Print and Go Back ESPN.com: WNBA [Print without images]

Sunday, August 28, 2005
Liberty limping as East's others eye finals

By Mechelle Voepel
Special to ESPN.com

Detroit, Connecticut and New York all have been to the WNBA Finals, with the Shock winning the 2003 championship. So might it be time for the fourth team in the playoffs this year from the Eastern Conference -- Indiana -- to have a turn trying to knock out the West champ?

PLAYOFF PREVIEW
For more coverage of the 2005 WNBA playoffs, check out the following links:

• Preview: Indiana-New York
• Preview: Seattle-Houston

Nancy Lieberman:
• Back injury won't stop Jackson
• Monarchs-Sparks
• Storm-Comets
• Sun-Shock
• Fever-Liberty

Mechelle Voepel:
• L.A. as West party crasher?
• Don't overlook Fever, Shock

• Playoff schedule
• WNBA.com's playoffs coverage
• WNBA.com: Playoff history

The Fever start out against the Liberty, who lost their last three games of the regular season, have been hit hard by injuries and were pounded in a 25-point defeat at Indiana on Saturday.

Indiana has MVP candidate Tamika Catchings, who probably impacts games in more ways at a high level than any other player in the league. Kelly Miller has been dependable, although it remains to be seen if she can stay at an even-keel in the pressure-cooker of the playoffs. She was not a key performer for Charlotte when she was with the Sting in the 2001, 2002 and 2003 playoffs, but she will need to be for the Fever this year.

At 34, Natalie Williams is still one of the league's warhorses inside, even if her scoring average has dropped below double digits for the first time in her WNBA career. That's in part because the Fever have depth on the interior with Jurgita Streimikyte, Kelly Schumacher and Ebony Hoffman.

And in guard Tully Bevilaqua, who was an important part of Seattle's title team last year, the Fever have an experienced competitor at crunch time. Bevilaqua makes a lot of "little plays" that don't seem as big at the time she makes them as they do when you look back after the game.

This is the second time in the Fever's six-year history that the franchise has made the playoffs; Indiana was eliminated by New York in the first round in 2002.

Playoff success would be a very good boost for the Fever's fan base. It would give neutral viewers a "different" team to pull for, and it would provide Catchings the kind of spotlight that she really hasn't received enough of in her pro career (also remember that Catchings missed the end of her senior season at Tennessee with a knee injury).

If you're a fan of the game in general, you have to root for Catchings getting airtime. Nobody plays harder than she does, which combines with her immense talent to make her a great advertisement for the league.

Right now, New York is reeling. Maybe just reaching the playoffs is about the best the Liberty can be expected to do this year, all things considered. With Ann Wauters and Elena Baronova hurt, New York simply doesn't have as many weapons as everyone else in the East. Even if Baronova (ankle) can play, and even if second-year player Shameka Christon continues to put up some quality numbers now that she's in the starting lineup, not having Wauters is really a critical disadvantage against the Fever's strong post game.

(Aside: OK, I just can't let this go by. In a story in The New York Times on Sunday, Liberty GM Carol Blazejowski said Christon "played for a small school in Arkansas." Last year, then-Liberty coach Richie Adubato, on a teleconference, referred to Christon as coming from "a small conference." Is this some Liberty myth-making attempt to turn Christon into a totally unknown gem found deep in the Arkansas wilderness? Once and for all … Christon was an outstanding player at a big school, the University of Arkansas, in a big conference, the SEC, which -- across the board in all sports -- almost certainly has the finest collection of female talent in college athletics.)

If the Fever do get past New York, then Indiana will face either a Connecticut team that had the best record in the WNBA or a Detroit team that had everybody scratching their heads over its inconsistency.

Detroit has so much talent that you're tempted to think there's really no reason to consider the Shock as any less a favorite to make the WNBA Finals than Connecticut is. Yet Detroit has pulled the rug out from under itself enough times this year to make you wary of totally believing in this team. But here very well might be where we see just how big the trade to get Katie Smith was.

Connecticut's two losses in its last four games -- to New York and Indiana -- might be a cause for concern … or might be nothing at all, just a couple of hiccups in games that really didn't matter that much to the Sun.

Still, you can't escape the feeling that Detroit played just badly enough this season to cause this series to come in the first round instead of what it should be: the Eastern Conference finals matchup.

Now, Indiana probably will bristle at that, being five games better in the standings than the Shock. If that's the case, good. The Fever should go into the playoffs extra motivated to prove this franchise is ready to take another important step.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.