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WNBA playoff series previews

Los Angeles Sparks forward Candace Parker, left, drives

Los Angeles Sparks forward Candace Parker, left, drives past Minnesota Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson during the second half of a WNBA game. (Sept. 4, 2012) Credit: AP

A look at the four first-round series in the WNBA playoffs, which start Thursday:


NO. 1 CONNECTICUT (25-9) VS. NO. 4 NEW YORK (15-19)

Season Series: Sun won 4-1, including a sweep of the three home games.

Connecticut: The Sun are in the playoffs for the second straight year, winning the franchise's fourth regular-season conference title -- first since taking three straight from 2004-06. Connecticut fell one win short of matching the franchise record, achieved in both 2005 and 2006. The Sun, who were 18-4 in conference play, did not lose consecutive games all season, had just two stretches in which they lost two of three, and also went a WNBA-best 13-4 on the road.

Tina Charles (18.0 ppg, 10.5 rpg) was the league's top rebounder and tied Candace Parker for the most double-doubles (18). Veteran guard Kara Lawson, mostly a reserve in her 10-year career, started at least 30 games for the third time and averaged career highs in scoring (15.1), assists (4.0) and rebounds (3.9). She also set the franchise-mark with 74 3-pointers made. Asjha Jones (12.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg) returned for the final two games after missing 14 due to a strained left Achilles tendon. Renee Montgomery (11.6 ppg), a former starter, is a solid reserve. The Sun have a good mix of veterans and young players, with six who began the season with three years or fewer experience and four with seven or more. The Sun were fourth in scoring (81.6) and sixth in rebounding (34.4), field-goal shooting (43 percent) and 3-point shooting (35.6 percent). Charles averaged 21.8 points and 10.3 rebounds in Connecticut's four wins against New York.

New York: After struggling with inconsistency most of the season, the Liberty won five of six down the stretch, going nearly to the final game to beat out Chicago for the last playoff spot in the East. New York went 9-7 after the Olympic break, including a win against the Sun in the first game back from the monthlong hiatus.

Cappie Pondexter (20.4 ppg, 4.5 apg, 4.3 rpg) was again the catalyst on offense, finishing third in the league in scoring. Plenette Pierson (12.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg) missed eight games with a left knee strain and Kia Vaughn (6.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg) was out for three due to a concussion as the Liberty struggled defensively heading into the midseason break. Essence Carson (11.6 ppg) had some big games, and Nicole Powell and Leilani Mitchell are key 3-point shooters. New York has won just two of nine regular-season meetings with Connecticut the last two years. The Liberty were 10th scoring (73.1), eighth in field-goal shooting (42.5 percent), nine in assists (15.7) and 10th in steals (7.4). They were about middle of the pack in rebounding (33.4) and 3-point shooting (36 percent). Pondexter averaged 16.8 points -- including just six points in one game -- against the Sun, and Pierson 13.6 points and 5.8 rebounds. The teams have met twice in the playoffs -- both times in the conference semifinals -- with Connecticut winning in 2004 and the Liberty advancing in 2008.

Prediction: Connecticut in 2.

NO. 2 INDIANA (22-12) VS. NO. 3 ATLANTA (19-15)

Season series: Fever won 3-2, sweeping two games at home and winning once on the road.

Indiana: The Fever matched the franchise record for victories set in 2009, and had at least 21 wins for the seventh time in eight years. They won 10 of the first 12 after the league's monthlong Olympic break to seize control of the No. 2 seed in the East before the first two losses of a three-game skid knocked them out of contention for the top spot. Indiana -- which joined San Antonio was the only teams other than the conference leaders to finish with winning records on the road, both 9-8 -- then finished up with wins against non-playoff teams Washington and Tulsa.

The Fever, who lost to Atlanta in three games in the conference finals last year, were again led by reigning MVP Tamika Catchings (17.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 3.1 apg) and Katie Douglas (16.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.2 apg). Briann January (10.3 ppg, 3.9 apg) and Shavonte Zellous (7.5 ppg) were also solid starters, but both missed the last three games due to concussion-like symptoms. Fever coach Lin Dunn was hoped to have them cleared to practice by Thursday. Indiana tied with Minnesota for the league lead in 3-point shooting at 40 percent -- though the Fever had 110 more attempts -- and were sixth in scoring (78.3), but ninth in overall field-goal shooting (42 percent). Defensively, they were third in total steals (324) and allowed the second-fewest points (72.3). Douglas and Catchings combined to average 35.2 points -- right around their season numbers -- against the Dream.

Atlanta: Coming off two straight trips to the WNBA Finals, the fifth-year Dream are making their fourth straight playoff appearance. Atlanta began the season with seven losses in 11 games and had a strong finish, winning seven of eight-- with the loss coming in two overtimes at Minnesota -- before dropping the finale at Connecticut. The Dream's strong finish came on the heels of the firing of coach Marynell Meadors and suspension of league scoring leader Angel McCoughtry by Fred Williams -- Meadors' replacement.

McCoughtry (21.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.9 apg) won her first scoring title -- after narrowly finishing behind Diana Taurasi a year ago. Sancho Lyttle (14.0 ppg, 7.6 rpg) and Lindsey Harding (12.3 ppg, 4.5 apg) were solid starters all season, and Erika DeSouza (11.6 ppg, 8.2 rpg) provided a strong boost after missing the first half of the season while training with the Brazilian national team for the London Olympics. Armintie Price (8.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.5 apg) rounds out the starting lineup, and rookie Tiffany Hayes (8.6 ppg), Aneika Henry (4.8 ppg) and Cathrine Kraayeveld (4.6 ppg, 40 percent 3-point shooting) are strong reserves. Atlanta led the league in steals (333) for the second straight year, and was fifth in scoring (78.6) and rebounding (34.8), and fourth in shooting (43 percent). McCoughtry was around her season averages against the Fever, and Lyttle averaged 11.6 points and 8.4 rebounds.

Prediction: Indiana in 3.


NO. 1 MINNESOTA (27-7) VS. NO. 4 SEATTLE (16-18)

Season series: Lynx won 3-1, including a sweep of the two home games.

Minnesota: The defending champions' chemistry was evident all season as they matched their franchise record for wins set a year ago. The Lynx won their first 10 games, and then followed their only losing streak of the season -- a three-game skid in the first week of July -- with an 11-game winning streak. Minnesota split its last six games, but still set the franchise mark with a 16-1 record at home.

Seimone Augustus (16.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg) missed three games earlier this month due to a sprained right foot, but was at her scoring average the last two games while playing about 22 minutes in the four games since her return. Reigning Rookie of the Year Maya Moore (16.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 3.6 apg) picked up her production in her second season. Lindsay Whalen (11.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 5.4 apg), Rebekkah Brunson (11.4 ppg, 8.9 rpg) and Taj McWilliams-Franklin (8.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg) are solid veterans, and Monica Wright (8.6 ppg) is the top reserve. Minnesota led the league in scoring (85.9), field-goal shooting (47 percent) and assists (20.8), and was tied for first in 3-point shooting (40 percent). while allowing the second-fewest points (73.1). The Lynx were also the top rebounding team (37.8), and finished second in blocks (159) -- led by McWilliams-Franklin's 46. Moore and Brunson were around their season averages against the Storm, and Augustus averaged 14.7 points in three meetings.

Seattle: The Storm are in the playoffs for the ninth straight year, despite playing without three-time MVP Lauren Jackson until the final nine games while she trained with the Australian national team for the London Olympics. Seattle opened with seven losses in the first eight games, then rebounded to win eight of 11 heading into the Olympic break. In the second half, the Storm had a stretch in which they lost four of five in August and lost four straight earlier this month.

Sue Bird (12.2 ppg, 5.3 apg) led the offense without Jackson, and Camille Little (11.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg) was a solid starter. Jackson averaged 10.2 points -- a little more than half her career average -- and 5.6 rebounds after joining the team. Ann Wauters (9.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg) started 17 of the 25 games she played, and 16-year-veteran Tina Thompson (8.9 ppg) hit some key shots. Shekinna Stricklen (8.0 ppg) played solid minutes as rookie, and Tanisha Wright (7.9 ppg) and Katie Smith (6.7 ppg) are key veteran starters. The Storm finished 11th in scoring (71.2), 10th in rebounding (31.9) and last in steals (205). However, they were tops in scoring defense (71.7) and field-goal shooting defense (39 percent). Bird averaged 19 points in the two meetings at home and 6.0 in the two on the road -- both in the first three weeks of the season. Seattle's three losses were all by double digits.

Prediction: Minnesota in 2.

NO. 2 LOS ANGELES (24-10) VS. NO. 3 SAN ANTONIO (21-13)

Season series: Silver Stars won 3-1, including a split of the two road games.

Los Angeles: After missing out last year, the Sparks return to the playoffs in their first season under new coach Carol Ross. Los Angeles got off to a strong start, winning seven of eight, then hit a rough patch before putting together a nine-game win streak sandwiched around the Olympic break. The Sparks then won five of their last six to close with their most wins since going 25-9 in 2006. Los Angeles tied for the league's best home mark at 16-1, but the opener of this series will be played at USC's Galen Center because of a "Batman Live" show at Staples Center. The finale, if necessary, will be back at Staples.

Kristi Toliver (17.5 ppg, 4.9 apg) led the team in scoring and is a strong candidate for the league's most improved player award. Candace Parker (17.4 ppg, 9.7 ppg) was healthy the entire season for the first time since her rookie year in 2008, and led the league with 76 blocks. Nneka Ogwumike (14.0 ppg, 7.5 rpg), the No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft should win Rookie of the Year honors. Alana Beard (11.4 ppg) bounced back year after missing the last two seasons with Washington due to injuries, and DeLisha Milton-Jones (10.0 ppg) also scored in double digits as the five regular starters accounted for 82 percent of the scoring. Los Angeles was second in scoring (84.0) and field-goal shooting (46 percent), third in rebounding (37.9) and tops in blocks (5.3). Parker averaged 16.3 points and 12.3 rebounds, and Beard 17.0 points against the Silver Stars.

San Antonio: The Silver Stars had 12-game winning streak in the middle of the season that was part of a 15-2 stretch that all but assured them of their sixth straight playoff appearance. However, San Antonio lost seven of its last 11, but still finished 9-8 on the road to join Indiana as the only teams other than the conference leaders to have winning marks away from home. The Silver Stars, losers in the first round each year since reaching the finals in 2008, are again led by Sophia Young (16.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 2.2 spg) and Becky Hammon (14.7 ppg, 5.3 apg). Hammon is the catalyst on offense again, as San Antonio lost eight of 11 games she scored 11 points or fewer.

Danielle Adams (11.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg) had a solid second season and Jia Perkins (10.6, 2.8 rpg) was a valuable veteran reserve again. Danielle Robinson (9.9 ppg) and Shameka Christon (7.9 ppg) -- who missed most of the last two seasons with Chicago due to injuries -- hit some big shots. The Silver Stars were third in scoring (82.1) and field-goal shooting (44.5 percent) and second in assists (18.9). However, they were just eighth in rebounding (33.2). San Antonio won the first three meetings, all in a 13-day span in June; Los Angeles won by 24 points on Aug. 24. Hammon averaged 17.7 points and 7.7 assists and Young 22.3 points in the three wins, and the two combined for 14 points in the loss.

Prediction: Sparks in 3.

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