- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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New York Liberty (20-17), East No. 2
What's working: "Everything" might be the most accurate answer. The Sun are playing fantastic basketball. They are tremendous passers who can find the shooter, were tremendous on the perimeter in the first round and continue to run the floor better than most.
This isn't a team of one or two stars. Instead, every player, from the point guard to the post, can score and move the ball well, and that sort of balance in the starting lineup is what makes Connecticut so good.
The Sun's ability to score in the halfcourt and in transition is one of the team's best strengths. Part of that success can be attributed to how well Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Wendy Palmer run the floor. They give the Sun a lot of versatility; McWilliams-Franklin can put the ball on the floor, while Palmer can hit the 3 and be effective trailing the break. They beat the opponent to the other end of the floor at every opportunity, and the Sun reward their posts with easy layups.
Tactically, the Sun had a lot of success off the screen roll against Washington, and Lindsay Whalen was awesome attacking off of it. Washington thought it was quick enough to go under the screen and meet Whalen in the lane, but she was gone by the time the Mystics' defender arrived. That allowed Whalen to penetrate inside, where she was either fouled -- after attempting just 57 free throws in the entire regular season, Whalen went 28-for-30 at the line in the first round -- or dished the ball to a teammate on the perimeter after the defense collapsed on her.
Defensively, the Sun look to take away your strength. Against Washington, for example, Connecticut doubled with its opposite post. At times that left the Mystics' 4 wide open, but it also forced Washington's forward to try and initiate the Mystics' offense. The Sun force you to play away from your best ballhandlers, and since that usually has the opponent scrambling, trying to find the open player, it also typically chews eight to 10 seconds off the clock.
As illustrated by Whalen's stats, the Sun have been extremely successful getting to the line, going 56-for-68 in the first round and shooting nearly 9 percentage points higher than in the regular season (from .736 to .824).
After averaging 17.4 free-throw attempts prior to the playoffs, Connecticut went to the line 22.7 times per game in the first round.
What's working: The Liberty rely on the 3-point shot more than any other team left in the playoffs, and went 29-for-74 from downtown in the first round. None of the three other teams in the conference finals attempted more than 41 3-pointers, and only one team, Connecticut (15-for-36), made at least half as many treys.
When New York's knocking down shots from beyond the arc, the Liberty are very tough to beat, as last season's WNBA champion, Detroit, discovered in the first round. In Game 3, New York went 10-for-29 from downtown, hitting seven 3s in the second half.
But for as much as New York earned its fifth trip to the conference finals, it's tough to overlook the fact that the Shock almost eliminated the Liberty, and might have if not for missed foul shots and poor clock management. And for as much as New York depends on the 3-ball, the team's resiliency might be its most impressive trait. The Liberty trailed by 15 points early in the second half, but remained calm and rallied for the win, getting clutch shots from several players down the stretch -- including three treys from Crystal Robinson in the final 5½ minutes.
The Liberty never quit, and that's a direct reflection of Carol Blazejowski. The franchise's vice president and general manager is a fierce competitor, and has helped put together a team that is extremely mentally tough and will take advantage of the smallest opportunity. Detroit gave it to them, and the Liberty pounced on the chance.
Becky Hammon (above) has carried the bulk of New York's scoring load this season, leading the Liberty with a 13.5 average into the playoffs. And while Hammon's numbers are up slightly to 14 points per game, Robinson has been on a tear. She averaged 12.1 points in the regular season on 43.7 percent accuracy from the field, but averaged 14.7 points and shot 53.1 percent in the first round.
Despite some diminished stats, Vickie Johnson remains New York's unsung hero. Yes, she averaged 6.3 points in the opening round of the playoffs after a 9.4 average in the regular season, but her reduced productivity is the result of playing with an injured elbow, which many people don't know about.
And lastly, adding La'Keshia Frett turned out to be another seemingly brilliant move for Blazejowski. Frett averaged 4.5 points in the regular season, but netted 10.7 points per game against Detroit. And her veteran presence continues to pay off, too.
The Liberty head into the Eastern Conference finals shooting 4 percent better from beyond the arc in the playoffs (39.2 percent) than in the regular season (35 percent).
What needs work: After shooting 43.2 percent from the field in the regular season and averaging a team-high 15.2 points, Nykesha Sales (above) shot 34.3 percent and averaged 11.7 ppg in the postseason. That's not to say Sales wasn't effective in the first round, but stars need to play like stars and produce star-like stats in the postseason.
The same could be said for Katie Douglas, who scored four fewer points per game in the first round (6.7) than she did in the regular season (10.7). Still, both players' presence on the court remain very important. Douglas isn't the best one-on-one defender, but she's smart and reads the angles to be a great position defender. She's also a good passer.
What needs work: To win, New York must get back on defense and limit Connecticut's transition baskets.
New York must also do a better job defending the screen roll than Washington did. Whalen really exposed that mismatch, and the Mystics failed to keep Whalen out of the paint. Until you play her, you don't realize how quick Whalen is, or how well she can change direction in the halfcourt coming off the screen. But the Liberty must trap Whalen on the screen roll and get the ball out of her hands.
New York has to get on the boards, too. The Liberty grabbed just 27 rebounds per game against Detroit.
X-factor: While Connecticut must hit its shots in the halfcourt, the Sun also must focus on Crystal Robinson defensively. She burned Detroit twice for clutch 3-pointers on the exact same play in the second half of Game 3, and the scouting report will likely direct the Liberty to force Robinson to go left. She's an unbelievable shooter going right, and Connecticut needs to trap her on that dribble-handoff weave.
Also, while the Sun rely heavily on their starters, the reserves must continue to come up big. Asjha Jones, who averaged 6.9 points in the regular season, averaged 10.7 points in the first round. And backup point guard Debbie Black can be a big defensive boost off the bench. Connecticut can completely change its defensive tempo because of her aggressive style. Lastly, Jessica Brungo and Le'Coe Wilingham played well in spurts when they were brought in.
X-factor: New York must win at home in the series opener. Connecticut came out with such a different energy level on its home court in the first round that the Liberty must take advantage of opening at Madison Square Garden. You don't want to go into the Mohegan Sun down 0-1.
Also, New York must find a way to contain the Sun's inside game. The Liberty just don't match up well against the more-experienced Palmer and McWilliams-Franklin.
Of course, New York didn't match up well with Detroit's power posts, either. And nobody expected Bethany Donaphin to net the key basket that would carry the Liberty to the East finals.
Whalen vs. Hammon: This is the key matchup of the game. Both Whalen, right, and Hammon, far right, are great passers and shooters, incredibly smart and ultra competitive basketball players. And regardless of who winds up with the edge in this matchup, it should be a great one.
Whalen is the more natural point guard and flashy passer, but Hammon has more experience. Whalen is stronger to the basket, but Hammon has deeper range on her shot. Both players have already put on shows in the playoffs. Whalen was incredible in the first round, going to the line 30 times, while Hammon led New York with 20 points in the pivotal Game 3 win over Detroit, and made the assist on Donaphin's winning jumper with 0.5 seconds left. It was a tough pass, and not every guard would've found her -- or been willing to give up the ball.
In the regular season: They split the season series 2-2, with three of the games being played over a 14-day span in September. Friday's Game 1, however, will mark Connecticut's first trip to MSG this season, since both of New York's home games against the Sun were played at Radio City Music Hall. The first three meetings were decided by at least 11 points, but the Liberty squeaked out a 3-point win in the last matchup on Sept. 17.
Bottom line: This series will play out much like the East's regular-season race: Anybody can win. The Eastern Conference finals are wide open. If New York hits its 3s consistently, the Liberty will likely win. But if the Sun start hitting a lot of transition baskets, Connecticut could be hard to stop. The Sun have a slight rebounding edge over the Liberty, but neither team is known as a great rebounding squad.
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.
13dBonnie D. Ford