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Wednesday, August 16, 2000
Long live the Liberty? We'll see

By Michelle Smith
Special to ESPN.com

Have we been too hasty? Have we jumped to the wrong conclusion? Have we all made a rush to judgement that the 2000 WNBA Champion will have to be a team from the West?

Indeed the answer to the last question is yes. All the evidence certainly points in that direction.

Los Angeles and Houston, who will meet in the Western Conference finals beginning Thursday night in Houston, were a combined 55-9 this season, just one loss separating the two teams. Their combined home record was 29-3.

These two teams have the two best players in the league -- the Comets' Sheryl Swoopes and the Sparks' Lisa Leslie -- and also are ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in points per game. Houston leads the way, scoring 77.3 points per contest, and the Sparks aren't far behind at 75.5 ppg. They can play some mean defense, too, and are ranked 1-2 in field-goal defense as well (L.A.'s foes shoot just .395 a game; Houston's opponents are at .405).

So why bother playing these games? Why not just hand the championship trophy to whichever teams survives what is practically guaranteed to be an incredibly entertaining Western Conference final?

Because there's a little matter of two teams from the East -- New York and Cleveland. These are two teams who will battle it out for the right to be sacrificed to the West. Or will they?

It's not a secret the Eastern Conference is the weaker of the two divisions, without a true powerhouse team. But the Liberty, after a slow start, turned positively dominant in the latter stages of the season.

One could argue New York -- with an 8-2 record over its last 10 games to win the regular-season conference title going away -- was as dominant as either the Sparks or the Comets were out West. After an 8-9 start, the Liberty was 12-3 down the stretch, allowing just two opponents to score 70 points in that 15-game run.

"Everybody talks about the Western Conference, the Western Conference, but in the East there are a lot of talented teams and talented players," Liberty guard Teresa Weatherspoon said. "It's always been that way for us. The good thing for us is all the pressure is on the West. We just have to show people what we're made of. We are a good basketball team."

New York, which looked just plain old at season's start, now has weapons. Weatherspoon is the heart, soul and defensive stopper she has always been, and now she also has backcourt scoring help in Becky Hammon, who has proven to be a gutty player.

Tari Phillips has an entirely new career in New York and a WNBA Most Improved Player Award to prove it. Tamika Whitmore, meanwhile, improved steadily as the season went on. This team has so much chemistry right now it decided not to bring back Rebecca Lobo, despite the fact that she appears ready to play.

Cleveland would seem to be the underdog in this series and an overwhelming underdog should the Rockers reach the finals. The Rockers were 4-7 against the West this season and 4-12 on the road overall. The rebound from a 7-25 season last year has been dramatic. But Cleveland is also riding the wave of strong defensive play. In Tuesday night's series-clinching win over Orlando, the Rockers held the Miracle to 27.6 percent shooting.

Cleveland and New York are sure to beat one another up in what could be a physical, to the limits, three-game series.

New York holds a 2-1 lead for the season, winning two straight by an average of 13.5 points after Cleveland pinned a 66-65 overtime loss on the Liberty early in the campaign.

But it's worth noting that Cleveland and New York are a combined 1-5 against Los Angeles and Houston this season.

What will it take for the East to pull the monumental upset?

Liberty coach Richie Adubato believes the key in the short series is winning the first game, which will be played on the East team's home floor.

"You definitely have to win at home," Adubato said as the playoffs began. "I think it is almost an imperative that you win the first game on your home floor."

Michelle Smith of the San Francisco Examiner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.