The WNBA tips off its 2009 playoffs on Wednesday night. Here are five storylines to watch.
1. Can L.A. go the distance?
The third-seeded Sparks sure looked like the overwhelming favorite to dominate the league at the start of the season. But once things got going and the personnel losses mounted, that all changed. The team had anticipated the loss of Candace Parker, who sat out the first couple weeks after having a baby, but didn't plan on losing Lisa Leslie, who missed significant time with knee and hip injuries. With their big guns out, the Sparks struggled, but they also found out a lot about their bench depth in the process -- in particular guards Betty Lennox and Noelle Quinn, who both logged career years in '09.
When Leslie returned, L.A. went on a tear, winning 10 of its last 13 games to get into the playoffs. The Sparks will look to keep victories coming and send Leslie (who is retiring at the end of this season) and coach Michael Cooper (who is leaving the WNBA to coach at nearby USC) out on a high note.
2. Is Seattle healthy enough for a postseason run?
The short answer appears to be 'no.' The second-seeded Storm was cruising down the stretch and nearly overtook the Mercury for first place in the conference before its big three went MIA. Former league MVP Lauren Jackson hasn't played a game since Aug. 27 (back) and is likely to miss this series. Sue Bird (sore neck) missed the last three games, and Swin Cash sat out the last two because of a death in the family.
As a result, pass-first point guard Tanisha Wright has had to assert herself more on offense (she responded by averaging 18.0 points in her last six games) and Camille Little (10.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg) has had to step up her game too. Still, one figures the Storm will need at least two of its big three back to compete against the very tall, very deep Sparks. Otherwise, it could be looking at yet another first-round exit.
3. Is Indiana over its late-season swoon?
It's a question few would've thought to ask a month ago, when No. 1 Indiana was winning 19 of its first 22 games and seemed destined to lock the league's top overall seed. But the Fever has gone cold, losing a staggering seven of the last 10 to close the season. A few of those losses can be chalked up to the absences of MVP frontrunner Katie Douglas, who sat out a couple games with a bum ankle, and center Tammy Sutton-Brown, who also missed a few games down the stretch. The good news is that the Fever drew an opponent in fourth-seeded Washington that it went 4-0 against in the regular season. Few did better in those games than All-Star Tamika Catchings, who averaged 20.5 points.
4. Is it still home court advantage if you can't win at home?
In the case of Washington (making its first playoff appearance after a two-year absence) and Atlanta (making its first appearance ever), they'd better hope so. Both teams are being forced out of their home arenas to accommodate kids shows. The No. 4 seed Mystics were relocated to the University of Maryland's Comcast Center because of a previously booked dinosaur show at the Verizon Center, while second-seeded Atlanta was booted from Phillips Arena by Big Bird. (Sesame Street Live had already booked weekend shows there.) So instead of playing its first-ever playoff game inside its raucous downtown confines, the Dream will aim to recreate that environment at Gwinnett Arena, about 25 miles northeast of the city.
5. Can Detroit defend its title?
The Shock's coach might have changed, but the team's bully swagger remains. And intimidation took the team a long way in its season series with Washington, which it won 3-1. Their last matchup, an 87-83 Detroit victory at The Palace in Auburn Hills, even had Atlanta coach Marynell Meadors calling the Shock a "bunch of bullies" afterward. As Deanna Nolan told the Detroit News, her squad will be looking to get its way again against the Mystics in the playoffs. "We don't bully people no more than they bully us," she said. "We just play physical, pound the ball inside and run up and down the court. ... We're very capable of beating them."