Frontcourt battle, Penicheiro could be key to series

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Editor's note: This preview was written before Sacramento point guard Ticha Penicheiro suffered an ankle injury Tuesday, which, according to Monarchs coach John Whisenant on Wednesday, is expected to bench Penicheiro for at least Game 1. Whisenant expects rookie Chelsea Newton to guard Houston's Sheryl Swoopes in Thursday's matchup, with Kara Lawson stepping into the starting lineup in Penicheiro's absence.

Houston (2-1), West No. 3

X-FACTORS: Sacramento's averaging almost 10 points more per game in the playoffs (78) than it did in the regular season, and hit more than half of its shots (55 of 106) in the first round.

That said, this series will be more of a defensive battle rather than a high-scoring matchup. In the regular season, neither team averaged more than 61 points in this series.

Defensively, Sacramento and Yolanda Griffith (above) will play man-to-man defense. Houston might be the worst 3-point shooting team in the league -- and hit just 5 of 17 attempts from downtown in the first round -- but Sheryl Swoopes, Tina Thompson and Dawn Staley would tear a zone apart.

This season, of course, Swoopes has been able to break down just about any defense she has seen, and whether she's dribbling, passing or shooting, she's playing at the top of her game right now. Sacramento shouldn't expect to stop her, but the Monarchs will look to keep a body on Swoopes wherever she goes. Small things like channeling her to the right side of the floor -- Swoopes is much better penetrating to her left -- will help slow her down.

Monarchs guard Ticha Penicheiro is another player who has simply elevated her game and is playing the best basketball she has played in her eight years in the WNBA. In the regular season, she shot 31.4 percent from the field and averaged 5.7 points, 4.4 assists and 2.9 rebounds. But she has doubled her scoring production in the playoffs, averaging 11 points on 53.8 accuracy (7-for-13). Penicheiro's also dishing out 7.5 assists and grabbing 4.5 boards per game.

She's back to her fun, enjoyable self on the court, and it shows. She's passing the ball with freedom, has always been a superb penetrator and passer and now has the confidence to put up a shot whenever she has an open look. And, because she's so smart, long and physical, she's also one of the best defenders in the league and will likely take turns with teammate Nicole Powell defending Swoopes.

X-FACTORS: The Comets' first-round win over the Storm was impressive on two fronts. First, Houston fought a one-game deficit and knocked out the defending champion with two road wins in Seattle. And for as great as Sheryl Swoopes (above) has been -- on Saturday she notched the first triple-double in WNBA playoff history -- the Comets were successful because of their defense. Specifically, Houston limited Seattle, the highest-scoring team in the league, to about seven fewer points than its average, and made the Storm -- who love to run -- into a halfcourt team.

The Comets must again take away their opponent's strength to win the West finals. And in this series, that means taking away the Monarchs' 3-point attack. Sacramento's the No. 1 3-point shooting team in the league, hitting 36 percent of its attempts from downtown in the regular season. In the playoffs, they've hit 41 percent (9 of 22).

Seattle shot just 23 percent from beyond the arc against Houston. Part of that was because Sue Bird, Betty Lennox and Iziane Castro Marques -- who were a combined 6-for-33 (18 percent) on 3-point attempts -- just never found their shot. But the Comets also did a nice job of contesting every look.

The big plus in this series, however, is that Houston should be able to apply even more pressure on Sacramento's backcourt. The Comets double- and triple-teamed Seattle's Lauren Jackson every time she got the ball. But Sacramento post Yolanda Griffith plays a different type of game. Whereas Jackson will go down on the post, drop-step you and score, Griffith is more likely to get her points in transition, off steals, in the halfcourt and off putbacks.

So don't expect Houston to double-team her. Rather, the Comets can then push up more on Sacramento's perimeter shooters, Nicole Powell Kara Lawson. When those two are on the bench, Houston might even throw in a little zone defense.

KEY MATCHUP: The frontcourt battle will determine this series, particularly in how well Houston's Michelle Snow matches up with Griffith. Snow has the talent and skills to run with Griffith, although the Sacramento post is far more experienced.

Snow's numbers in the postseason -- 11.3 points per game on 60 percent shooting from the field -- are comparable to what she did in the regular season. However, she attempted just 10 shots and averaged only 5.3 points against Sacramento in their regular-season series.

Snow's defense will be key. Griffith has some of the best hands in the game, and like Karl Malone and John Stockton, she plays extremely well with Penicheiro. They don't even have to look at each other, and Snow is going to have to anticipate some of their nuances or she will get beat.

Still, the availability of Sacramento forward DeMya Walker might be the biggest X-factor. Walker, who had battled a knee sprain since just after the All-Star break, hasn't played since reaggravating her right knee on Aug. 18.

Not only would Walker give the Monarchs much-needed depth on their inside rotation, she's Sacramento's best chance against Tina Thompson. The Houston forward, who has played just 18 games since coming back from maternity leave, is only getting better each contest. The former All-Star and Olympian went 7-for-13 from the field, including hitting both of her 3-point attempts, for 16 points in Game 3 against Seattle. Houston coach Van Chancellor said it was Thompson's best game of the season.

If Walker is unavailable, Rebekkah Brunson will continue to start. Brunson -- who averaged 8.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in the first round -- has come on strong this season, but the second-year post doesn't have the experience or offensive skills that Walker possesses.

SEASON SERIES: Sacramento won the series 2-1, with each teams' wins coming on its home court. The series has generally been low-scoring, with neither team topping 58 points in two of the meetings. The Monarchs sandwiched their wins around Houston's lone victory, 58-54, on July 19, but the teams haven't met since Sacramento's 55-45 win on Aug. 7.

The Comets have shot just 38 percent (57 of 150) from the field and only 26 percent (6 of 23) from 3-point range, which includes a 1-for-11 effort in the Aug. 7 loss. The Monarchs shot 44 percent (71 of 163) from the field and 34 percent from downtown (11 of 32).

The series has produced some atypical results. For example, the winner of each game was actually rebounded by the loser.

Griffith averaged 11.3 points on 52 percent shooting from the field (14 of 27). Swoopes, who twice scored at least 20 points, averaged 17.3 points on 36 percent shooting (16 of 45), but also was 18-for-19 at the foul line. Penicheiro didn't score and was 0-for-8 from the field in the series' first two games. She was 4-for-8 and had nine points in the most recent game.

Several absences over different games in the series are worth taking note of. While Dawn Staley, acquired by Houston on Aug. 1, played in their Aug. 7 meeting, Dominique Canty did not. Thompson missed the first two matchups, and Walker, who averaged 16 points and hit 13 of 19 shots in the series' first two games, missed their final regular-season meeting, as well.

BOTTOM LINE: Houston's playing extremely well and will be tough to beat if it continues shooting as it did against Seattle.

But Sacramento is also playing very well right now and has been the West's best team all season.

This year, in their fourth Western Conference Finals appearance, the Monarchs should finally be able to get over the hump and advance to the WNBA Finals. But this series will likely go three games.

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.