Sun balance, rebounding and Riley are keys in series

Updated: August 23, 2006, 8:16 PM ET
By Nancy Lieberman | Special to ESPN.com

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If Connecticut is going to reach the WNBA Finals for a third consecutive season, the Sun will need to do something they haven't been able to accomplish since Sept. 2, 2005: beat the Shock.

Detroit went 3-0 against Connecticut in the regular season (though the Sun sat two starters in the meaningless third meeting) and was the only team to beat the Sun more than once.

Making the odds even tougher for the East's top seed, Connecticut will face Detroit without Katie Douglas. The MVP candidate, leading scorer and defensive stalwart was likely lost for the rest of the playoffs after tests Monday revealed a non-displaced hairline fracture in her right foot, which she suffered Sunday in the final minute of the Sun's series-clinching victory over Washington.

Connecticut entered the postseason as the prohibitive favorite, and despite Douglas' injury, there's every reason to believe the Sun can still win it all this season. Connecticut is one of two teams (the other being Sacramento) that just might be able to sustain such a significant loss because the Sun have such incredible depth and balance and are the epitome of team.

A look at how the teams match up heading into Thursday's Game 1:

(1) CONNECTICUT VS. (2) DETROIT
Connecticut (2-0), East No. 1
SUN PLAYOFF STATS
PPG OPP FG 3FG FT REB
72.0 63.0 37.9 24.4 62.2 43.0
Detroit (2-0), East No. 2
SHOCK PLAYOFF STATS
PPG OPP FG 3FG FT REB
83.0 69.5 46.2 33.3 67.9 38.0
BACKCOURT: Douglas' injury drastically changes this matchup at both ends of the floor. Douglas (16.5 ppg, 2.5 apg, 1.5 spg in playoffs) is one of the top defenders in the league and helped hold Detroit's Deanna Nolan in check in their first two meetings this season. The Shock guard netted six points in the first game and 11 in the second meeting (despite playing all 40 minutes). It wasn't until the third contest -- which Douglas sat out to rest a sore calf -- that Nolan finally broke free for a game-high 19 points. Nolan, who is incredible in the open court and one of the league's most athletic players, attempted only one 3-pointer in that game and slashed her way inside to hit 9-of-12 field goals.

Nolan (right) will look to do it again, this time most likely against the Sun's Nykesha Sales (pictured above, left; Mitchell Layton/Getty Images), who is a solid, strong and physical defender but not on the same level as Douglas. That said, Sales is a gamer and one of the league's most determined players. And even though she has shot horribly, hitting only 1-of-17 shots from the field in two playoff games as her scoring dipped from 13 ppg in the regular season to 3.0, Sales has remained a factor in the postseason. She ranks second on the team in rebounds (8.0) and first in assists (4.0) and steals (2.5). Sales is the type of player who never can be judged solely on her scoring.

But now, Sales, as well as starting point guard Lindsay Whalen and backup Erin Phillips, must play at a higher level. Whalen -- who scored just six points and shot 13 percent from the field in two games vs. the Shock -- can no longer afford to go a half without scoring, and first-year guard Phillips no longer has the luxury of coming off the bench to fill minutes. Now that she'll see extended time, Phillips must transform from role player to difference-maker.

Though neither Phillips nor Whalen (right) should be expected to guard Nolan, their biggest contribution to helping the Sun overcome Douglas' absence will be to play aggressive on offense. This series will be over in a hurry if Connecticut cannot get transition baskets, and while Douglas (4.5 rpg in postseason) didn't have a huge impact on the Sun's rebounding, which of course fuels Connecticut's ability to rebound and run, she was often the first player on the receiving end of the outlet pass. And it was often Douglas who looked downcourt and delivered the ball to Taj McWilliams-Franklin or Asjha Jones for fastbreak points. Douglas -- who's versatile enough to be the primary ballhandler or a wing who can slash and pull up for the 3-pointer -- never got enough credit for her efficient passing.

Next to Nolan in the Shock backcourt is the ever-impressive Katie Smith (pictured above, right; Allen Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images). No box score or stat sheet will ever sum up everything that Smith brings to the court night after night. She has excelled at every level, professionally and internationally, in college and in the Olympics. It's no secret neither Smith nor Nolan are true point guards, but Smith's leadership makes it work. They combined to average 29.5 ppg in the first round, up four points from their collective regular-season effort.

Nolan, meanwhile, is playing with a tremendous amount of confidence and is really punishing the opponent in transition. She's being more aggressive, and as a result, her playoff averages are substantially higher than the regular season. She's shooting 56.5 percent (up from 40.5 percent) the past two games, and her scoring (up 2.2 points to 16 ppg), assists (up 1.4 to 5.0 apg) and steals (2.0 per game) have all improved, as well.

ADVANTAGE: Detroit. The Shock's guards are more experienced and playing at a higher level right now. If Smith and Nolan can continue to combine for 25 or 26 points a game, which inevitably will open up the paint and prevent the Sun from double-teaming Cheryl Ford, Detroit will be in good shape.
FRONTCOURT: McWilliams-Franklin, Margo Dydek and Jones combined to average 33.3 ppg in the regular season, which was about 42 percent of Connecticut's offense. And they will be tough for Detroit to match up with.

McWilliams-Franklin (right) is as smart a player as you will find in the WNBA. The savvy veteran is especially good at reading how she's being guarded and then adjusting her attack. She's also very consistent, with 12 double-doubles in the regular season and two more in the playoffs.

The Sun's two-headed post, then, becomes the bigger factor. Dydek and Jones must continue to be productive. Because of their two very different styles, their presence alone can trouble defenses. Dydek, who's 7 feet, 2 inches, is a giant in the paint, always changing shots with her wing span, while Jones is very athletic with a nice face-up game from 15 feet and in.

At the other end, Ford is even more consistent than McWilliams-Franklin and was the only player in the league to average a double-double in the regular season. She also grabbed 16 offensive boards vs. Connecticut in the regular season. Through the first round, Ford leads the Shock in scoring (17 ppg) and rebounds (10 rpg) while shooting 56 percent from the field.

The one criticism for Detroit's frontcourt is that it sometimes seems like Ford (right) is out there by herself. That's not to say Shock center Ruth Riley isn't still one of the best posts in the league. But this season, Riley hasn't been tremendously consistent. After averaging almost 10 points through May and June, Riley has had only one double-digit scoring night since, and it occurred July 9, right before the All-Star break.

Riley, though, could be the key to this series as Detroit takes on a bigger frontcourt in Connecticut. You can't count on second-year player Kara Braxton (4.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg in the regular season). The 6-6 center is very talented, but also very inconsistent; sometimes she's brilliant and sometimes she's average. But Riley -- who has scored four points against the Sun in each of their previous meetings this season -- is a proven star, leading Notre Dame to the NCAA title in 2001 and earning WNBA Finals MVP accolades when Detroit won the 2003 crown. She hit some big shots at the end of Game 2 Saturday, but in this series, she can't wait until the game is nearly over to deliver.

Defensively, the Shock should look to keep Dydek away from the basket. She tends to stray away from it anyhow, and she can't rebound if she's not in the paint. To stop Jones, the Shock must pressure her and make Jones shoot on the move. If you let her get her feet set, she'll knock down shots all day.

ADVANTAGE: Connecticut. The Sun are more experienced and more consistent. And Jones also gives Connecticut the edge in post depth. She could start anywhere else in this league.
X-FACTORS: Connecticut easily has the edge in depth, so let's just skip ahead to what might be the deciding factor in the series.

Though poor 3-point shooting (27.1 percent, or 13-for-48) has hindered the Sun in the series, Detroit's ability to dominate the glass is probably the biggest X-factor.

Connecticut ranked third this season in scoring, and the way to stop a potent offense is to limit its possessions and take away its second-chance points. Nobody's better on the offensive glass than Detroit, and that will limit the Sun's putbacks. At the other end, it will take away their ability to rebound and run. For as well-balanced as Connecticut is -- six players averaged at least 9.0 points in the regular season -- the Sun do struggle when you force them into being a half-court basketball team.

And that's where that aforementioned shooting from downtown really digs in to hurt, though Connecticut's regular-season 3-point average was slightly better at 34 percent.

In their three meetings this season, Detroit notched a plus-10 rebounding margin over Connecticut, grabbing 17 more boards than the Sun (50-33) in the first game back in May.

But the Sun's inability to beat the Shock isn't new. Dating back over the past four regular seasons, including Detroit's run to the 2003 title, the Shock are 11-4 vs. the Sun. And while holding a slight edge in points per game (75.1 to 68.9) and field-goal accuracy (42.6 percent to 37.2 percent) in the series, Detroit also averaged 40.8 rpg to Connecticut's 33.7
WHO WINS? Though I'm starting to waver a bit, I'm sticking with Connecticut, which I picked to win it all before the playoffs started. That said, I think the Sun really need to play near-perfect basketball to overcome the loss of Douglas. But with their balance, depth and experience, and the fact they reacted so well (11-1) when Sales had to miss 12 games with an injury earlier this season, I think the Sun can dig in their heels and win the series in three games.

However, if Detroit wins Game 1 at home, the Sun just might get swept. Detroit is the most emotional team in the league, and when the Shock are bursting with confidence, they are hard to stop. Detroit truly is a team that lets its emotions get the best of it. Sometimes that means the Shock play brilliantly and blow you out. Other times, they self-implode. For Detroit, it's often not about what the other team is doing right or wrong, but about what's going on with the Shock's emotions.

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.

Nancy Lieberman

Basketball analyst / Writer
Nancy Lieberman, one of the most recognized individuals in women's basketball, is a men's and women's basketball analyst for ESPN. She works on ESPN and ESPN2's coverage of men's and women's college basketball, plus the WNBA and writes for ESPN.com.