Bench helps Monarchs' title defense press on
Relying on a restaurant's specialty for satisfaction is one thing, but you know you've found a culinary Xanadu when you can trust the daily specials to consistently provide an unanticipated gourmet experience.
And in beating the Comets on Saturday to sweep their opening-round series and advance to the Western Conference finals for the fourth year in a row, the Monarchs again proved they win with the league's most ever-changing but consistently excellent ingredients.
We know by now that Yolanda Griffith is a force for the Monarchs in the postseason -- always has been and likely always will be if she chooses to return for another season -- and Nicole Powell, Kara Lawson and DeMya Walker have all emerged as legitimate first-tier talents. But what sets the team apart from the competition at this stage in the season are the nightly special contributions they get from the likes of Erin Buescher, Hamchetou Maiga-Ba, Kristin Haynie, Scholanda Dorrell, Rebekkah Brunson or some combination thereof. Even rookie Kim Smith, who hardly got off the bench in the two games against the Comets, proved herself on plenty of occasions in the regular season.
Don't let Saturday's final score fool you; Sacramento's reserves made their impact in putting the game away, not once it had already been put away.
In Game 2, Griffith and Walker made early statements as the Monarchs battered the Comets in the post and especially on the offensive glass, but it was Maiga-Ba, Buescher and Brunson combining for 20 first-half points that helped put John Whisenant's team in the driver's seat for a second half that never developed a great deal of drama.
The team's struggles early this season proved the Monarchs need the frontline players healthy to set up the bench contributions (as opposed to the bench being full of star players). But each player on Sacramento's bench knows how to play top-notch defense -- a given if you play for Whisenant -- and all can produce points on the offensive end without having plays run for them. And if you don't think that's rare, check out how often the warmups come off the players on the end of the bench for a lot of the teams still alive in the postseason.
When it came down to it, whether in a complete collapse in the opener or Saturday's more valiant effort, the Comets simply looked like a team that ran out of steam against an opponent that attacks in waves. Van Chancellor's team did get Dominique Canty and Tamecka Dixon back for the postseason, but between the understandable rust those two showed and the inherent fatigue in the rest of the roster from playing so many games in the regular season without key players, it was too little and too late.
The stars will have to shine brightest if the Monarchs are to repeat as champions. In the WNBA Finals last season, the Monarchs had 12 double-digit scoring performances and only one didn't come from Griffith, Powell, Walker or Lawson. But right along with that, the players coming off Sacramento's bench will continue to provide important contributions more often than any other group of reserves in the league.
Whenever anyone talks about Sacramento's strengths, the conversation usually focuses on the team's defense.
But the Monarchs' offensive performance these past two games is the reason they're advancing to the Western Conference Finals and one step closer to successfully defending their WNBA title.
They came into the playoffs averaging 74.6 points per game but have posted 92- and 93-point performances in the playoffs.
It's tough for the opponent to come up with a game plan when they have to defend five players, and that's what happened Saturday. Four Sacramento starters and one sub reached double figures, and 10 of the Monarchs' 11 players tallied at least six points.
In perhaps the best stat of the night, the Monarchs committed just five turnovers, going at least 20 minutes during one span without a giveaway. They also shot 51 percent from the field.
But Sacramento's 3-point shooting Saturday was especially key. The Monarchs, who shot 34 percent from downtown in the regular season, hit 5-of-12 (42 percent) 3-point attempts, including a 2-for-2 effort from Ticha Penicheiro -- who was only 6-of-31 from beyond the arc in the regular season.
The long-range shots really stretched Houston's defense and opened up the lane for the Monarchs' slashers and posts.
Yolanda Griffith has been amazing in the postseason. By her standards, her stats this season were very average, but it seems that during playoff time she really takes control of her basketball team, as evidenced by her WNBA Finals MVP honor a year ago.
-- ESPN analyst Nancy Lieberman
It's never easy to say good bye, but that certainly doesn't stop us from trying over and over again.
Beginning at the start of the regular season, gaining steam at the All-Star Game in New York and crescendoing through a final playoff appearance, Dawn Staley's farewell tour took on a life of its own this summer. By the end of a disheartening loss in Game 1 against Sacramento, Van Chancellor had heard enough, chiding someone at the postgame news conference for asking a question about Staley instead of the game (one would have thought Chancellor would have welcomed a chance to talk about anything other than that performance).
But there was a point to the deluge of career retrospectives, a point driven home in watching Staley walk off the court on Saturday in Sacramento for the final time as a basketball player. Staley represents the best the first generation of WNBA stars has to offer, and her departure from the scene is one more sign that the league is entering its second era.
The thing is, far from time running out, Staley's impact on women's basketball likely hasn't even hit halftime. While Staley is undeniably one of the best point guards in the history of the women's game, winning accolades and championships too numerous to list, she has a chance to be even greater as a coach now that it's her sole focus.
The WNBA is a league increasingly full of former NBA players patrolling the sidelines. In paving the way for this first generation of WNBA players to transfer a career in basketball from the court to the bench, Staley offers hope that the coaching ranks in both college and the pros will eventually be a place as friendly to women as it has been to men.
Junior Seau, in the brief moments between retiring and returning, said he wasn't really retiring but instead graduating. Wrong player; right sentiment. Staley may be done in the WNBA, but she has thousands of wins left in her career.
-- ESPN.com's Graham Hays
Houston, along with the Storm, held off the Mercury in the playoff chase this year, but a disastrous performance against Sacramento might leave people with a far more dour outlook for the Comets than for the team that fell just short of reaching the postseason. A promising start to the season for the Comets faded quickly in a haze of injuries and age, leaving very real questions about where the team goes from here.
The good news, of course, is that they should still have Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson leading them down whatever path that turns out to be. Swoopes will be 36 when next season begins and her numbers definitely suffered this season in comparison to her MVP performance in 2005. That said, the perfectly conditioned veteran also posted her best rebounding numbers since 2000, suggesting there is plenty of energy and lift left in her game. Thompson, who is still among the league's most dangerous players when she plays but who hasn't played 30 games in a season since 2001, offers her own set of positives and negatives, but it seems safe to assume the leading duo will at least match this season's production.
And there is some hope for the future, namely in the frontcourt pairing of Michelle Snow and Sancho Lyttle. Snow is already a star in the making and was as much of a problem for the Monarchs as anyone from Houston managed to be in two dismal games. For her part, Lyttle showed flashes of eventually offering at least the same kind of workmanlike production as a Janell Burse. But as the playoffs revealed, things get sketchy after that.
Dominique Canty should be able to provide consistent minutes in the backcourt, but Dawn Staley will be recruiting for Temple next summer and Tamecka Dixon is very much a question mark if the team needs her to play 30 minutes a night. Will Roneeka Hodges be ready for a larger role? Can the Comets find any fresh legs in the draft?
It's tough to imagine this about a team with Swoopes and Thompson, but if there is an opening for Phoenix (or San Antonio) to enter the playoff picture, it may be going through the spot Houston has so long occupied. -- Graham Hays
Tamika Whitmore, Indiana
Forget the debate over Most Improved Player, an award which went to Sacramento's Erin Buescher on Saturday; it might be time to start re-thinking Tamika Whitmore's candidacy for MVP.
Although it proved to be her final game of the season, Whitmore went out with an individual performance that will be hard for anyone to top in the remaining games this postseason. Fighting for her team's playoff life, Whitmore took the best Detroit's physical defense had to offer and finished with a WNBA playoff record 41 points.
Tamika Catchings was, is and will be Indiana's franchise player, but it's impossible to ignore that even before she was knocked out of Saturday's game for a time after hitting her head on the court, she was shooting just 35 percent in six postseason games the last two seasons. There is sad irony in the fact that when she finally got the offensive support that might have eased the pressure on her to carry the team, she had no choice but to watch much of the game's pivotal action from the bench.
One problem with Whitmore's credentials for being the league's most improved player is she has long been a good role player, including a standout 2002 season with the Liberty when she averaged 12.7 points and 4.4 rebounds. But in showcasing a blend of inside-outside skills mixed with tenacity against the Shock, Whitmore -- who signed with Indiana as a free agent in March -- proved she's now one of the league's elite players.
While the Fever failed to match last season's appearance in the Eastern Conference finals, the franchise should carry more optimism from this season than last season. With Whitmore's performance throughout the regular season and her memorable showing on Saturday, the Fever know they have two cornerstones where once they had just one. -- Graham Hays
“(If) Sacramento shoots the ball as well as they shot it against us the last two games, nobody is going to beat them. They're going to repeat as WNBA champs. ”
— Houston coach Van Chancellor
Detroit's frontcourt comes up big just by getting out of bed in the morning. Between Cheryl Ford, Ruth Riley, Plenette Pierson and Kara Braxton, the Shock have a group of post players that actually avoid being completely engulfed in the shadows cast by coaches Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn.
But after watching the backcourt of Deanna Nolan and Katie Smith carry the team in Game 1 against Indiana, the frontcourt played a very large role in overcoming Tamika Whitmore and the Fever for the sweep.
Nolan and Smith continued their stellar play, combining for 24 points and 10 assists against just two turnovers, and Swin Cash finished just shy of a triple-double from the wing, but the strongest statements came from Ford's familiar interior dominance and Pierson's surprising production.
Topping her previous season high of 19 points, Pierson finished with 20 points, four rebounds and three assists, profiting by being aggressive against an Indiana defense that couldn't seem to avoid drawing whistles. And after a foul-plagued quiet double-double in Thursday's opener, Ford paced the Shock with 23 points, 10 rebounds and nothing but good vibes after some curiously negative body language in the previous game.
One of Detroit's wins against Connecticut in the regular season came on the strength of the guards, while another came when the frontcourt led the Shock to a 50-33 rebound edge (a third win came in the regular-season finale against essentially the Sun's reserves). But if the Sun advance to meet the Shock in the conference finals, it's hard to imagine the post battle not playing a decisive role. -- Graham Hays
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