To understand just how competitive the WNBA playoffs could be, simply take a look at the lowest-seeded teams in each conference. In the West, the fourth-seeded Los Angeles Sparks have two of the best players on the planet in former Mystic Chamique Holdsclaw and veteran center Lisa Leslie.
Holdsclaw and Leslie have combined to make 10 all-star appearances but will have to be at their best for the Sparks (17-17) to pull off a first-round upset of the top-seeded Sacramento Monarchs (25-9) when Game 1 tips off tomorrow night in Los Angeles.
In the East, fourth-seeded Detroit (16-18) slipped past the Washington Mystics to grab the fourth and final playoff spot and will face top seed Connecticut (26-8) tonight in Game 1 at Detroit. Detroit was one of the most intriguing teams in the league this season because despite playing with a veteran lineup that is deep with all-stars, the Shock lost to last-place Charlotte twice and never was able to produce a prolonged run of success.
"This is one of the strangest seasons I've experienced," said Shock Coach Bill Laimbeer, who led Detroit to the WNBA championship in 2003. "For whatever reason we've just been inconsistent all season long. I don't know if we can get that fixed in time [for the playoffs] but we're about to find out. This is the matchup everyone wanted to see though, so let's tip it off and see what happens."
You'll have to forgive Connecticut Coach Mike Thibault if he looks past Detroit's problems and focuses on one statistical nugget from the season: The Shock beat Thibault's Sun three out of four times -- and that was before Detroit added a fifth all-star in veteran guard Katie Smith, who came over in a trade from Minnesota on July 30.
Detroit was the only team in the East to take a season series from the Sun because it figured out how to handle the back court of Lindsay Whalen and Nykesha Sales, who have been absolute terrors against everyone else. The physical Shock -- no surprise considering Laimbeer has former "Bad Boys" Piston teammate Rick Mahorn as one of his assistant coaches -- also outrebounded Connecticut 173-138 in four games.
"I don't know how you explain it other than to say that basketball is a funny game and sometimes a team just has another team's number," said Smith, who averaged 9.5 points in 13 games with the Shock. "I'm sure you're going to see them come out and get after us pretty hard though. They've been playing great basketball all season."
Connecticut certainly looked focused while eliminating the Mystics from playoff contention with an 81-47 home victory on Friday. The Sun wanted to wrap up home-court advantage throughout the playoffs and avoid having to play the season's most important game on the road as it did last year, when the Sun lost Game 3 of the WNBA Finals at Seattle.
Should Connecticut get past Detroit and make it to the Finals, which will be best three out of five this season, there is a good possibility that Sacramento will be waiting. The Monarchs won the West by five games thanks to overwhelming team defense and the consistent, excellent play of veteran forward Yolanda Griffith. However, Connecticut beat Sacramento in both meetings this season.
"What it comes down to is: You never know what's going to happen so why not do everything you can to stay at home where you have that advantage?" Thibault reasoned. "I think we all learned how important home court can be last year."