Depleted Storm could struggle vs. top-seeded Sparks

Updated: August 17, 2006, 9:50 AM ET
By Nancy Lieberman | Special to ESPN.com

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The Storm host the Sparks on Friday as their first-round series tips off. Seattle won the regular-season series 2-1. A look at how they match up heading into the postseason:

(1) LOS ANGELES VS. (4) SEATTLE
Los Angeles (25-9), West No. 1
SPARKS STATS
(Regular season)
PPG OPP FG 3FG FT REB
75.7 72.8 43.8 29.4 74.4 35.4
Seattle (18-16), West No. 4
STORM STATS
(Regular season)
PPG OPP FG 3FG FT REB
77.7 75.7 45.2 33.7 78.9 33.7
WHAT'S WORKING? First-year Sparks coach Joe Bryant, Kobe's father, has done a great job this season. Three months ago, we all knew Los Angeles had the potential, but no one really expected the Sparks to be the West's No. 1 seed. There were too many question marks, beginning with Bryant, who wasn't hired until mid-April, after the WNBA Draft. But he came in, instilled confidence in his new team and taught his players not only how to be better, but how to be better players within his system. The Sparks have really responded to his laid-back style.

Other questions the Sparks faced when the season opened: How would they respond to new point guard Temeka Johnson, and how would Lisa Leslie (above, Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images) come back after, statistically at least, the worst season of her career a year ago when she was riddled with injuries.

Johnson, last season's Rookie of the Year who was acquired from Washington, has done an excellent job running the Sparks. Though she's very young, she's also very calm and settling. She's just a great floor leader who has been allowed to run the team and has been successful doing it.

Leslie, meanwhile, averaged 9.5 rebounds and a career-best 20.0 points per game while improving her field-goal accuracy to 51.1 percent (she also leads the Sparks with 1.7 blocks and 1.5 steals per game). Along with Seattle's Lauren Jackson and Connecticut's Katie Douglas, Leslie is considered a favorite for the regular-season MVP honor.

It has been a long time since Chamique Holdsclaw's name was included in MVP talk, but she is playing solid basketball despite missing some games because of injuries and personal issues, such as her father's illness. On any given night, though, Holdsclaw (15.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg) is still capable of a double-double. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Holdsclaw is how comfortable she seems in accepting her smaller role -- which hasn't included a single start this season.

The Sparks have been very consistent this season and have dramatically improved their rebounding, grabbing almost six more boards per game than last summer.
WHAT'S WORKING? Here are two things a lot of people are overlooking right now. First, Sue Bird might be having the worst year of her pro career statistically, but she remains one of the top point guards in the league. And her numbers -- 11.4 ppg (down 0.7), 4.8 apg (down 1.1), 3.0 rpg (up 0.6) -- are solid enough. Bird is typically a dominant player but has been uncharacteristically passive at times this season. She just needs to be more aggressive on offense, look to score more and attack the basket. Bird has been successful on every level, and when the playoffs open, you can bet she is going to bring her A-game.

Second, Betty Lennox is extremely important to the success of the Storm. I think that with two bonafide superstars in front of her, and because of her streaky play, Lennox is often an afterthought in Seattle. When Bird's not at the top of her game, Lennox's production becomes vital to the Storm's success. Don't forget it was Lennox -- not Lauren Jackson (above, Jeff Reinking/Getty Images) or Bird -- who was the WNBA Finals MVP during Seattle's 2004 championship run. And Lennox -- not Bird -- has ranked second in scoring in Seattle each of the past two seasons.

The biggest concern for Seattle is inconsistency. Before a four-game win streak to start August that finally clinched Seattle its playoff berth, the Storm had lost five of nine games following the All-Star break.

Part of the inconsistency, of course, can be traced to a slew of injuries. From Day 1, Jackson has battled stress fractures and plantar fasciitis, then Seattle lost Wendy Palmer (torn Achilles tendon) and Shaun Gortman (torn ACL). And now, Bird (foot), Lennox (knee) and Janell Burse (shoulder) are all ailing heading into the postseason.

Palmer's injury was devastating. The 10-year veteran was averaging 9.4 points when she got hurt just five games into the season. More important, she helped give Seattle a very good post rotation and depth inside, which were especially important as coach Anne Donovan tried to get Jackson some rest. Both of those are gone now, and quite frankly, Donovan is working smoke and mirrors to get things done in Seattle.
LISA VS. LAUREN: I don't want to get overdramatic, but Lisa Leslie and Lauren Jackson are two of the greatest players of our generation, and it wouldn't be too farfetched to compare their matchup to the days of Wilt and Russell. Both Leslie and Jackson have excelled internationally and won WNBA titles, and this is easily the best matchup of the first round.

Leslie deserves to be applauded for a great summer and for working very hard in the offseason. But the fact of the matter is that she is healthy. At this level, and at 34 years old, that's key.

Jackson, who's 25, hasn't had that luxury this season. In fact, she has battled stress fractures for years. Still, what's so remarkable is how well Jackson (19.5 ppg, 7.7 rpg) has played this season despite immense pain. Jackson, who's scoring went up two points despite averaging almost six fewer minutes per game, has to be one of the league's toughest players, both mentally and physically.

Leslie and Jackson are both incredible players. Leslie, the 2004 MVP, has better moves and countermoves around the basket, though Jackson, the 2003 MVP, has developed her back-to-the-basket game too. Jackson has the better range, though both players can knock down a 3-pointer. Leslie just needs to have her feet set. Jackson is better at putting the ball on the floor and creating her own shot or taking the ball to the basket.
X-FACTORS: Seattle, which lost to Houston in two games in the first round last season, must try to keep Leslie away from the basket as much as possible, let her shoot the face-up jumper and prevent her from attacking the basket. And if Leslie gets off the shot, do not foul her. It won't even be close if the Storm start giving Leslie three-point play opportunities.

Both teams will look to get points in transition, but the Sparks' shooters have to hit some early shots to help open things up inside for Leslie. If not, it'll be easier for the Storm to double-team her and keep Leslie off the offensive boards.

The backcourt battle between Bird and Johnson is another great matchup in this series. As the older, more experienced guard, Bird should have the edge, but both are dynamic playmakers and Johnson's quicker than most of her peers. She'll get after Bird and dog her from end to end.

Seattle's Iziane Castro Marques is another player who could be a huge factor. The fourth-year guard can be lethal in transition, and though she averaged 7.2 points in the regular season, Castro Marques pushed that to 12.3 against the Sparks on 60 percent (15-for-25) shooting from the field.
WHO WINS? Los Angeles. The Sparks have more depth, more athleticism, are healthier and have been more consistent across the board. They are also the better defensive and rebounding team. Those are two key areas if you want to advance in the postseason. Seattle might be able to win if the Storm play their best ball. But Los Angeles can win despite not playing its best ball.

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.

Nancy Lieberman

Basketball analyst / Writer
Nancy Lieberman, one of the most recognized individuals in women's basketball, is a men's and women's basketball analyst for ESPN. She works on ESPN and ESPN2's coverage of men's and women's college basketball, plus the WNBA and writes for ESPN.com.