MVP candidates, former champs face off

The Seattle Storm know how important Lauren Jackson is to their chances of repeating as WNBA champions. The Houston Comets, meanwhile, need a healthy Sheryl Swoopes to advance deep into the postseason.

Both Seattle and Houston hope to have their star forwards at full strength when they open the first round of the Western Conference playoffs at the Toyota Center on Tuesday (ESPN2, 9:30 p.m. ET).

Jackson left Seattle's season-ending 85-74 victory over Phoenix on Saturday with back pain, but is expected to be in the lineup Tuesday as the Storm begin defense of their title.

Swoopes sat out Houston's 77-51 win over Los Angeles on Saturday with an illness, but should be ready for the series opener.

Jackson, the 2003 WNBA MVP, grimaced after pulling down a rebound with about three minutes left in the first half and sat on the bench the rest of the way. Late Monday, ESPN's Nancy Lieberman reported that the back sprain limited to Jackson to just 30 minutes of practice and could sideline her for at least Game 1.

Still, point guard Sue Bird said she liked the way the Storm finished the game Saturday without Jackson.

"I think it's good that we played as well as we did without Lauren,'' Bird said. "You never know what can happen. I was really happy that we were able to get that experience. For us to play as well as we did I think is a positive.''

Jackson had another MVP-caliber season this year, finishing second in the league in both scoring (17.6) and rebounding (9.3). She was voted an All-Star for the fifth consecutive year.

The Storm (20-14) had a tough stretch in which they lost six of seven in June and July, but they bounced back with 12 wins in their final 16 games to finish with the same record as 2004.

Bird said that doesn't matter as the postseason begins.

"At this point everybody is 0-0,'' she said. "The slate has been wiped clean. Playoffs are a fresh start and you have to win two games out of the three. I haven't thought about last year at all this season.''

Coach Anne Donovan was rewarded for the team's strong finish with a multiyear contract extension. Donovan, 58-44 in three seasons with the Storm, is the first female coach to win a WNBA title and the first to reach 100 victories.

The Comets are led by Swoopes, their own MVP candidate. Swoopes, one of nine remaining players from the WNBA's 1997 inaugural season, led the league with 18.6 points and 37.1 minutes per contest this year.

"She has a stomach virus and is dehydrated,'' Houston coach Van Chancellor said Saturday. "They thought the best thing for her to do is not play today. We think she'll be ready for Tuesday night.''

Swoopes led Houston to a 15-10 mark after a 4-5 start to help the Comets return to the playoffs after they missed out in 2004 for the first time in team history.

Houston won the WNBA title in the league's first four seasons before losing in the first round each of the following three years.

Backing Jackson and Swoopes are a talented group of role players and rising stars on each team.

The Storm lost several key players from the 2004 title squad during the offseason, including Kamila Vodichkova (Phoenix) and Sheri Sam (Charlotte), but they've gotten strong contributions from both center Janell Burse and forward Iziane Castro Marques.

Burse averaged a career-high 10 points this season and Castro Marques added a career-best 8.2 in her first year with the team.

Bird led the league with 5.9 assists per game, while 2004 Finals MVP Betty Lennox has returned since missing nearly three weeks with a wrist injury.

The Comets got a big boost just after the midway point of the season with forward Tina Thompson's return from maternity leave. The five-time All-Star averaged just 10.1 points in 15 games, half her 20-point average from 2004, but did score 17 or more in five of those contests.

Rounding out a strong Comets' frontcourt is center Michelle Snow, who averaged a career-best 12 points and made her first All-Star appearance this season.

Houston acquired guard Dawn Staley in a deadline trade with Charlotte, giving the Comets a third member of the 2004 gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic team to join Swoopes and Thompson.

Staley has started three of 10 games since joining the Comets, but will likely serve as a backup to Janeth Arcain and Dominique Canty.

Game 2 is Thursday in Seattle.