Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

WNBA Playoffs: Coaches' Outlook

Guru's Delegate's Note: Earlier Tuesday, the WNBA held a conference call with the head coaches of the teams in this year’s playoffs as well as ESPN commentators Linda Cohn and Doris Burke. Guru-in-Chief Mel and Washington correspondent Jonathan Tannenwald were both on the call, and in this post Jonathan picks some of the highlights from the Eastern and Western Conference Coaches.

By Jonathan Tannenwald

EASTERN CONFERENCE FIRST ROUND MATCHUPS (seeds in parentheses).

Connecticut Sun (1) vs. Washington Mystics (4)

Connecticut’s Mike Thibault admitted that as “a typical coach, I worry about everything.”

Nonetheless, even as he assessed his team’s injuries ahead of Friday night’s game in Washington, it became clear that the Sun are primed for a deep run in this year’s playoffs.

Katie Douglas has only been practicing lightly, but Thibault said Nykesha Sales has had “full practices every day now for about 10 days.”

Those injuries have given Thibault a good chance to use his bench players, though, and he said that his younger players stepped up to the challenge.

“I think that what I’ve been trying to impress upon young players is to do one or two things well,” he said. “You’re not going to be able to do everything as a rookie, so give us hustle plays. Give us energy, and that will translate into making you valuable for me to put you on the court.”

Thibault’s counterpart, Mystics head coach Richie Adubato, admitted that his team faces “a very big challenge” against the best team in the league this year.

“We understand that the type of team we are playing has been to the Finals twice and are very hungry to get back there a third time,” Adubato said.

But if the playoffs are a stage for anyone in this series, that player is surely Mystics guard Alana Beard. She finished sixth in the league in scoring, averaging 19.2 points per game, nearly three points higher than Sun guard Katie Douglas. Furthermore, Beard scored at least 21 points in all six of the Mystics’ games in August, and topped the 20-point mark 18 times this season.

“She’s come in here with great attitude in super shape and she is playing tremendous basketball, rebounding, scoring, defensive pressure on the ball and steals,” Adubato said. “She’s been a leader on and off the floor.”

ESPN commentator Doris Burke did not rule out an upset.

“I think for a team that’s a 4-seed, opening at home anything can happen, and it really puts the favorites on edge,” she said. “It is imperative that [the Mystics] jump on [Connecticut] at home, because I just don’t see them winning at [Connecticut] more than once.”

Detroit Shock (2) vs. Indiana Fever (3)

Detroit coach Bill Laimbeer knows plenty about playoff basketball in the Motor City, having won NBA championships in 1989 and 1990 with the Pistons and the WNBA title in 2003 with the Shock. He said his team is “the most focused I’ve seen out team in a long time,” and that star guard Katie Smith is once again leading the way.

“Her defense has been phenomenal,” Laimbeer said of Smith. “Her steady play and running our point has been a great positive for us, and the best part about it is she is still learning how to understand the defenses being thrown at us and what our players can still do.”

Fever coach Brian Winters said he expects the series to be tight, given that each team won its two home games against the other. But he also would not be surprised to see Bill Laimbeer engaging in what we might call frequent conversations with the referees.

“Two can play that game, a little gamesmanship I guess,” he said. “You’ve got to plant seeds with the officials, whether someone’s walking, someone’s in the paint too long, whatever it is... I don’t think it’s a one-way street.”

But if defense wins championships, then Doris Burke’s prediction that the pace of the game will show in these playoffs would probably benefit Detroit.

“I think championships inevitably – I don't care what level of basketball you're talking about, whether it's the NBA, WNBA or men's and women's college basketball championship basketball – clearly it's a lot easier to slow the pace then it is to generate fast pace,” Burke said. “So yes, I do believe, like the NBA and collegiate championships, you will see things slowed down, it will be more physical in all likelihood – cutters will be bumped, people will check out a little bit harder, there will definitely be more contact, I think.”

WESTERN CONFERENCE FIRST ROUND MATCHUPS

Los Angeles Sparks (1) vs. Seattle Storm (4)

Sparks coach Joe Bryant knows a little something about players in Los Angeles who can take over games, being the father of Lakers star Kobe. In the summer, Lisa Leslie takes over the Staples Center, and she is a big reason why L.A. has the West’s top seed. But the Sparks will have a considerable challenge in the first round, opening at Seattle, who won the 2004 WNBA title.

The Storm are the only team to have won the season series against Los Angeles, having done so by two games to one. That will add some extra spice to this series, and Bryant said he expects a hostile reception at Key Arena on Friday night.

“I think going to Seattle, the energy boost that home fans can give to Seattle, we’ll have to overcome that,” Bryant said. “We’ve just got to be able to withstand that run at keep it close, and hopefully come out with a victory.”

Storm coach Anne Donovan acknowledged Leslie’s importance, but said that L.A. has been successful for other reasons.

“I give a lot of credit to Joe Bryant; he has done a great job in giving [players] the right roles,” Donovan said. “That starts with [Chamique] Holdsclaw coming off the bench, and really embracing that role, and doing great off the bench for them. It just seems to be a more balanced, focused, not-so-erratic team.”

ESPN’s Doris Burke gave the edge to the Sparks, not only because of their talent but because of Seattle’s recent injury problems.

“I think [the Storm] are a team with a wealth of ability and clearly... they have talent and they can play with anybody in the league when they are healthy,” Burke said. “I just question their ability to win a series, because I don't think they’re healthy enough, to be quite honest.”

Sacramento Monarchs (2) vs. Houston Comets (3)

The coach of the defending WNBA champions also wins the prize for best quotes of the conference call.

Sacramento’s John Whisenant admitted that he is “nervous” about playing Houston in the first round, and that his attitude is one of “trying to get ourselves as ready as we possibly can to try to go down and steal a win in Houston.”

But Whisenant added that the advantage of having won the title last year is that “we know we can do it, because we have done it.”

“I know they’ll get in there and battle and fight,” he said. “Playoffs are like street-fights, you’ve got to get your nose bloodied and some knees skinned, and take the charges.”

Like many coaches, Houston coach Van Chancellor had to deal with injuries to some of his biggest players, including Tina Thompson and Dominique Canty. But veterans Sheryl Swoopes, Michelle Snow and Dawn Staley carried the team to a playoff berth, though it came down to the team’s last game of the season.

“Sheryl stepped up and played remarkably well,” Chancellor said. “Dawn Staley has really held our team together.”

ESPN’s play-by-play voice for WNBA games this season, Linda Cohn, picked Sacramento as her dark horse for these playoffs, even though it might seem odd to pick the defending champions as a dark horse.

“It’s strange to even say this, because I don't think this even qualifies, but when you see how L.A. dominated the West, I then have to look at Sacramento as my dark horse because everybody's forgetting about the defending champs,” Cohn said. “They seem to be forgotten... Once again, people are looking at the L.A.’s and the Connecticuts and forgetting about what is lurking.”

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