Shooting woes derail Sun
Simple as it sounds, Sun must focus on how to play better offensively
The word that always pops to mind about point guard Lindsay Whalen is "phlegmatic." Maybe such unflappability is sort of a Minnesota-native thing. It certainly serves you well those times you walk outside and it's 30 degrees in June.
You could imagine Whalen in an air-traffic control tower managing 20 planes at once, including a couple of emergency landings, and barely raising an eyebrow. You could picture her guest starring on "The Office" and deadpanning with the masters. You could envision her never getting picked for jury duty because neither side could get a read on her.
But you wouldn't have to see the frustration on Whalen's face these days to know she's feeling it. (Sometimes, though, you actually can see it just a bit.) Her Connecticut Sun are 5-6 and have lost three of their last four games. The most recent loss came at home Saturday, 79-77, against a struggling Detroit team.
The Sun are now in fifth place in the Eastern Conference standings -- although that fact, in and of itself, is nothing to be too stressed about for Connecticut. Other than the 9-2 Indiana Fever, the East is a logjam from the second through fifth places.
Connecticut doesn't have to be worried at present about falling out of the playoff race, because it's still right in the thick of that. But what's bothering the Sun players is that they don't just want to make the playoffs. Rather, they entered this season with reason to believe they could be a contender for the WNBA Finals again. And once there, that maybe they could do what they were unable to do in 2004 and '05: win the title.
Right now, though, the Sun have to be concerned simply with how to play better offensively, fiendishly simple as that sounds. The Sun will be host to another team that still has a lot to work out, the 4-7 Los Angeles Sparks, on Tuesday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET).
"It's a long season," Whalen said recently about the necessity of remaining even-keeled -- which, as noted, comes naturally to her anyway. "We're excited about getting better. All you can do in this league, with the amount of talent on all the teams, is to keep plugging away. Eventually, things will start working for you."
Those are platitudes, of course, with which one can play devil's advocate. The reality is, plugging away doesn't necessarily always lead to things "working." But in the case of Connecticut, it seems more likely to click eventually than it might with other teams.
That's because of Whalen's experience and the fact that coach Mike Thibault will keep fretting over his dry-erase board until he figures out how to improve Connecticut's offense.
The Sun have the worst field goal percentage in the league (38.1 percent), a number that would seem to go hand-in-hand with Whalen's lower-than-normal assist average and shooting percentage.
Whalen is currently at 3.9 dishes per game. Her lowest annual average in any of her previous five WNBA seasons was 4.6. It's not a precipitous plunge, but it's an indication that the Sun in 2009 are not getting the shots they want often enough.
Another number: Whalen is shooting 38.4 percent from the field. For her career, she's a 44.6 percent shooter. The past two seasons, Whalen has shot 46.8 and 46.1 percent from the field.
After the loss to Detroit on Saturday, Thibault called Connecticut's offense "scattered," which you can be sure is a particular term of contempt from him. Thibault's squads win when they do what he plans for them to do. The Sun have never been one of those "oh, a bunch of crazy stuff happened and so we won" kind of teams.
Forward Asjha Jones is averaging 16.3 points and 6.1 rebounds -- both team bests -- but she's carrying a bit too much of the load inside for the Sun, who are developing rookie center Chante Black.
Saturday, the Sun didn't have forward Tamika Whitmore, who sat out with a calf injury. Averaging 7.0 points and 3.0 rebounds so far this season, she's not having the kind of impact she had last year (12.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg). And she has started only one game.
On June 19, Thibault added guard Tan White, who had been released by Indiana, in hopes of getting an offensive injection. Another guard, Anete Jekabsone-Zogota, joined the Sun later in June, having played in the European championships for her native Latvia.
Thibault didn't make UConn fans happy by cutting former Huskies player Barbara Turner in order to make room for Jekabsone-Zogota, but Turner's shooting woes (21 percent) dictated his decision. However, through four games with the Sun, Jekabsone-Zogota is at 20 percent from the field.
White is averaging 9.3 points; Jekabsone-Zogota 2.8. It remains to be seen how much they will truly help Whalen in the backcourt over the course of this season.
Whalen was legitimately in the discussion for league MVP last year, with career-best averages in scoring (14.0), assists (5.4) and rebounds (5.6). She knows what Connecticut's offense is supposed to "feel" like -- and it's not feeling that way yet.
"We've got to figure it out," she said. "We've really let [defensive] pressure bother us. We can't look at what everyone else is doing; each night is a new challenge for us. No matter what team is up or down right now, you have to keep focused on yourself."
OK, so add "pragmatic" to "phlegmatic" to describe Whalen. They both fit.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.