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Wednesday, August 16, 2006
Updated: August 17, 9:56 PM ET
Thompson time? Bird back? Questions abound ...

By Graham Hays
ESPN.com

Editor's note: Before the first round opens Thursday, ESPN.com's Graham Hays tackles five burning questions facing the eight teams in the WNBA playoffs.

1. Are the Washington Mystics overlooked or overmatched?

DeLisha Milton-Jones #3
At 31, the Mystics' DeLisha Milton-Jones is playing the best offensive basketball of her career.

The Mystics are probably more overlooked than overmatched, although certainly not by the Connecticut Sun. Washington beat Connecticut in June, and the two teams have played 14 times in the last three seasons, developing a distinct familiarity with one another.

As Sun coach Mike Thibault said recently, "Winning the next series is not about tricking anybody."

And from a team that was 12-13 at one point and is headed to the playoffs largely because the rest of the Eastern Conference was simply awful, the Mystics have emerged as a team playing its best basketball at the right time of year.

Key to that has been the return of DeLisha Milton-Jones, who at 31 is playing the best offensive basketball of her career.

Milton-Jones returned from a knee injury on July 19 after missing a month. In her fourth game back, and the first game in which she played at least 30 minutes, Milton-Jones scored 17 points in a loss at Connecticut. Including that contest, she averaged 17.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists in the team's final 10 games. Adding that kind of production back to an offense that already included Alana Beard, Nikki Teasley and Chasity Melvin, it's easy to see how the Mystics managed wins against Indiana, Los Angeles and Detroit during that stretch (as well as a double-overtime loss at Sacramento).

MORE FROM HAYS
Be sure to check out what ESPN.com's Graham Hays had to say in chat Insider Thursday before the first round opened.

Connecticut's defense likes to force opponents to execute to perfection on offense, but with Milton-Jones at peak form, the Mystics have the kind of balance to deal with it.

Beard averaged 20.7 points per game during the same stretch in which Milton-Jones was going off and put together a season worthy of MVP consideration. Still, Beard has had her problems with Katie Douglas and Connecticut's defense (nine points in their most recent meeting on July 25), just like the rest of the league. But Beard also has come through before against the Sun, lighting them up for 29 points in June. And point guard Nikki Teasley, while capable of pushing the tempo right back at the fast-paced Sun, ranked third in the league with nearly 2.4 assists per turnover.

Perhaps playing essentially the same style as the Sun isn't the best blueprint for beating Thibault's team. After all, even second-best isn't good enough when it goes up against the best. Maybe that's why the Mystics have lost 11 of 14 games against the Sun in the last three seasons.

But with Beard, Milton-Jones, Teasley and Melvin leading the way -- and with Nakia Sanford and Crystal Robinson (expected to play for the first time since getting hurt on July 29) leading the supporting cast -- the Mystics are better equipped than ever before to mount a challenge.

2. Will Sacramento get a repeat performance on the way to repeating?

Nicole Powell
Monarchs fans are hoping Nicole Powell can put an up-and-down regular season behind her with a stellar shooting performance in the playoffs.

The Web site for the Sacramento Monarchs displays a stylish script "X" beneath the team's logo, symbolizing the 10th anniversary of both the team and the league in which it plays.

Granted, Roman numerals usually are reserved for Super Bowls and motion-picture copyrights, but this particular numeral befits a team that enters its first-round series against Houston with a roster littered with X factors. And squaring off against Houston, the franchise that introduced the league to the principles of defending a title, will provide the Monarchs with an instant measure of whether this year's collection of individual points can come together as perfectly as last year's championship team did in making coach John Whisenant look like Georges Seurat.

But for all the balance and depth that make the Monarchs special, does someone need to take charge on the floor in the same way Yolanda Griffith did last fall? And if so, does Griffith have enough left in the tank to be that person one more time?

Griffith ranked second on the Monarchs in scoring in 2005 at 13.8 points per game during the regular season (leading scorer DeMya Walker missed 12 games). But the future Hall of Famer took over in the postseason, averaging 17.3 points in eight playoff games. With teams struggling to react and counter Griffith's surge, Sacramento's remaining balance became that much more dangerous, because a well-timed Nicole Powell or Kara Lawson 3-pointer had the potential to crush the spirit of a scrambling defense.

Following a regular season this year that featured even more balance on offense than last season, with Griffith leading the way at 12 ppg and eight other players averaging between 5.2 and 9.7 ppg, does the veteran have one more run in her?

Already set to retire after the playoffs, Griffith posted the worst scoring, rebounding, shooting and block numbers of her illustrious WNBA career; but after shooting just 41 percent from the floor in July, she averaged 15.3 ppg on 53 percent shooting in six games in August. And she did it without a significant increase in minutes, as the Monarchs coasted to the second seed in the West.

It's tempting to look for Walker to seize the torch as she rounds into shape after a midseason return from maternity leave, or for Powell to put an up-and-down regular season behind her with a stellar shooting performance. But Griffith's August numbers and last year's blueprint for success suggest she's gearing up for one more virtuoso performance.

3. Is Sue Bird back?

Sue Bird
At first glance, Seattle's Sue Bird is having a fine season. But consider that her 3-point shooting is 10 percentage points worse than last season and that she has totaled the fewest assists of her career.

With Lauren Jackson posting MVP-quality numbers despite playing with a collection of maladies that would fill an NFL injury report, it's easy to wonder what she and the Storm would be capable of if the Australian's health weren't an issue.

The better question as the playoffs begin might be: What are the Storm capable of if Sue Bird plays like her normal self?

Taken out of context, Bird is having a good season. She played every game for a team that couldn't afford to be without her and finished the regular season ranked second in the league in total assists and fifth in total steals. She hit at a 36.6 percent clip from behind the arc (among the top 20 in the league) and averaged double-digit points per game. But what would qualify as a career year for legitimate WNBA point guards like Amber Jacobs or Tully Bevilaqua can't be taken out of the context of what's expected from the player widely regarded as the best point guard in the world.

The last three months simply haven't been quintessential Bird. To begin with, while her 3-point shooting is good compared to the league average, it's 7 percent worse than her mark last year (43.7 percent) and below her career average (39.6 percent). Whether it's a conscious reaction to a struggling offense or not, the volume of Bird's attempts from beyond the arc (a career-high 153) suggests she's sacrificing some of the shot selection that made her arguably the best outside shooter in league history.

And it's not just shooting the ball. Despite finishing second in the league in assists, Bird totaled the fewest assists of her career, averaging fewer than five per game for the first time. And considering her three main targets -- Jackson, Betty Lennox and Janell Burse -- combined to shoot a staggering 49 percent from the field, it's tough to explain it away as missed opportunities.

Now the good news for Storm fans: In six August games, Bird averaged 14.2 points and hit 48 percent of her 3-point attempts (13-27). And considering just the four games in that stretch that Jackson played, Bird also averaged 5.3 assists. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Storm won all four of those games, including key wins against playoff teams Washington and Detroit.

Early in the season, with Bird at her best (13 points, 2-for-2 on 3-point attempts, nine assists), the Storm stunned the Sparks in a 90-67 rout. With Bird in a funk, hitting just 1-of-8 3-point attempts in the midst of a four-game shooting drought at the end of July, the Storm lost to the Sparks for the only time in three games this season.

Precisely because she wasn't Seattle's most valuable player during the regular season, Bird is the most important player as the Storm seek an upset.

4. Will either team break 60 points when the Shock and Fever square off?

Tamika Catchings
Tamika Catchings' Fever are the worst shooting team in the playoffs, hitting just 40.7 percent of their shots.

Unless you find endless fascination with all that is flat, there isn't much scenery on the drive between Indianapolis and Detroit. It's a functional landscape, appreciated by those who live and work the space … and bypassed by just about everyone else.

Unless you really like one of the two teams involved or you really love defense, the same might be true for the first-round series between the Fever and Shock.

Two of the league's stingiest defenses actually played average offensive basketball in four regular-season games, with the winning team twice reaching 70 points and the loser always scoring at least 60. But between the familiarity bred by those games and the overall intensity of postseason basketball under two coaches who got more than a small taste of playoff basketball during their NBA playing careers, this series could be more defensive than M. Night Shyamalan.

But for connoisseurs of defense, a meeting between the teams that ranked first (Fever) and second (Shock) in scoring defense during the regular season actually offers an intriguing contrast of approaches. Led by Tamika Catchings, the Fever stop other teams from getting shots by forcing turnovers and limiting possessions. Meanwhile, the Shock are content to beat you down when you have the ball -- not surprisingly for a team coached by Bill Laimbeer and assistant Rick Mahorn -- safe in the knowledge they'll get the rebound when you inevitably throw up a tired or forced shot.

Conveniently, each team's biggest offensive flaw plays right into its opponent's hands.

The Fever are the worst shooting team in the playoffs, hitting just 40.7 percent of their shots. And while all those misses make them predictably better than average on the offensive glass, they're an entirely average rebounding team overall. As was the case most of the season, Tamika Whitmore shot well against the Shock, averaging 20.7 points on 46 percent shooting in three games. But the rest of the team? Taking away Whitmore's field goals, the rest of the Fever shot just 33 percent against the Shock. In fact, Whitmore accounted for more than one-third of the total field goals the Fever hit against the Shock this season.

So how did the Fever win two of the four games and stay competitive (losing by eight points on June 16 and four points on Aug. 1) in the other two? Aside from Whitmore's individual brilliance, the Fever did it by taking advantage of a team that doesn't have a true point guard and by limiting Detroit's possessions. The Shock averaged three fewer field-goal attempts and four fewer free-throw attempts in three games against the Fever than they did over the course of the regular season.

On the plus side, Detroit had three of the 17 WNBA players who totaled at least 100 assists this season in Deanna Nolan, Katie Smith and Swin Cash. On the down side, Cash and Nolan were two of only nine league players with at least 85 turnovers. The Shock can pass -- even posts Cheryl Ford and Ruth Riley can move the ball -- but it's never entirely clear from possession to possession who is running the show. It's no coincidence that Ford, a player who needs someone to get her the ball in the post, averaged just 10 points and seven field-goal attempts against the Fever (and 20 percent of those points came on offensive putbacks).

Shot selection vs. offensive continuity. About as exciting as miles and miles of soybean fields. Although if you hang around long enough, they both sort of grow on you.

5. Could Tina Thompson take over the playoffs?

Tina Thompson
While all eyes were on Diana Taurasi in the final week of the regular season, Tina Thompson was tearing it up with two consecutive games of 31 points or more.

Four games. That's all it takes to get to the WNBA Finals.

Sure, getting four wins is no small task when it involves going through Sacramento and potentially Los Angeles, but four wins in 10 days are well within the weight limit for one player to carry on her back during a hot streak. And for all the attention Diana Taurasi received for her final-week heroics in pursuit of an elusive playoff berth, Houston's Tina Thompson put together an equally remarkable surge.

After missing the previous 13 games with a calf injury, Thompson returned for Houston's final two games and scored 68 points to go along with 23 rebounds and eight assists. And while scoring 37 points in a triple-overtime classic against Phoenix was impressive in its own right, Thompson didn't need any extra minutes to put up 31 two days later against Seattle.

The thing is, it wasn't just those final two games.

Thompson's offensive explosion captured attention, but she posted the best field-goal percentage and best assists-per-game average of her WNBA career, even if those numbers came in an abbreviated campaign. And even with those missed games, Thompson still came within 15 of her career high in 3-pointers for a season.

With Thompson playing her best and the roster largely healthy, the Comets raced to an 8-3 record to start the season, including two wins against the Monarchs (who were themselves without Walker). If they weren't the best team in the league, they were in the conversation.

The roster still isn't back to full health as the first round begins, with the status of Dominique Canty and Tamecka Dixon up in the air. But Thompson is apparently no worse for wear after an injury that gave her time to rest during a truncated WNBA schedule, and she's acting like someone entirely capable of shooting a team to four wins.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.