- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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Before the WNBA playoffs open Thursday, a look at the X factors of each first-round series:
(2) Indiana vs. (3) Connecticut
Will she or won't she? That's the big question in this series. And if Tamika Catchings returns, the Fever can win. If Catchings doesn't return, Indiana will not advance. The Fever are 3-8 without Catchings this season.
The Fever just haven't had an answer for the Sun all season, going 0-4. They last played on Wednesday, with Connecticut pulling out a three-point win on the road. The Sun also routed Indiana by 25 points on Aug. 4 -- but both of those Fever losses came with Catchings sidelined. When Connecticut and Indiana played in late June, the Sun won both games by just a combined nine points.
Catchings is the X factor because she not only is one of the best players in the league, she's also the one Fever player who can even out the mismatch problems Connecticut presents. The Sun are very good at making Indiana rotate and get a lot of their points on the weak side -- which is where Catchings typically shades the opponent. Getting weak-side help in Catchings' absence, however, has been Indiana's Achilles' heel.
The Fever must also focus on taking care of the ball, committing fewer turnovers and stopping Connecticut's transition, specifically limiting Lindsay Whalen. Indiana also must attack Margo Dydek and get her out of the paint. Shot selection and consistency are vital for Tamika Whitmore. Defensively, Indiana has to find a way to limit or stop Whalen, Katie Douglas and Nykesha Sales. If those three aren't held in check, the Sun are hard to stop.
Who wins: Despite the seeding, and because of Catchings' questionable status, Connecticut should be considered the favorite -- even though it's tough to beat a team six times in one season.
But if Catchings comes back and the Fever win Game 1 -- and we have to think Catchings will be on the court Thursday -- Indiana can win, likely pushing the series to three games. Home-court advantage has to count for something, and Catchings at any percentage is a lot better than some
(1) Detroit vs. (4) New York
Despite the fact that the Shock and Liberty split their four-game series this summer, the Shock are well-rested and have more playoff experience -- and that outweighs what happened in the regular season. Add in that New York is very young and has no one to stop Deanna Nolan and Katie Smith in the backcourt and the Shock have to be considered the favorite.
Still, New York has done the unthinkable and deserves a ton of credit for reaching the playoffs behind a group of overachieving young players. Pat Coyle, who should be among the top three vote-getters for coach of the year, has helped make every one of her players better.
Plus, New York has the confidence factor covered. The Liberty took the Shock to overtime twice, won at Detroit and scored a win over the Shock when a healthy Cheryl Ford went off for 22 points and 18 rebounds.
The Liberty's success this season has been predicated on their balance. The only team without an All-Star this summer, New York boasts five players who average at least 9.8 ppg -- yet no one averages more than 11 ppg. Janel McCarville has emerged as one of the front-runners for most improved player honors. The Liberty also consist of some excellent passers, and defensively, they are very active and good at taking away the opponents' first option.
Unfortunately for the Liberty, Detroit has just as much balance and plenty of offensive options. They are very good at reversing the ball and executing beyond their first option on offense. The Shock need to get on the boards and get in transition.
Detroit's starting lineup is loaded with talent, and then there's Plenette Pierson, the leading candidate for the inaugural sixth woman of the year award. She must bring a lot of energy for Detroit. With Cheryl Ford out, Detroit needs someone else to provide points out of the post. And if Katie Feenstra or Kara Braxton doesn't deliver, Pierson is the key at the 3 or 4, where she's going to need to get a lot of rebounds and points.
To knock off the defending champion, the Liberty must continue to shoot well from beyond the arc (they rank first in the league with 37 percent accuracy).
Who wins: Detroit -- in a sweep.
(2) San Antonio vs. (3) Sacramento
Sacramento has a lot more postseason experience, but San Antonio has home-court advantage and a lot more weapons both offensively and defensively. Players like Becky Hammon, Sophia Young and Marie Ferdinand are excellent at creating their own shots, and in a series that is sure to be a defensive battle, the ability to manufacture points is going to be the difference. While the other West series will be up-tempo, expect the scores of these games to be close, in the mid- to upper-60s.
Several Sacramento players must have a huge series if the Monarchs have a chance at reaching their third straight WNBA Finals. Rebekkah Brunson has had an amazing season and must continue to shine. Sacramento also will struggle if Nicole Powell and Kara Lawson struggle at all offensively
And for as much as the benches have the potential to impact this series, Monarchs veteran Yolanda Griffith is the biggest X factor. A former Finals MVP, Griffith has a history of elevating her game in the playoffs. She has played much better during the second half of the season, and now, the responsibility is on her to raise her game to a higher level.
Who wins San Antonio in three.
(1) Phoenix vs. (4) Seattle
The key to this entire series is how well the Mercury shoot in the postseason. All five starters shoot at least 41 percent from the field. Four players are averaging double figures and a fifth contributes 9.5 ppg. Not only did three players from the same team finish in the top 10 in scoring for the first time, Phoenix also established a WNBA record with 88.8 points per game. A team that netted at least 100 points in eight games, the Mercury's style of Paul-ball under coach Paul Westhead is to simply run and gun and outscore the opponent.
Seattle was one team that was able to keep up this season, taking the regular-season series 2-1. As Lauren Jackson told me at the All-Star Game, the key to facing Phoenix is going in with confidence and the mentality that you can outshoot the Mercury. And in both wins, that's exactly what Seattle did. On Aug. 4 -- the record-breaking 111-101 shootout -- Seattle shot 48 percent from the field to Phoenix's 44.6 percent, and nailed more 3-pointers (the Storm were 13-of-25 from downtown while the Mercury hit 8-of-25 attempts). In Seattle's 100-87 victory on May 23, the teams hit the exact same number of field goals (32) and 3-pointers (11), but Seattle made both in fewer attempts, particularly from beyond the arc, where the Storm shot nearly 48 percent to the Mercury's 37 percent.
On paper, Seattle has two big advantages: experience and the league MVP. Seattle won the WNBA title in 2004 and is a playoff regular, while Phoenix hasn't reached the postseason since 2000. And then there's Lauren Jackson, the first player to lead the league in scoring and rebounding since 2002 (Chamique Holdsclaw). No matter the defense or defender, Jackson will get her points -- and presumably the regular-season MVP award.
Still, the Mercury trio of Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor and Cappie Pondexter have been pretty unstoppable this season, too. They have helped Phoenix play Paul-ball to perfection. That puts a real hardship on Seattle, which isn't a great defensive team and must get back in transition, because we all know Phoenix moves the ball up the floor before the opponent blinks. The Mercury spread the floor so well, are very disciplined in their spacing and have range from anywhere on the court. Taurasi again leads the league in 3-pointers made and Taylor, who is a master at countermoves to beat her opponent, has had an incredible season, both of them rank among the top five MVP candidates.
Although Phoenix clearly relies on its jump shooting, the Mercury are also a very good rebounding team, something that often goes overlooked. And Kelly Miller -- another unheralded star on this team -- will dog Seattle point guard Sue Bird from end to end. As we've said all season, Bird and backcourt mates Betty Lennox and Iziane Castro Marques must make significant contributions in each game for Seattle to contend. Two of the three must be able to complement Jackson's numbers offensively.
In the post, Seattle's Wendy Palmer must be a factor. And though she's not gifted offensively, reserve Ashley Robinson must rebound when she gets on the court.
Still, the Mercury's Tangela Smith is the center who might be the biggest key to the series. Everybody moaned on draft day when Phoenix traded away its first-overall pick for Smith, but she has fit in perfectly within Phoenix's offense, leading the team in rebounds. Kudos to Ann Meyers and Westhead for pulling the trigger on that trade.
Who wins: Phoenix in three. And remember, the Mercury are the one playoff team that hasn't been hampered by injuries this season. Seattle, on the other hand, already is missing Janell Burse (wrist surgery) and has played without Jackson, Bird and Lennox on several occasions.
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.