- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- There are those who would rather downplay the fact that a WNBA team plays in the shadow of slot machines, but the Connecticut Sun are living up to their casino surroundings in at least one entirely benign way as the playoffs approach.
It turns out that even in the arena at Mohegan Sun, the house always wins. Even if it has to reach all the way to Greece to pull the card it needs.
Evanthia Maltsi wasn't around for the Sun's four consecutive trips to the conference finals the last four seasons, or the team's pair of appearances in the WNBA Finals during that stretch. But the 28-year-old rookie from Greece, by way of pro leagues in France and Spain, is a big reason why the Sun suddenly seem like a good bit to make it five years in a row. Leading the way for Mike Thibault's retooled bench, Maltsi offers proof that elite franchises are best equipped to maintain success when they're flexible enough to change.
Not that Connecticut's resiliency was quite so evident after the Sun dropped to 6-11 after a 111-109 double-overtime loss in Phoenix in early July. After losing a total of 16 regular-season games the preceding two years, the mere act of playing a postseason game of any kind -- in a conference that had improved dramatically across the board, including turnarounds from former weaklings Chicago and New York -- was in doubt for the first time in years.
The Sun's starting lineup continued to rank among the most talented and balanced in the league, despite the offseason trade that sent All-Star Taj McWilliams-Franklin to Los Angeles for Erika Desouza and a first-round pick that the Sun used on Kamesha Hairston. But Thibault's bench had become a wasteland -- entering that game against Phoenix, Connecticut's reserves had produced a grand total of six double-digit scoring games (Detroit sub Plenette Pierson needed just nine games to match that total on her own).
As Thibault explained, "I think [for] any team that's going to go fairly far, it's hard to play the starters 35 or 40 minutes every night, especially at the pace that we play at."
With Asjha Jones replacing McWilliams-Franklin in the starting lineup and second-year guard Erin Phillips out for the season after sustaining a knee injury playing in Australia in the offseason, the Sun lost their top two reserves of a season ago -- and the combined 16.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game they provided. Only Jamie Carey, Le'coe Willingham and Megan Mahoney, who combined to average fewer than eight points per game, remained from last season's bench. Meanwhile, veterans Desouza and Kristen Rasmussen and rookies Hairston and Cori Chambers were adjusting to new surroundings without the benefit of much practice time in a league where overlapping overseas competition often means teams here don't assemble fully intact until the start of the regular season or later.
Enter Maltsi, who signed as a free agent on June 8 after completing her European season with the French club Bourges Basket. Despite a standout performance for Greece in the 2004 Olympics, leading the host nation to a mildly surprising quarterfinal appearance, Maltsi didn't make the move to the United States until this year. There had been feelers from teams on this side of the Atlantic -- she was set to join the Mercury last season but visa problems quashed that opportunity -- but it wasn't until a conversation with Thibault at the Euroleague All-Star Game in February that things really started to come together.
One player who knew what to expect from the new arrival was Rasmussen, who had played with Maltsi with a Spanish club in Zaragoza several years ago (Maltsi also played with current Sun star Katie Douglas in Greece at one point). A member of the Mercury last season, Rasmussen had anticipated her former teammate joining her in the WNBA a year earlier but didn't mind when the delay added an extra weapon to her new team.
"I knew that, one, she could play in this league and that it was a dream of hers to come into the league," Rasmussen said. "And when I found out she was coming here, I knew it was a perfect fit for her. I can't say enough good things about her. She's a great basketball player and she understands the game very well."
She needed a little time to adjust to a new team, a new league and a new country. But, after playing 34 minutes against Detroit in her eighth game, Maltsi moved to the top of her coach's rotation. A little more than a week later, and less than 24 hours after the team's marathon loss against the Mercury dropped it to five games below .500, Maltsi went off for 23 points against the Sparks to help launch the Sun to victory. Since then, the Sun have won 10 of 12 games, solidified their playoff hopes and inched up on fading Indiana in the race for the No. 2 seed and home-court advantage in the first round.
The bench surge hasn't been Maltsi alone -- Rasmussen, Carey, Willingham and Desouza have all settled into regular minutes -- but the rookie brought an especially precious commodity with her in the form of a proven scoring touch.
A guard with good size at 5-foot-11, Maltsi provides the kind of offensive game that is difficult to obtain in the college draft, short of landing Seimone Augustus or Cappie Pondexter. Maltsi can shoot off the dribble or use a quick first step and size to get to the basket, averaging almost five free-throw attempts per game during a three-year stretch in European league play in Spain and Greece (although whistles have been slower to go in her favor as a newcomer in the WNBA).
"In Europe, when she's on the team, she's like the Katie Douglas of the team," Rasmussen said, invoking the Sun's clutch-shooting MVP candidate. "You can make that comparison. But overseas she's got free reign and a green light, and not to say she doesn't have that here, but in this league there is a lot more you have to do besides scoring."
Of course, there is something to be said for the simple act of scoring. The WNBA has instituted a new "Sixth Woman" award this season to acknowledge the league's best contributor off the bench (players must have started fewer than half of their team's games in order to qualify). Look down the league's scoring leaders and it doesn't take long to run out of potential candidates. Of the 42 players averaging double-digit points, only four come off the bench on a regular basis: Pierson, Sacramento's Kara Lawson, Chicago's Jia Perkins and Indiana's Tan White. Since gaining regular minutes, Maltsi is averaging 8.6 points, which would put her next in scoring among qualified candidates.
"I think one of the differences coaching guys is if you have a guy who is your eighth person, a lot of them think they should be starting and they're quite willing to show you why they should be starting," Thibault said. "I think bench players in our league need more encouragement to be offensive-impact players. And those that understand it and do it have had a huge impact on their teams.
"Evanthia has had one on our team, Asjha did last year. Kara Lawson does it for Sacramento, Jia Perkins does it for Chicago, Pierson understands that in Detroit. When you have a couple of players like that, you can withstand injuries, you can withstand foul trouble, you can withstand a lot of things. Unless you have that, I don't think you can be a great team."
Even Matsi, a proven scorer with a shooter's mind-set, ultimately needed both the demands of her coach and the encouragement of her new teammates to feel comfortable coming off the bench with her wrist cocked and ready.
"We particularly needed her and Kristen Rasmussen to start shooting the basketball and learn to shoot and not pass up shots," Thibault said. "I think when they finally understood that I would take them out for not shooting, instead of the other way around, that it became OK. Evanthia has always been a shooter, but I think she just wanted to be accepted and comfortable with this group of players."
That might not seem like the profile of a hired gun, but Maltsi -- who will head to yet another new team when she goes to Valencia in Spain after the WNBA season -- scores points in order to log travel miles as much as the reverse is true. As a result, it's not hard for her to embrace a new situation and a new uniform, even if it's foreign in every sense.
"I want challenge in my life," Maltsi said. "I don't know if I can do it -- don't take a challenge. I need challenge, I need competition, and I need to try myself in different situations. I don't think it was hard for me to change. I think for me, it would be harder if, for example, I would stay in France [with Bourges] -- knowing the team, knowing what we're doing, knowing my teammates, knowing my coach.
"I want to move and change things, improve my game and have different pictures of life."
Right now, the picture from just beneath the scorer's table looks pretty good for both Maltsi and the Sun.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.