Athleticism gives Shock the edge in finals

We've waited all season long. And with two of the game's greatest rebounders, two former champions, one of the sport's best point guards and women's basketball's most prolific outside shooter on board, the WNBA Finals promises to be an enticing series.

A look at how the teams -- which split their regular-season series 1-1, match up position-by-position before the games tip off Wednesday (ESPN2, 7:30 p.m. ET):

POINT GUARD: Katie Smith vs. Ticha Penicheiro

When it comes to floor leadership, Penicheiro is one of the best, and her passing skills have made her the league's all-time assists leader. One of the flashiest and most creative passers, she also takes great care of the ball and is averaging 5.0 assists to just 1.25 turnovers per game in the playoffs.

But whereas Penicheiro is perhaps the WNBA's most-heralded passer, Smith is the most prolific scorer and pure shooter in the history of the women's game, tallying more than 5,000 career points in her professional career. At times this season, Detroit has struggled because the Shock don't have a true point guard, but Smith's play has made us forget all that. She has balanced her roles, ranking third with 12.4 ppg for Detroit in the postseason while also increasing her assists per game to 4.6 (up from 3.3). In the playoffs, she has more than been a very serviceable point guard.

Advantage: Smith. Not many guards in this league get the edge over Penicheiro, and this was a really close call. But Smith's offensive abilities -- particularly her 3-point shooting and consistency in reaching double figures -- give her the edge. Smith's scoring is especially vital, because this season, in games when maybe Swin Cash has struggled, Smith's offense has helped Detroit compensate. Both Penicheiro and Smith are excellent defenders on the perimeter.

TWO-GUARDS: Deanna Nolan vs. Kara Lawson

Nolan has been captivating at times in the playoffs, proving once again she's almost unstoppable in the open court and one of the league's most athletic players. Yes, she's shooting very well this postseason, knocking down 54 percent of her shots from the field after notching 40 percent accuracy in the regular season -- but don't underestimate her. Nolan is much more than just a slasher. She doesn't take bad shots, and when the Sun prevented her from penetrating in Game 2 of the East finals, Nolan knocked down jump shot after jump shot for 27 points.

Lawson is no doubt a step slower than Nolan. But that doesn't mean Nolan easily has the upper hand. Lawson is as gutty a player as there is, refusing to back down from anybody, and has several assets to match up against Nolan. For starters, Lawson is one of the smartest players in the game and is excellent at channeling defenders. That could be key, because forcing Nolan to her left into areas of the floor she's not as comfortable in is one way to slow her down. Lawson's physical strength is also a plus, and despite a fatigue-inducing illness early in the season, Lawson looks to be in the best shape of her career.

Lawson also has the better range -- and who can hit a 3-pointer in crunch time better than her? -- and is playing with tremendous confidence and enthusiasm right now. Her scoring is a big X-factor, especially since Lawson managed just four points in 35 minutes (2-for-6 shooting) in Sacramento's two-game series with Detroit this season.

Advantage: Nolan. This will be a great battle, but Nolan's athleticism gives her the edge.

SMALL FORWARD: Swin Cash vs. Nicole Powell

In 2003, when Detroit won the WNBA title, Swin Cash led the way. She played at an MVP level and in 2004, helped the U.S. women win gold at the Athens Olympics. Some even said she was the future of the game as Cash's work ethic was compared to the intensity only Tamika Catchings has demonstrated.

But then in September 2004, Cash suffered a torn ACL. And as with most athletes, Cash's fight to return to her pre-injury form has been a long journey. But on Sunday in Game 3, Cash seemed like her old self for the first time. From the opening tip, she was aggressive and played with a confidence and energy we haven't seen from her in some time. And that changes this matchup considerably.

Cash is the better defender and more experienced player in this matchup. She's also better in the open court and a more mature defender.

That said, while Nicole Powell isn't a good individual defender, she doesn't have to be. John Whisenant's system -- Sacramento's white-line defense overloads one side of the floor, which puts plenty of traffic in front of the opponent --
emphasizes team defense, which obviously plays to Powell's advantage. Plus, Powell is the better pure shooter and open court shooter. She significantly has improved in creating her own shot and worked hard to get her attempts off quicker.

Advantage: Cash. Though Powell has played well in the postseason, averaging 11 points per game on 53 percent shooting, there's no stopping Cash if she plays like she did in Sunday's Game 3 against Connecticut. However, let's not forget that prior to Sunday, Cash was just 11-for-34 (32 percent) from the field and averaging 7.3 points in the postseason. Can she continue her tear? Or will the same player who averaged a paltry 6.5 ppg against Sacramento this season reappear?

POWER FORWARD: Cheryl Ford vs. DeMya Walker

Though DeMya Walker is an All-Star caliber player in her own right, this matchup comes down to how well she can keep Cheryl Ford off the boards. Ford re-wrote the record book for rebounding this summer, establishing a new single-season mark and single-game playoff record (23 rebounds). Ford's work on the glass sets the tone for Detroit, which loves to rebound and run.

That means Walker must be relentless in the paint, box out Ford early and often and face-guard her. That will require a tremendous amount of focus and determination. Luckily for Sacramento, and despite the fact that Walker still isn't at full strength after missing the first half of the season while out on maternity leave, Walker plays with a willingness to embrace the task.

Walker's offensive play is a huge key, too. Ford has a propensity for getting into foul trouble, and it's imperative that Walker makes herself a threat on offense to force Ford to defend, even get Ford to chase her out a bit on the perimeter. Ford's a solid shot blocker, so Walker must use her counter moves on Ford and get her moving side-to-side.

Advantage: Ford. She has been very consistent and the Shock run their offense through her. This is one of the key matchups in the series.

CENTER: Ruth Riley vs. Yolanda Griffith

Yolanda Griffith remains one of the best posts in the world. Her experience is second to none and her leadership on the court, in the huddle and in the locker room is a big part of Sacramento's success. And though Griffith is best known for her rebounding prowess (she's the league's all-time leading offensive rebounder), she always seems to step up her scoring in the postseason. This month has been no different, as Griffith has raised her average to 16.5 ppg (on 55 percent shooting!) after 12 ppg in the regular season. And she's doing it in only 25 minutes per game.

Ruth Riley will have her hands full defensively, but her offense is the big X-factor in this matchup. Like Connecticut, Sacramento's white-line defense leaves the area around the foul line open. That always has been a bread-and-butter shot for Riley. Trouble is, at times this season she hasn't played (or shot) with a lot of confidence. But in the WNBA Finals, she must hit that foul-line jump shot when it's open. That will force Sacramento's top defender in the post to step out with a hand up to defend her, decreasing the times the Monarchs can double down on Ford or reserve Kara Braxton inside. If Riley just hits one or two of those shots, it could change the complexity of Sacramento's defense.

And on those occasions when both Ford and Braxton are on the bench, Riley must be tough and get on the low block.

Advantage: Griffith. Last season's WNBA Finals MVP is playing at a high level, aggressively looking for her shot and a great defender.


Sacramento clearly has the edge in this category after ranking first in bench production with 33 points per game in the regular season. The Monarchs' reserves haven't been quite as strong in the postseason, combining for 23 ppg, but they're not getting quite as many minutes, either, as Whisenant has shortened up his bench a bit.

Rebekkah Brunson is the player to watch off the bench. Talented enough to start for some other teams in the league, Brunson actually was Sacramento's leading scorer in its two-game series with Detroit, scoring 15.5 points on 12-for-15 shooting (80 percent) in 44 minutes.

Brunson's staples remain her rebounding and defensive capabilities, but she has done a nice job of developing her face-up game and jump shot from 15 feet and in. She's also very good at following her shot and hitting the putback. And with Griffith only playing 25 minutes per game, Brunson and Erin Buescher, this season's WNBA most improved player, must continue to be factors.

For Detroit, Plenette Pierson is having a good postseason, increasing her scoring to 10.8 ppg after a 6.5 average in the regular season. Both she and Kara Braxton are very important to Detroit's post rotation.

Braxton's consistency is key, but you never know if she's going to play up to her potential. And even if coach Bill Laimbeer gets in her face, you're still not sure if she'll respond or tune him out and remain a non-factor.

Advantage: Sacramento. Eight Monarchs are playing at least 12 minutes per game, with seven players averaging at least 5.0 ppg. The Shock, meanwhile, really are going only six players deep right now. Both Braxton and guard Elaine Powell are each logging fewer than 10 minutes in the postseason.

Additional X-factors

The Monarchs outscored the Shock 82.5 points to 76 in their regular-season series. Detroit had a narrow edge on the boards, 69-62.

But steals and turnovers might be the real statistical keys. Sacramento simply took better care of the ball. In their two head-to-head matchups, the Monarchs made 19 steals to the Shock's 11 while Detroit committed 12 more turnovers (39 to Sacramento's 27).

For as much as Whisenant and Laimbeer are different, their defenses are different, too. Because of its athleticism, Detroit plays a man-to-man, though the Shock occasionally will switch it up and throw in a little zone when needed. Sacramento will stick with its white-line defense, which is dependent on great rotation and emphasizes team defense. The Monarchs look to take away the sideline and trap.

That could mean trouble for the Shock if they look to dribble continually against the Monarchs. They'll constantly be trying to penetrate into two or three defenders swarming the ball. The Monarchs will be able to contend Detroit's shots and get numbers around the Shock shooters. So the answer for Detroit is to penetrate hard and then reverse the ball, where Smith or Cash are waiting on the weak side, where they'll be able to play 2-2 before the white-line defense adjusts.

Detroit must continue to get at least three or four players in double figures and must win the rebounding battle. That fuels the Shock's entire offense and helps establish their transition game. If, however, Sacramento can force Detroit into a half-court basketball team, the Shock could struggle. That means Sacramento must knock down its shots to prevent the Shock from runing before the Monarchs' defense can get set up.

One last key for Detroit is to look for steals in the quarter-court. If Smith and Nolan can get some steals up top, that will again allow the Shock a lane to the basket without having to fight through the Monarchs' white-line defense.

Who wins?

This series will be played closely, but Detroit will win in five games. The Shock have a little bit more scoring and, despite Griffith's domination on the boards, a slight edge in rebounding. If Cash wasn't playing so well and was a non-factor, I might have a different opinion. But right now, the Shock emerge as the early favorite.

Both teams are playing with extreme confidence, but Laimbeer and the Shock are taking it to another level. Playing off of Laimbeer's style and personality -- and even a little arrogance, which isn't a bad thing in this case -- Detroit is just playing well and also very physically.

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.