Los Angeles (17-17), West No. 4
WHAT'S WORKING: The Monarchs have one of the best rebounders in the game in Yolanda Griffith (above), one of the greatest passers the game has ever seen in Ticha Penicheiro, one of the top candidates for coach of the year in John Whisenant, a likely Most Improved Player of the Year in Nicole Powell, one of the league's best mixes of experienced leadership and budding youth, and the WNBA's second-best record. So far, it has all added up to their first Western Conference regular-season title.
Sacramento's white-line defense -- it overloads one side of the floor, which puts plenty of traffic in front of the opponent -- has paved the way for much of the success. The Monarchs, who rotate very well as a team, hold foes to a league-low 61.6 points per game, rank fifth in rebounds (30.7) and No. 2 in steals (8.9). Opponents shoot 41.2 percent from the field, third lowest in the league, and a league-low 30 percent from 3-point range.
The Monarchs also are young -- the average age is 25.7 -- but more importantly, no one averages more than 29 minutes and 11 players average at least nine minutes. That way, Whisenant -- who completely tweaked his lineup in the offseason but has successfully blended his core players with new faces -- keeps everybody fresh, and allows young players such as Powell, Rebekkah Brunson and rookies Chelsea Newton and Kristin Haynie to develop and get quality minutes when the game is in the balance. As a result, they've also developed great depth and balance, with five players averaging at least 7.8 points.
WHAT'S WORKING: It's true that Los Angeles limped into the playoffs and almost missed the postseason for the first time since 1998. For so long this season, the Sparks just haven't had the confidence and swagger we've grown accustomed to seeing in L.A. More importantly, the players didn't look like they were having fun, and it showed in their games as their attitude and toughness waned.
However, after coach Henry Bibby and the Sparks parted ways on Aug. 17, L.A. regrouped and won four straight under interim coach Joe Bryant. Granted, three of the four were against teams with sub-.500 records, but the Sparks mustered a 55-50 win at home over Houston, as well as a victory over playoff-bound Detroit, and they seemed to breathe some life into L.A. Bryant has given them some good leadership, and some of the pride and passion are back, too.
Chamique Holdsclaw (above) has had a great first season in L.A., averaging a team-high 17 points to go with 6.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 48 percent accuracy from the field.
And though she struggled earlier in the season, Lisa Leslie is looking more and more like her old self late in the season. In the past five games, she scored more than 17 points on three occasions and notched two double-doubles. Leslie -- who's averaging 15.2 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.1 blocks, 2.6 assists and almost two steals per game while shooting 44 percent from the field -- is assuming that leadership role again and her energy level and production are up.
WHAT NEEDS WORK: This is the best Sacramento team I've seen, and it's tough to nail down any weaknesses. The biggest thing that has hurt the Monarchs this season has been injuries, including a knee sprain that limited All-Star DeMya Walker to 22 games. But Brunson has stepped in and almost doubled her scoring output, averaging 10.7 ppg since Walker has been sidelined.
The good news for Sacramento is that both Walker and Kara Lawson -- who missed the last two games of the regular season with a shoulder injury -- are expected to play in the postseason. Lawson has really come on late this season. During a 13-game stretch prior to her injury, she averaged 12.4 points. In the 10 games before that, she scored only 4.5 points per game.
WHAT NEEDS WORK:
The Sparks rank fifth in the league in scoring, and their 68.4 points per game is easily their lowest output in franchise history (never before since the league opened in 1997 has L.A. averaged less than 71.6 points). Even more noticeable was the Sparks' drop in rebounding, down to 29.5 (another franchise low). L.A. has consistently been near the top of the league leaders in both categories, and averaged 73.4 points and 33 rebounds just a year ago.
The Sparks' struggles are indicative of the team's hesitance to buy into Henry Bibby's philosophy of coaching, particularly a 2-3 zone. It's especially hard to rebound out of a zone because you're boxing out an area instead of a person.
X-FACTOR: The Monarchs are the league's best 3-point shooting team, knocking down 36.4 percent of their 3-pointers (Powell has hit a team-high 66 treys). And Sacramento -- which has lost only once this year when leading at halftime -- has made at least one shot from downtown in 230 games, a streak that goes back to the beginning of the 1999 season.
Still, Griffith's play inside is the key. She has the savvy ability to contribute in several ways, and gives her team whatever it needs, whether it's a crucial steal, block or rebound. But when Griffith -- the league's all-time leader in offensive rebounds -- is scoring, it seems to energize the team, not to mention open up the outside for her teammates. It's hardly a coincidence that in six of Sacramento's nine losses this year, Griffith was held to 10 or fewer points. She's averaging almost 14 on the season.
Penicheiro, the league's all-time assists leader (almost 1,600 over eight seasons, or a 6.6 per game career average), sports an amazing 2.25 assists-to-turnover ratio, but the team could improve on its 14.6 giveaways per game.
X-FACTOR: Leslie and Holdsclaw must have monster series. They combined to average 32.2 points in the regular season, but if they don't at least equal that each night in the playoffs, the Sparks could get swept.
Leslie, however, has yet to shine against Sacramento this season, averaging just 9.5 points on 34 percent (14-for-41) shooting, and 4.3 rebounds against the Monarchs. That includes her 0-for-7 night on June 4 when Griffith and Walker held Leslie to a career-low three points. Leslie did reach double figures in the other three games, but never topped 14 points.
Leslie (groin), like several teammates, have been hampered by injuries all season. Mwadi Mabika (knee), one of the most athletic players in the league, has played just 17 games, and point guard Nikki Teasley (bone spur in left foot, plantar fasciitis in right heel) played 19 before being put on the injured list on July 29. That leaves Tamecka Dixon, also in and out of the lineup with a sore knee and ankle injuries, playing the point, though she's a natural 2-guard.
SEASON SERIES: The Monarchs went 3-1 against the Sparks this season, including two victories by blowouts of at least 20 points. Sacramento has won two straight against L.A., which lost by just nine points when they last met on Aug. 16. Though Bibby and the team hadn't officially parted ways yet (that happened the next day), that was the first game with Bryant at the helm. Sacramento averaged 76 points; L.A. averaged 64.
The Monarchs shot 45.4 percent from the field and 38 percent (21-for-55) from 3-point range in the series. The Sparks were 41 percent from the field, but twice shot below 35 percent, and they hit just 13 of 38 (34 percent) of their attempts from downtown.
And even though L.A. won the second game in the series, it's worth noting that the Monarchs outscored L.A. 53-34 in the second half while shooting 56 percent from the field after the break.
Griffith reached double figures in all four games, averaging 15.3 points. Powell reached double figures three times to average 12.8 points against L.A. Walker, who missed their July 29 meeting, hit double digits in all three other games, averaging 14.7 points in the series.
In their three wins, the Monarchs combined for a plus-25 rebounding edge. L.A. tied Sacramento with 29 rebounds in the Sparks' lone win.
BOTTOM LINE: In the past, it has been hard to match up with L.A.'s athleticism. But Sacramento has everything it takes to win a championship this year and is a much better defensive team than the Sparks.
These two programs always seem to clash in the postseason, and until last summer, Los Angeles always came away with the win. But the fourth-seeded Monarchs upset the Sparks, who were the West's No. 1 seed a year ago, in the first round last season. This time it's 1 vs. 4 again, but don't expect an upset. The Monarchs, who are 5-2 against L.A. in their last seven meetings (counting last year's playoffs) are the heavy favorite.
And keep in mind, too, that Sacramento was able to beat L.A. this year once without Walker (July 29) and once without Lawson (June 4).
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.