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Don't Figure on Surprises in Playoffs

August 27, 2003|MIKE TERRY

The eight qualifiers in the 2003 WNBA playoffs are divided into two groups -- Regulars and New Faces.

History tells us that New Faces usually don't stay long.

Connecticut, Detroit and Minnesota are in the playoffs for the first time. The other teams -- Charlotte, Cleveland, Houston, Sacramento and the Sparks -- already know something about chasing championship rings. But only Houston and Los Angeles have worn them.

Detroit figures to be the story of these playoffs. The Shock features players who are young, big and athletic. Detroit has the league's best record, 25-9, is the highest scoring team this season at 75.1 points a game, is 20-2 when scoring 70 or more points, has home-court advantage throughout the playoffs and seems to be riding a wave of destiny, having gone from worst to first in the Eastern Conference.

But to my way of thinking, the Shock should not be the team to represent the East in the league championship series.

My vote goes to Charlotte.

Two years ago, the Sting reached the league finals, losing to the Sparks. Most of that team is intact. Its core offensive players -- Andrea Stinson, Allison Feaster, Dawn Staley, Shalonda Enis, Tammy Sutton-Brown -- are seasoned, steady pros.

First-year Coach Trudi Lacey, who served as a Sting assistant under Anne Donovan, has a dependable bench led by Kelly Miller, Rushia Brown and Charlotte Smith-Taylor.

Charlotte was only 13th among 14 teams in rebounding, at 28.6 a game, and 12th in scoring at 65.2 points. Still, as one league scout put it, "They are terrific at making teams play their tempo."

The trump card is this -- Charlotte beat Detroit all four times they met this season.

Of course the Sting has to get past Connecticut, and the Shock must knock out Cleveland to reach what could be an epic Eastern Conference final. And neither Connecticut nor Cleveland is a sure thing.

The Sun is the league's fourth highest scoring team (70.1) and has two all-star-caliber players in Nykesha Sales and Shannon Johnson. Connecticut won four of its last five games and beat Indiana, Charlotte and New York to make the playoffs.

The problem is, you never know which Connecticut team will show up. The Sun can look overpowering, as when it racked up 91 points against Houston. Or Sun players can look inept, as in scoring only 45 points against Washington.

Cleveland has the worst record of any playoff team, 17-17. And there's not much the Rockers do on offense that should cause Detroit to lose sleep. But they do give up the third-fewest points a game, 65, and defense and half-court action dominate the playoffs. The Rockers are more comfortable with games in the 50s and 60s than the Shock.

I also have the feeling LaToya Thomas is tired of hearing how Detroit's Cheryl Ford is the league's best rookie -- even though Ford is clearly that -- and is looking for the chance to show her up.

In the Western Conference, Houston and Sacramento have arguably the playoffs' most compelling first-round matchup.

The Comets have no mystique left, having failed to get out of the first round since winning the last of their four consecutive league titles in 2000. They are not going into this week's action in the best frame of mind, having lost three in succession and five of their last six.

You have to wonder a) how healthy Sheryl Swoopes is (there are plenty of league whispers that say she isn't), b) if Tina Thompson can carry a team in the playoffs (her playoff scoring average is nearly three points lower than her regular-season average), c) if Coach Van Chancellor can still inspire his core group.

Sacramento won only one of its four games against Houston, but certainly doesn't fear the Comets. Plus, the Monarchs were one of the best teams after the All-Star break, going 11-4. Yolanda Griffith and Tangela Smith are their most dependable scorers. To beat the Comets, Sacramento will need Edna Campbell, DeMya Walker, Ticha Penicheiro or Lady Grooms to provide key points.

As for the Sparks and Lynx, Los Angeles has beaten Minnesota 16 consecutive times. Enough said.

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