- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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The Mystics host the Sun on Friday as their first-round series tips off. Connecticut won the regular-season series 2-1. A look at how they match up heading into the postseason:
Washington (18-16), East No. 4
WHAT'S WORKING? "Everything" could be the word that best answers that question. And that's because Mike Thibault's Sun personify "team concept" more than any other professional squad I can think of. They are extremely balanced, with four players averaging double digits, five All-Stars in the starting lineup and the best sixth player in the league.
Although they lost their last two games while resting some starters, the Sun are playing at an all-time high, winning 12 straight until Friday. Offensively, they can hurt you inside and out, ranking third in the league in points per game, but they play great defense, too. That seems to go largely unnoticed, which is surprising considering how well the Sun block or at least alter shots, rotate on defense, pick up charges, and get hands in the passing lanes.
Katie Douglas (above; AP Photo/Jessica Hill) leads the way and, after always having been a great complementary player, exploded with a season that was good enough to get my MVP vote. Thanks to Douglas' consistency on both sides of the ball, Connecticut was able to withstand a somewhat rough start for point guard Lindsay Whalen as she continued to come back from offseason surgery and Nykesha Sales' monthlong, 12-game absence with a sore Achilles tendon. Douglas, who was the All-Star MVP and is averaging more than five points more than last season (and 21 points vs. the Mystics this season), missed the Sun's last two games to rest and recuperate a recent calf injury.
Sales is back, and that in itself should be a huge confidence boost for the Sun, which didn't seem to have a hard time holding down the fort without her. But to finally break through and win that elusive WNBA title, Connecticut needs Sales on the court.
WHAT'S WORKING? Alana Beard (above, Mitchell Layton/NBAE via Getty Images), who has carried Washington to two postseason berths in her three WNBA seasons, already has established herself as one of the league's best players (she's an All-WNBA second-team selection in my eyes). And with Nikki Teasley and Coco Miller beside Beard, the Mystics have a solid backcourt and can be a nice, push-tempo team.
But when the fast break isn't there, they also are a very good half-court team. And quite frankly, coach Richie Adubato's many, many, many half-court sets -- which the Mystics run to perfection -- can make Washington very hard to scout. The Mystics also play very intelligently, understanding when to switch screens, when to attack and how to counter the opponent's traps.
And they can attack you from inside and out. Although Beard is the star on the team, averaging nearly 19 points a game, frontcourt mates DeLisha Milton-Jones (14 ppg) and Chasity Melvin (12.4 ppg) rank second and third, respectively, in scoring and give the Mystics smarts and versatility in the paint. Milton-Jones is a wily veteran who can do it all and contributes a lot of positive things that never show up on a stat sheet. Melvin, meanwhile, is no longer the "just take away her right shoulder" type of player she was in Cleveland. She has worked hard to improve her countermoves and conditioning, her ability to go left, and her passing out of the double-team.
In Washington's lone win over Connecticut this season, in fact, the key stat was the Mystics outscoring the Sun 48-34 in the paint, led by Melvin's 25 points on 11-for-17 shooting.
WHY THEY COULD WIN: In a blog last week on WNBA.com, Douglas said the winning streak was spurred by the Sun making some "minor adjustments in our offense." The team's keeping mum on the specifics, but part of the positive change can be traced to Taj McWilliams-Franklin increasing her presence. A year ago, she had an MVP-caliber performance. And although she has had a good season, a solid season this summer, it hasn't been on the same level -- until now.
With Sales sidelined, McWilliams-Franklin stepped up her game. Through her first 16 games of the season -- with Sales alongside her in the lineup -- McWilliams-Franklin was averaging 11.1 ppg. But since July 8 -- when Sales' absence started -- McWilliams-Franklin has increased her scoring average by about three points. And in the first eight games without Sales, McWilliams-Franklin produced five double-doubles, one more than she totaled in the first half of the season.
She is an incredibly smart and talented veteran, and for the Sun to finally win it all this season, McWilliams-Franklin needs to play on a Lisa Leslie or Tamika Catchings level.
WHY THEY COULD WIN:
Whereas the Sun try to fight the "always a bridesmaid, never a bride" stereotype that's the result of two straight but empty-handed trips to the WNBA Finals, there's no pressure on the East's No. 4 seed. And the 1-2 format gives the lower seed a great chance to steal a win at home to open the series. Plus, the Mystics are 13-4 at home this season and already have proved they're tough, withstanding injuries to Milton-Jones and Beard.
Still, Washington's chances to win this series rest squarely on Beard's shoulders. Connecticut has an unbelievable backcourt, and Beard is going to have to elevate her game a la Dwyane Wade.
The key will be how well and how often the Mystics can run and use their length and athleticism. Connecticut plays smart, great defense, but as anyone knows, it's hard to defend, let alone get your man-to-man defense set, when you're backpedaling. It's imperative that Washington rebound and attack the Sun before they are set and can identify the strong or weak side, and before 7-foot-2 Connecticut post Margo Dydek can get inside and change the Mystics' shots. Keep in mind, however, that the Sun rank second in the league in rebounding and the Mystics grab about five fewer boards per game and rank 11th.
X-FACTORS: The Mystics need to make a decision -- what should they give up to Connecticut? Because the Sun have such a great inside-outside presence, it's impossible to stop them. The Sun are very disciplined with their spacing principles, which, along with their immense talent, make them very difficult to double-team.
But you have to look to limit something, and Washington should play the percentages and force Connecticut to take the outside shot. With Asjha Jones, McWilliams-Franklin and Dydek combining for almost 34 points a game -- roughly 42 percent of Connecticut's offense -- you know the Sun are going to produce inside. And even though they average just more than five 3-pointers a game, keep in mind that Connecticut shoots just 35 percent from downtown.
Speaking of Jones, she has been such an integral part of Connecticut's success. She has started just two games but ranks fourth on the team with 11.5 ppg and could start on any other team in the league. Jones, who was the least-heralded player from UConn's 2002 class that also included Sue Bird, Swin Cash and Tamika Williams, has flourished as a pro and really benefited from two fantastic coaches in UConn's Geno Auriemma and now Thibault. Speaking of which, it'll be great to see Thibault and Adubato -- two of the best coaches in the league -- match wits in this series.
WHO WINS? Connecticut in two. Thibault laughs that I never pick the Sun, but they are my favorite this year, especially considering they have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
Can the Sun finally win it? They certainly always have had the talent, and if not for some unfortunate luck in the postseason -- one Sales miss in 2004 and an ill-timed injury and illness to Whalen last summer -- could even be going for a threepeat. Instead, they have to get over the mental hurdle of falling short two years in a row. But unlike the Mystics, who are young and have won just one playoff series (back in 2002), the Sun, 14-3 at home this season, have been in every series they ever have played and have a tremendous edge in experience heading into the playoffs.
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.