average 5.7 points in the regular season). She was playing very aggressively and looking to get to the rim every time she had the ball, which hasn't been a typical mindset in her game over the years. If Penicheiro doesn't start, Kara Lawson will be on the court for tip-off. Lawson filled in rather impressively in the West finals, notching career highs with 18 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in Saturday's win.
Between Lawson and Connecticut's Lindsay Whalen (above, left), Lawson is the better shooter, but Whalen has more overall skill, plus she's a natural point guard (Lawson is better as an off-guard). Whalen led all players in the first round with a 20 points-per-game scoring average, and can create in the open court, muscle her way inside, push tempo, get to the rim and the foul line ,and knock down the jump shot.
Whalen's most efficient when she penetrates to the rim, and her success depends on her ability to get her shoulder below that of the opponent, which allows her to face up to the basket. You can't allow Whalen to get her hips and shoulders squared up toward the basket like a running back on the football field, because that's when she's virtually impossible to stop. But a healthy Penicheiro, who has flourished defensively in coach John Whisenant's system and can effectively guard a 1, 2 or 3, is strong enough to keep Whalen out of the paint, quick enough to keep up with her in the open court, and long enough to contest Whalen's shots.
ADVANTAGE: Whalen. Penicheiro has more experience and is the better defender, but she will not be anywhere close to 100 percent when this series starts. Either way, both players are two of the best passers in the game, and a Penicheiro-Whalen matchup has the potential to be one of the best, most entertaining one-on-one battles of the postseason, especially with both playing as well as they are right now.
OFF-GUARD: Sacramento rookie Chelsea Newton has done everything Whisenant could have wanted this season and has started every game. She's a strong slasher, and even though it's her first year in the league, she holds her own. Newton is extremely competitive and plays hard on both ends.
Connecticut's Katie Douglas is the better scorer, though, and is more offensive-minded and has better range to her shot. She's also a tremendous defender, and in the playoffs has shut down big-time players such as Deanna Nolan. Douglas is a "position defender;" she really understands angles and the flight of the ball and knows where to be.
ADVANTAGE: Douglas. She has the edge in experience. Now, she just needs to keep hitting some long-range shots and keep Newton off the boards.
SMALL FORWARD: The Monarchs' Nicole Powell, the league's Most Improved Player this year, and Sun All-Star Nykesha Sales are both incredible 3-point shooters.
Powell's shot is probably a little better; she has more range and gets the shot off quicker, plus she's bigger and has a higher release. Powell also is a very good rebounder, a solid decision maker and was by far the missing piece in Sacramento a year ago. Though she hit that huge 27-foot 3-pointer to force overtime last Thursday in Game 1, which Sacramento eventually won, she didn't have a great series against Houston in the West finals.
Sales, who led the Sun in scoring in the regular season at 15.6 points, is stronger and the better defender. She's also more experienced, an excellent rebounder and can hit the shot off the dribble.
ADVANTAGE: Sales. Same goes for Connecticut's backcourt, which was the second-highest scoring backcourt in the league this season. Sales, Whalen and Douglas are all better natural shooters than Newton and Penicheiro, and Douglas and Sales are great defenders and have the experience over Sacramento, which starts a rookie (Newton) and a second-year player (Powell).
POWER FORWARD: Injuries and the status of a Monarch again influence this breakdown. DeMya Walker, who had been out with a knee injury since Aug. 18, returned to play in the two-game West finals series. She notched performances of 11 and 13 points, shot 9-for-14 from the field and tallied eight rebounds and seven assists -- all off the bench. Walker was, however, an All-Star back in July and plays hard and with tremendous heart every second she's on the floor.
If Walker doesn't start, Rebekkah Brunson will continue to get the nod at tip-off. The Charles Oakley of the WNBA, Brunson's big, strong and aggressive, attacking every rebound and loose ball. Brunson's averaging 8.0 points and 6.0 boards in the playoffs, and more than anything, she's a defensive specialist -- particularly on the glass -- but has a nice passing game in the post and has developed a solid short- and mid-range game. Like all of Sacramento's young players, this second-year post does a good job of playing within herself and beyond her years.
Still, it's hard to top Taj McWilliams-Franklin. The Sun post is extremely savvy, knows every trick in the book and also has more experience than both Walker and Brunson. McWilliams-Franklin, who has seemed very driven and focused to return to the finals after Connecticut's loss to Seattle in the championship series a year ago, has a terrific face-up game and can take you off the dribble with her counter moves.
ADVANTAGE: McWilliams-Franklin. A healthy Walker is the better defender because of her explosiveness, but she can have a tendency to play out of control at times. Plus, it will be interesting to see what that knee (which has hampered her throughout the second half of the season) will let her do in back-to-back games. Of note, Walker played five fewer minutes in Game 2 of the West finals, even though there was a two-day break between games. But McWilliams-Franklin has gotten things done all season long and is a regular-season MVP candidate.
CENTER: If you saw Game 2 of the East finals, don't be fooled: Though she's extremely talented, Margo Dydek does not usually hit fastbreak layups -- or reverse layups, for that matter -- and score at will to wind up with 12 points. In the regular season, in fact, the 7-foot-2 post averaged 7.3 points per game. But Dydek has been a huge difference-maker for the Sun in the playoffs. She shot 64 percent (7-for-11) in the East finals and averaged 9.0 points and 6.0 rebounds. Dydek also is one of the great all-time shot blockers, swatting 762 shots over her eight-year WNBA career.
Indiana didn't have an answer for Dydek in the East finals, but Sacramento certainly does. Yolanda Griffith (above, right), another MVP candidate, is the best offensive rebounder the game has ever seen. She's also a great shot blocker and one of the best defenders. Griffith has great footwork and incredible hands. She can run in transition and has improved her back-to-the-basket game.
The Monarchs will try to take Dydek away from the basket, but she needs to really try and stay on the low block and rebound, keeping it simple.
ADVANTAGE: Griffith. She's much quicker than Dydek.
BENCH: The fact Whisenant used a 10-player rotation during the regular season is paying dividends in the playoffs. His reserves might not have started many games in the regular season, but within Whisenant's system, the Monarchs were able to gain valuable playing experience when games were in the balance. Sacramento goes nine deep -- each averaging at least 12.8 minutes -- with a bench that provides solid support both inside and out.
Lawson, who started only one regular-season game, is a fantastic shooter and the ultimate competitor. She might not be the greatest athlete or the quickest player, but her determination and competitiveness carry her far, and she just understands the game and how to get it done.
For as much as Lawson is a shooting specialist, Hamchetou Maiga is a defensive specialist. Rookie Kristin Haynie has proven she's an aggressive defender who can play at this level. And then you have either Brunson or Walker coming off the bench, and perhaps Penicheiro, too, if she doesn't start. Having an eight-year veteran who is one of the greatest passers in the world coming off the bench can't be a bad thing.
Connecticut's main threat off the bench is post player Asjha Jones, who has played very well in the postseason. A true difference-maker in the East finals vs. Indiana, Jones ran the floor well, looked for her shots and is averaging 9.5 points on 50 percent shooting.
The backcourt doesn't get nearly as much help from the Sun bench. Brooke Wyckoff, who has played 49 minutes in the playoffs so far, is a 3-point specialist, and if she's knocking them down, will get decent time. Guard Jamie Carey has appeared in two postseason games, playing 21 minutes, but Connecticut largely sticks with a six-player rotation.
ADVANTAGE: Sacramento. Its bench is deeper, more experienced and loaded with better defenders. Plus, the Monarchs' reserves play starter minutes -- and would start on some other teams.
X-FACTORS: Maiga could be the key to the series. She's very long and can defend positions 1-4, and was very effective at times against Houston's Sheryl Swoopes. Maiga has excellent foot speed and athleticism and could be equally successful in keeping Whalen out of the paint. She's also dangerous offensively if she gets hot. But Maiga's one downfall is that she can sometimes play out of control, as evidenced by her fouling out -- and getting whistled for three fouls in a two-minute span -- with 8:21 to play Saturday.
Connecticut must establish its inside game in this series. Dydek has to be a factor, and at least alter if not block the Monarchs' shots inside. Though she has a tendency to stray away from the paint, Dydek must stay on the block, hit some shots and force Sacramento to work defensively.
Connecticut will be hard to stop if it plays as well as it did against Indiana, when the Sun averaged 75 points against a terrific defensive team. Connecticut has really stepped up on the boards in the postseason, and if the Sun can dominate the glass again, that'll take away the Monarchs' running game. Sacramento is a great offensive rebounding team; the Sun must keep Griffith off the boards in transition and can't allow the Monarchs those easy second-chance points.
For Sacramento, Powell needs to play the way she did in the regular season. That doesn't mean she has to hit double figures in every game, but her 4-for-16 shooting performance and 5.5 points per game in the West finals won't get it done. Yes, her 27-foot 3-pointer gave Sacramento life in Game 1, pushing the game into an overtime that the Monarchs ultimately dominated and won. But she was 1-for-6 from 3-point range in Game 2 (and 1-for-8 overall) to finish with just three points. She doesn't always have to hit the miracle 3-pointer, but Powell does need to nail a crucial jumper here and there.
If Lawson continues to play as well as she did in the West finals, that will help counter Connecticut's high-scoring backcourt -- and take some of the pressure off Powell.
That said, and because the Monarchs ranked first in the league in 3-point shooting in the regular season, it's imperative that the Sun try to take away Sacramento's long-range threat. The Sun must find and contest Powell and Lawson on every shot.
WHO WINS: This is going to be a defensive battle, not a wide-open game offensively where the score stretches up into the 70s. These are two really good defensive teams that specialize in taking away the opponent's strengths.
Connecticut's starting five is better offensively than Sacramento's starters. But the Sun don't have the same bench production and their success truly depends on at least four of the starters consistently scoring in double digits. Sacramento's bench, on the other hand, gives the Monarchs scoring, rebounding, great defense and plenty of energy.
The Sun were one Nykesha Sales miss from winning the WNBA title last summer, and this will be another close series. But in what should be one of the most competitive finals we've seen, Sacramento will win -- in five games. The Monarchs were very impressive winning without Penicheiro in the West finals, which bolstered their confidence. They might also have an edge in that they were more battle-tested in the playoffs.
The key for Sacramento is that the Monarchs should be able to slow down the Sun's transition game and prevent them from getting a lot of easy layups and short jumpers. The Monarchs will also be able to dominate the boards, which will make Connecticut a half-court team and force the Sun to really earn their baskets. Sacramento's team defense -- its biggest strength -- can also really wear down opponents.
Sacramento's one Achilles' heel is its poor free-throw shooting -- the Monarchs hit about 70 percent of their foul shots -- and that might come into play if the games are close.
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.