- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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Detroit (16-18), East No. 4
WHAT'S WORKING: The Sun's starters are hard to stop and combine for 82 percent of the team's 72.8 points per game, which ranks second in the league. But Connecticut ranks first in field-goal percentage (45.2) and assists per game (16.9). This season, they've also gone back and forth with Sacramento for the No. 1 field-goal percentage defense (39.8) and 3-point percentage defense (30.5).
Balance and unselfishness are the keys, both in rebounding and scoring. Nykesha Sales (above) leads the way with 15.6 points, followed by MVP candidate Taj McWilliams-Franklin's 13.9, Lindsay Whalen's 12.1 and Katie Douglas' 11.0. McWilliams-Franklin, one of four Sun players who were All-Stars this season -- and remember that point guard Whalen got snubbed -- is the top rebounder at 7.3 boards per game. Margo Dydek, a 7-foot-2 center, adds 7.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks.
Connecticut, which averages just 13.3 turnovers, plays man-on-man about 70 percent of the time.
WHAT'S WORKING: The Shock have incredible depth, going eight deep. They also have arguably the most potent frontcourt in the league, and though Ruth Riley and Cheryl Ford start inside, their reserves, Kara Braxton and Plenette Pierson, are good enough to start on many teams. Same goes for Elaine Powell, who comes off the bench in Detroit's backcourt.
The Shock are particularly relentless on the boards, where they rank first in the league with almost 36 rebounds per game, which is 3.1 more than the next-best team. Their 4.6 blocks rank third, and they've gone back and forth all season with the Sun for the top field-goal percentage defense (40.3 percent).
Deanna Nolan (above) leads the Shock in scoring at 15.9 points per game, followed by 9.5 scoring averages from Cheryl Ford and Katie Smith. Ford leads the league with 9.8 rebounds per game.
The Shock got plenty of rest Saturday, as Nolan, Riley and Cash didn't play, and Smith was on the floor for just seven minutes.
X-FACTOR: The Sun rank second in the league in rebounding, but that still equates to 3.1 fewer boards than Detroit averages. Connecticut's guards, in particular, must do a better job getting mid-range rebounds. Rather than turning to run up the floor when a shot goes up, the Sun guards need to look to block the Shock players out, perhaps even stepping in to box out a post but also looking for the steal or to initiate contact. That can help take away Detroit's rebounding edge, or at the very least, limit the Shock's bread and butter of rebounding and running. Cutting down on transition baskets and making Detroit a half-court shooting team are crucial.
Detroit's speed and tough defense are other key areas of concern for Connecticut. The Sun need to remember to play more with the pass than the dribble. Every time they put the ball on the floor, it gives Detroit's players a chance to gain some ground. But it's much tougher to catch up to ball when it's in flight.
And lastly, the Sun haven't played against the Shock since Detroit added Katie Smith -- the all-time leading scorer in U.S. women's professional basketball -- to its lineup.
X-FACTOR: Sun point guard Lindsay Whalen ranks third in the league in assists (5.1), averages 12.1 points and shoots 46 percent from the field. She's extremely good at penetrating inside into the heart of the defense and finishing at the rim. Against Detroit, however, she hit just 5 of 28 attempts (17.9 percent) and dished out 18 assists (4.5 average) but also turned the ball over 11 times.
The Shock must continue to make life hard for Whalen on every possession. If they don't trap her off the screen roll, expect Detroit to go under all screens. And when she tries to get in the lane, the Shock will look to collapse on her.
Braxton is another player to keep an eye on. Though she has started just one game this season, she averages 6.9 points and 3.0 rebounds in just 13.8 minutes per game. Efficient? You bet. She ranks No. 1 in the league in field goals per 40 minutes (8.5) and third in points per 40 minutes (20.0). She's the type of player who can come off the bench and score 10 points in 10 minutes.
SEASON SERIES: Connecticut only lost eight games in the regular season, but three of them came against Detroit. In the series, the Shock held Connecticut to 65.8 points -- almost seven fewer than their regular-season average -- and sported a plus-9.5 rebounding advantage and 9.7-point average margin of victory.
The Sun, which won their second meeting back on June 18 at home, shot horribly in the series, hitting just 35 percent (85-for-242) from the field and 29 percent (15-for-51) from beyond the arc. Connecticut shoots 45.1 percent from the floor and about 35 percent from downtown. In the most recent matchup, on July 30, the Sun sank just 16 field goals as they lost their second straight to Detroit.
Though Connecticut's win over the Mystics on Friday helped Detroit clinch the East's final playoff spot, the two teams are hardly friendly, despite several UConn grads on both rosters. Detroit's 66-57 victory on July 20 included a heated exchange of words between coaches Mike Thibault and Bill Laimbeer, and Whalen was whistled for a flagrant foul on Nolan in the closing seconds. Nolan made 1-of-2 free throws, and on the ensuing possession she drained a 3-pointer instead of dribbling out the clock.
BOTTOM LINE:Despite Detroit's regular-season dominance of Connecticut, and the Shock's depth, the Sun have to be considered the favorite. They have been much more consistent, racking up more wins than anybody else to earn home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
But the 1-3 mark against the Shock is also deceiving. For starters, you can't forget that the Shock had plenty of motivation heading into their final regular-season matchup. Detroit was coming off a 40-point blowout -- and scored just 51 points -- to lose its fourth straight road game in Sacramento on July 24. Therefore, it wasn't entirely surprising to see the Shock come out firing in their July 30 win over the Sun. One of the Sun's other losses to Detroit came three months ago in the season opener for both teams, a game in which anything can happen. And lastly, the July 20 loss at Detroit was Connecticut's third road game in a 67-hour span. We're not making excuses for the Sun, but there were extenuating factors in at least two of those losses that shouldn't be overlooked.
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.
The Shock beat the Sun three times this season. So why is ESPN's analyst picking Connecticut to win in the first round?