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Playoffs on horizon
By Becky Hammon, Special to the Rapid City Journal, 8/06/01

Since another WNBA season has almost come to an end, teams are tightening up to make their final run at a playoff berth. Every game has become crucial.

I'd like to catch you up on the way things have gone, and what direction certain teams are headed going into this crucial time.

The Western Conference looks a little tight, but the L.A. Sparks probably will have the home-court advantage. Not only will they have the home-court advantage through the conference finals, but most likely also through the entire WNBA playoffs. The Sparks have put together the best regular season record only losing three games thus far.

The rest of the West is up in the air with quite a few teams close to gaining that last playoff spot. As of late, Utah, Sacramento, Houston and Portland all look to gain playoff positions. Utah and Sacramento have been playing real well late in the season. Both went through coaching changes in mid-season, and since then have been playing inspiring basketball.

Houston has had a difficult time recently, but when it comes down to it, Houston knows how to win, and is led by some very good veterans. Portland is young and talented; they also have been playing well. They weren't expected to be anywhere near playoff contention, but without the pressure of having to be successful, they have taken the Western Conference off guard. Although the youth of this team has been its strength, I think, when push comes to shove, the youth of the team will give way to squads with veteran leadership.

Bottom line: L.A., Sacramento, Houston and Utah will be in the playoffs, and I'm picking L.A. to be the Western Conference champion.

The Eastern Conference is a little tighter race. Cleveland sits atop the East, but we (the New York Liberty) are only two games back. If we take care of business, and with a little luck, we might be able to slip into that first-place spot again. We may even be able to regain home-court advantage, which is so crucial in the playoffs.

The other teams that I think will be in playoff contention are Miami, Charlotte and Orlando. Miami started the season real hot, then went real cold, but as of late have been beating a lot of good teams. Charlotte is another team that started out poorly. In fact, last year they finished at the bottom of the conference. But with a new coach, and the players understanding the coaching system better, this team is really tough to beat.

Orlando also had a slow start, more due to injury than anything else, but has some very talented players. In Orlando's case though, it might be a little too late.

Bottom line: Cleveland, N.Y., Miami, and Charlotte are my picks for the Eastern Conference playoffs. Of course, I am picking my squad to pull out the conference title.

The brand of basketball coming up in the WNBA should be exciting. I can't wait to see what happens.

Becky Hammon, an all-state basketball player at Rapid City Stevens and an All-American at Colorado State, is in her third year of pro basketball as a member of the WNBA's New York Liberty.