- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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The Monarchs host the Sparks on Thursday as the Western Conference finals get under way. Los Angeles swept the regular-season series 3-0. A look at how they match up heading into the postseason:
Sacramento (2-0), West No. 2
BACKCOURT KEYS: Temeka Johnson demonstrated in Game 3 how crucial she is to L.A.'s success. The point guard, who had six assists but just one turnover in 31 minutes Tuesday, scored 14 points, tying Lisa Leslie for team-high honors (Leslie pictured above left; Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images). Johnson came up with big baskets, and her aggressiveness -- both in her penetrating drives into the lane and in pushing the ball up court to jump-start L.A.'s offense -- set the tone for the Sparks.
Johnson is fearless and showed it Tuesday, driving inside despite Seattle's 6-foot-5 duo of Lauren Jackson and Janell Burse. And though Jackson blocked one of Johnson's layup attempts, Sacramento needs to do a better job of reminding Johnson she's just 5-3. The Monarchs must keep her out of the paint, but when they don't prevent her from penetrating, someone needs to step up and waste a foul, sending Johnson a message that she will not have her way inside.
ADVANTAGE: Sacramento. Johnson is incredible, but the Monarchs' guards are much more seasoned. Johnson, a second-year player, and fifth-year veteran Tamara Moore, who has started the past two games for the Sparks, combine for 196 career games.
But Sacramento's 5-11 point guard, Ticha Penicheiro, tops that all by herself, with 271 starts in 274 career appearances. That also includes 28 playoff games. If her experience wasn't enough, Penicheiro has led the league in assists on six different occasions and is the WNBA's all-time assists and assists-per-game leader, though she is getting to be less and less of a scoring threat (5.4 ppg). Add 3-point threats Kara Lawson and Nicole Powell, and the Monarchs' backcourt is full of weapons. None is as quick as Johnson, but Penicheiro and Lawson are gritty, smart defenders.
FRONTCOURT KEYS: Mwadi Mabika has owned Sacramento this season, averaging 22.3 points and shooting 58 percent from the field (25-of-43); she made a WNBA single-game record seven 3-pointers in the first meeting. Mabika's length, athleticism and versatility pose a tough defensive matchup for the Monarchs. Sacramento's Hamchetou Maiga-Ba is best-suited to keep up with Mabika's slashing, but it's tough to find a way to stop Mabika's myriad weapons, including runners in the lane, mid-range jumpers and a beautiful 3-point shot.
Whether starting or coming off the bench, Mabika (who averaged 8.5 points in the regular season) is a threat every time she steps on the floor. She gives L.A. a lot of energy and has elevated her game, raising her scoring average to 13 ppg after an 8.5 ppg average in the regular season. She's also grabbing 5.3 rpg, up almost three boards.
Still, L.A.'s Chamique Holdsclaw might make the biggest difference in the frontcourt battle. Limited to just two minutes in Game 2 and stuck on the bench for all of Game 3 as she continues to battle plantar fasciitis, Holdsclaw brought 15.0 ppg and 6.1 rpg to the Sparks in the regular season in her new role as super sub (she didn't start any of the 25 games she appeared in).
But if she can play in the West finals -- after Tuesday's Game 3 victory, Sparks coach Joe Bryant indicated she would be available in the conference finals -- that's a huge boost to L.A. Her presence will be vital for the Sparks' frontcourt to be able to contain Sacramento's Yolanda Griffith (pictured above right; Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images), DeMya Walker and Rebekkah Brunson. And it also means the Monarchs will have to expend more energy defending Holdsclaw around the basket; they can't focus primarily on stopping Leslie. That has been nearly impossible in what has become an MVP-caliber season for Leslie, but the Monarchs must look to play her straight up. They know she's going to get her points, but the Monarchs must be mindful of covering Sacramento's shooters, too.
Conversely, L.A.'s frontcourt will have its hands full with Griffith, last season's WNBA Finals MVP. The Sparks must keep her off the boards, particularly on the offensive glass. Griffith is the type of player who grinds away and slowly accumulates impressive stat lines, but L.A. must force her to shoot with a hand in her face.
Watch for L.A. post Jessica Moore to make a quiet impact. She was a big factor against Seattle, starting all three games and increasing her scoring average by nearly two points to 6.0 ppg. She seems to have benefited from facing Leslie every day in practice, and Leslie has said the same thing about Moore.
ADVANTAGE: If Holdsclaw can play as expected, L.A. gets the nod. But this is a close one. Neither frontcourt is decidedly better. L.A.'s Leslie and Holdsclaw and the Monarchs' Griffith and Walker have all been All-Stars. It might come down to post depth; if those four players nullify each other, will someone else be the difference in the paint?
X FACTORS: This series is likely to be more high scoring than people think. Both teams are very athletic, and there will be a lot of up-tempo running, and that is why whichever team dominates the boards has the edge.
Like the East finals matchup between Connecticut and Detroit, rebounding will play a huge factor in this series. L.A. outboarded Sacramento in all three of their meetings this season, boasting almost a plus-6 advantage and totaling 97 rebounds to Sacramento's 80.
After averaging 74.6 ppg in the regular season, Sacramento pushed that average to 92.5 ppg in the first round. But the Sparks can stop the Monarchs if they take away their transition game and second-chance point opportunities. If L.A. can limit Sacramento inside, that puts the onus on Lawson and Powell to knock down 3-pointers.
Sacramento's defense on the whole has been better and more refined and consistent than the Sparks' this season. And that should be an advantage. However, L.A. coach Joe Bryant's zone really tripped up Seattle. After shooting 45 percent in the regular season, the Storm shot just 38 percent in the first round as they struggled against L.A.'s length. That zone can work similar magic against Sacramento.
Bench production will be key for both teams. Sacramento led the league this season with 33 ppg from its reserves, while L.A. ranked second at 29 ppg.
WHO WINS?Sacramento. Yes, I had picked Los Angeles to emerge from the West before the postseason started. But gut instinct goes a long way, especially considering that nobody is playing better defensively than the Monarchs right now. They were extremely impressive in the first round against Houston, have a little bit more experience and are the defending champs.
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.
Nobody is playing better defensively than the Monarchs right now. And that's a key reason our expert is picking Sacramento to upset L.A. in the WNBA West finals.