The Comets host the Monarchs on Thursday as their first-round series tips off. Houston won the regular-season series 3-1. A look at how they match up heading into the postseason:
Houston (18-16), West No. 3
WHAT'S WORKING? It took awhile for the Monarchs to return to the championship form they established last summer. In fact, two of their three regular-season losses to Houston came in the first three weeks of the season, and the Monarchs flirted with a .500 record for the first month and a half until a seven-game win streak sandwiched around the All-Star break helped them take hold of second in the West.
Perennial star Yolanda Griffith (above, Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images) has had a solid season, but she has had plenty of help, as expected, from Nicole Powell and Kara Lawson. However, key contributions from Erin Buescher -- a pleasant surprise -- also played a big role in Sacramento's securing the No. 2 seed. Buescher, a fifth-year player, is averaging a career-best 9.7 points and 3.9 rebounds, tripling both averages from last year. Buescher has benefited from DeMya Walker's absence (Walker missed 11 games and has started just eight as she continues to work her way back after offseason childbirth). Buescher has taken more shots this season (218) than in her last three seasons combined, and she has started 12 games in '06 after averaging only 9.1 minutes with no starts during last year's title run. Buescher, in fact, ranks second on the team in scoring despite playing less than 20 minutes per game.
Having Walker back is a huge boost. She and Griffith work very well together and, most importantly, Walker's presence forces the opponent to spread out a little more and spend less time double-teaming Griffith.
Powell (third in scoring with 9.6 ppg) and Kara Lawson (8.1 ppg) continue to be the Monarchs' long-range threats, with a combined 104 3-pointers. Point guard Ticha Penicheiro remains one of the game's best passers.
Though his team is the defending champion, coach John Whisenant is quick to point out the Monarchs have an extremely tough road ahead. Of Sacramento's 13 losses, seven were against Houston, Seattle or Los Angeles, and the Monarchs went 0-3 against the top-seeded Sparks.
WHAT'S WORKING? What's not to like when you've got three of the all-time greatest players in the game on the floor in Sheryl Swoopes (above, Ron Hoskins/Getty Images), Tina Thompson and Dawn Staley? They are the most experienced trio in the league right now, and the Comets also have the advantage of the leadership of Van Chancellor, the league's most successful coach.
It's no secret the Comets design their offense around Swoopes and Thompson, and one of them was the Comets' high scorer (or at least tied a teammate for the honor) in 25 of 34 games this season -- and it could have been more if a sore calf hadn't sidelined Thompson for 12 games. She missed much of the second half of the season but returned with two brilliant performances in the Comets' final two games of the regular season, tallying 36 points, 16 rebounds and eight assists in a triple-overtime loss to Phoenix and 31 points and seven boards in a win over Seattle.
Swoopes, who in June became just the third WNBA player to tally 4,000 career points, is having another solid season just one year removed from her third MVP honor. Swoopes' points-per-game average has dipped three points this season, but for Houston to have a chance, she must be aggressive in the postseason.
Staley, meanwhile, is putting the finishing touches on an exemplary career both in the United States and internationally. Expect her to drop that savvy cat-and-mouse game she plays to perfection on Penicheiro and Sacramento's Kristin Haynie. Staley has succeeded at every level, and her playoff performance is one of the can't-miss things in the first round before she retires from playing, returns to Temple and joins the U.S. women as an assistant coach for the World Championship later this fall.
Michelle Snow must also continue to be a factor, especially on the boards; she must refuse to let Sacramento knock her off her game mentally. She has had a great season but must continue to make strides with her maturation.
X FACTORS: Like the Sun, Sacramento truly epitomizes the word "team." Nine players average at least 5.2 points, and 11 Monarchs play at least 10 minutes per game. Even more impressive is the fact that the bench accounts for almost 35 points -- or about 46 percent -- of Sacramento's offense.
Buescher and post Rebekkah Brunson must continue to contribute, especially on the glass, to help the Monarchs find an answer for Houston forward Tina Thompson. That, of course, puts the onus on Griffith, because no matter how many shots Lawson knocks down or how well Walker is playing inside, Griffith's performance in the West playoffs will determine how far Sacramento goes, especially since the West is so loaded with great post players. If Griffith lifts her game to that superstar level we've seen her achieve before, the Monarchs have a great shot at defending their title.
Don't read too much into Griffith's numbers this year (12.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg). Her scoring is down almost two points per game, and her rebounding has dipped very slightly. But those are consistent stats, and keep in mind she's playing 3½ fewer minutes than last season, too. Whisenant has tried to preserve her this season, a very intelligent move, but her minutes will no doubt increase now.
Defense will play a big part for both teams in this series, and it's crucial that Houston's veterans are able to defend. Often when players get older, they can still bring it offensively but might not be as sharp on the defensive end. It's the first thing that goes. That said, Staley, Swoopes and Thompson clearly still have enough offense to stay in games, and they're smart enough defenders and known how to position themselves to their advantage. But they're not as athletic or young as Sacramento, and their first steps aren't as quick. And if they don't do the little things right -- like contesting shots, boxing out, the things that will prevent Sacramento from rebounding and running -- Houston will have a problem.
Conversely, the Comets can look to take advantage at the other end, as well. While Walker's return boosts Sacramento defensively (she's a great fit and rotates well in Whisenant's white-line defense), the Monarchs' defense doesn't seem to be as strong as it was a year ago. They are still missing the on-ball pressure that Chelsea Newton, now with the Chicago Sky, brought.
In part, that has been exposed because, with the shorter shot clock, teams are taking quicker shots against Sacramento. But the Monarchs are also not as quick to get in the passing lanes and change the passing angles, or as efficient at keeping the ball on one side of the floor. And because it's even harder to rotate when the opposing players are outside of the arc, the Monarchs could struggle against Houston, which spaces out well, effectively moves the ball around and can knock down the 3-pointer.
WHO WINS?Despite Houston's dominance of Sacramento in the regular season, the Monarchs will advance. I might have picked this series differently if Houston's Tamecka Dixon and Dominique Canty were closer to 100 percent. But their injuries deal a blow to Houston's experience and depth. That's a significant disadvantage to overcome, especially when the Monarchs have so much depth.
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.