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Wednesday, October 6, 2004
Storm vs. Sun

By Nancy Lieberman
Special to

A top-notch point guard who's adored in the state of Connecticut. Great spot-up shooters. And one wise coach.

So, are we talking about Seattle or Connecticut?

The two teams are actually very similar and should match up well Friday when they clash in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals (ESPN2, 7:30 p.m. ET). Both the Storm and Sun also play stellar team defense and have a very balanced starting five.

A closer look as we get closer to crowning a new WNBA champion:

Seattle Storm (24-15)
70.8 60.4 44.7 50.0 78.4 30.0
Connecticut Sun (22-17)
67.2 60.2 41.2 38.3 81.4 32.0
Why the Storm could win: Two words: Lauren Jackson. As mentioned above, the Sun and Storm almost mirror each other. But Seattle has Jackson, and so far in the playoffs, she has been unstoppable, shooting 74 percent (13-for-17) from 3-point range and 54.4 percent (37-for-68) from the floor to average 22.6 points and 7.2 rebounds.

Jackson (above) is playing the best ball of her career, and the biggest difference in her game is her mental maturity. Though she has always been one of the league's top players, Jackson occasionally suffered some mental lulls in the past, which affected her consistency.

Now, however, she is mentally tough and focused enough to maintain a high level of play from tipoff to the final whistle, night in and night out. That's an amazing veteran presence for a 23-year-old.

Sue Bird also displayed some incredible mental toughness in the first round, dishing out a WNBA playoff single-game record 14 assists one day after undergoing surgery on her broken nose. Bird and Jackson were unstoppable Tuesday.
Why the Sun could win: Who has better balance than the Sun? Yes, the Storm have a superstar in Lauren Jackson, but five Connecticut players average at least eight points. And on any given day, each of them can hurt you.

So far in the playoffs we've said that the Sun's balance offsets the need for someone to step up and be the Sun's star night after night. That's no longer the case. While Connecticut must continue to get production from each of its starters, Nykesha Sales (above) and Taj McWilliams-Franklin have to come up big offensively.

Lindsay Whalen must also continue to get to the free-throw line. She attempted 57 foul shots in 31 regular-season games, but already is 34-for-38 at the charity stripe in five postseason contests. She's averaging 6.5 more points in the postseason (a team-high 15.4 ppg after 8.9 in the regular season), and shooting 52.5 percent from the field and 89.5 percent on free throws.

Still, stopping Lauren Jackson is truly the key to Connecticut's success. If the Sun can get the ball out of her hands and prevent her from scoring in the mid-20s, they can win. If not, Seattle will win this series.
On defense: Seattle's team defense has been outstanding. In the playoffs, Seattle opponents are averaging just 60.4 points, and the Storm have done a great job of taking away the opponents' strength. Sacramento, for example, entered Tuesday's game averaging 30.8 boards in the playoffs, but was outrebounded 28-21. Seattle also has held its foes to just 31 percent accuracy from 3-point range.

Stopping Connecticut in transition will be Seattle's No. 1 priority on defense. The Sun's posts run the floor better than anybody, so the Storm will try to slow down and turn Lindsay Whalen when she dribbles up court.

If she gets off the quick pass, Seattle must obviously look to defend Sun posts Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Wendy Palmer, but also be wary of where the Sun's perimeter shooters -- Whalen, Nykesha Sales and Katie Douglas -- are. "Fastbreak" baskets don't just mean "layups," and Connecticut is just as proficient scoring in the fastbreak on spot-up jumpers as the defense sucks in to defend the post.

When Connecticut sets up its halfcourt offense, Seattle does have a defensive advantage: size. At 6 feet 2, McWilliams-Franklin is the Sun's tallest player, but Jackson is 6-5 and Kamila Vodichkova -- who continues to be one of the most important players for Seattle -- is 6-4. That enables Seattle to play behind the Sun's posts rather than front them, which forces McWilliams-Franklin and Palmer to try and shoot over the Storm.
On defense: So, stopping Jackson is the Sun's top priority. But can anyone really contain her? Probably not.

Connecticut's best bet is to pressure her, get a hand in Jackson's face and try to make her shoot the ball on the move a little more often. She's very comfortable shooting the ball with her feet set.

The key, though, will be the Sun's ability to make defensive adjustments. Jackson is so good at reading defenses and passing under pressure that she can break down the double- and triple-teams running at her. So Connecticut must play smart, adjust its defensive game plan and react to Jackson.

The Monarchs failed to change their defensive tactics Tuesday, and it cost them. Seattle continuously beat Sacramento on the screen-roll, because the Monarchs insisted on relying on step-help to stop it. Sacramento's posts couldn't get back in time to prevent Jackson from screening and popping.

If the Sun find themselves in a similar situation, they should look to stop Sue Bird from turning her shoulders toward the rim and fight over the top on her, hopefully getting some weak-side help that forces Bird to kick out the pass. Yes, Jackson is shooting incredibly well from the perimeter, but you've got to play the percentages.

In the postseason, the Sun are limiting opponents to 38 percent shooting -- down from 43 percent in the regular season -- and 29 percent on 3-pointers -- down from 38 percent.
X-factors: Since these are two very physical teams, foul trouble could be a factor. Expect the Sun to try and get Jackson in trouble early.

The game might also come down to which bench plays better. Neither team goes very deep at all - Seattle's reserves have scored just 22 percent of the Storm's offense, while Sun reserves account for only 19 percent of Connecticut's offense. Still, both benches boast some talented players, especially Connecticut's Asjha Jones. The former UConn star is scoring 8.0 points per game in the playoffs, and like reserve point guard Debbie Black, gives the Sun a defensive boost.

For Seattle, Tully Bevilaqua and Alicia Thompson can be key contributors. Bevilaqua stepped in when Bird missed most of Game 2 against Minnesota in the first round after suffering a broken nose, and Thompson scored seven straight points to jumpstart a 20-0 run that put away Sacramento in the second half Tuesday.

While the Sun have some great spot-up 3-point shooters, Seattle's Betty Lennox could provide a mismatch in the backcourt, too. She can create her own shot off the dribble better than most, and is quicker than most, too. She can penetrate and slash inside very effectively.

Vodichkova also is key for Seatttle. She had a double-double in the Storm's lone victory over the Sun this season, but was held to only one point and two boards in 16 minutes as Seattle lost to Connecticut on Sept. 12.
Matchup to watch -- Bird vs. Whalen: The state of Connecticut's favorite point guard is coming home ... to play Connecticut's new favorite point guard.

Bird, right, led the UConn Huskies to NCAA titles in 2000 and 2002, and folks in the Nutmeg State have continued following their former star from 3,000 miles away. Sometimes it seems people living in Connecticut know as much about Bird and the Storm, and now Diana Taurasi and the Mercury, as they do about their hometown team.

And as much as UConn fans loved seeing Taurasi and the Huskies top Whalen, far right, and Minnesota at the Final Four last April, they quickly have embraced Whalen now that she's turning heads at Mohegan Sun.

On the court, Bird and Whalen are two of the league's top point guards and can be very flashy. Whalen is averaging 4.6 assists per game in the playoffs; Bird's dishing out 4.2 per game.
In the regular season: The Sun and Storm split the season series, with each team winning on its home court. In their first meeting on June 11, the Storm won 68-63. On Sept. 12, the Sun topped the Storm 71-64.
Bottom line: Both teams are playing their best basketball of the season, and some of the best young stars in the league are battling for their first WNBA title. No one on either roster has ever competed in the WNBA championship before, but both teams have proven they are resilient. In the conference finals, Seattle overcame a 0-1 deficit, while Connecticut proved it can win on the road, stealing Game 1 at Madison Square Garden. Because of their conference final sweep, the Sun haven't played since Sunday, while Seattle had only two off days -- and flew across the country -- in between its series.
  •'s WNBA Finals breakdown
  • Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at