- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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NEW YORK -- Katie Douglas isn't a player built for the laughs and circus moves of the All-Star Game. So she didn't bother trying to fit the mold on Wednesday night in Madison Square Garden.
With a game-high 16 points to earn MVP honors and help give the Eastern Conference a win for the first time in seven tries in a WNBA All-Star Game, Douglas matched her season scoring average for the Connecticut Sun. But as a player known for her defense and intensity, Douglas also far exceeded her season average for smiles on the court during a game that was an up-tempo showcase for one of the league's overlooked stars.
Early in the second half, with the Eastern Conference looking to extend a nine-point halftime lead, Douglas used a hesitation move to break free at the top of the key and drive through the lane. Nearing the basket, she hunched up her shoulders and propelled herself up toward the basket, looking for all the world like someone expecting to pay the price for daring to drive the lane. Instead, as is often the case in this midseason exhibition game, Douglas found herself converting an uncontested lay-up.
It was a regular-season reaction for a player making her first All-Star appearance. Then again, she really only knows one way to play.
Connecticut coach Mike Thibault, who ran things for the East, had seen it many times before, saying, "She did what she does every other night: get 16 points, five or six rebounds, four or five assists, a steal or two."
It was fitting that Douglas won the MVP award not by doing anything spectacular in the 98-82 win, as Houston's Michelle Snow did by dunking in the final seconds after the defense cleared out of the way, but by playing the kind of two-way basketball that helped the East put the game away early enough to allow for the late theatrics.
"Everybody's been talking about it, so we needed to give the media a new story kind of thing," Douglas said about the Western Conference's 6-0 record in All-Star Games entering Wednesday's game. "We just wanted to show we could compete with them. I think maybe they were a little surprised at our defensive effort or whatever, but we just wanted to come out and put on a good show."
And it was Douglas who helped set the tone, hitting back-to-back 3-pointers midway through the first quarter to erase an early lead for the West. Unable to put away the East early, the West eventually wilted under an unusual amount of defensive pressure for an All-Star Game.
"I don't know if they were ready for us to guard them so aggressively," Thibault said. "I mean we got after them a little bit. We rebounded and ran, and just kept running."
For Douglas, the focus on defense was made all the easier by sharing the court with three of her teammates on the Sun: Taj McWilliams-Franklin, Lindsay Whalen and Margo Dydek.
"I remember when TJ [McWilliams-Franklin] and I were on the defensive end," Douglas said after the game. "Out there, they were running pick-and-roll and re-picking, and it was me an TJ, and she's talking to me the whole time. And I just feel like it's a regular game. Me and TJ, I've been playing with her for six years, so that really stands out in my mind, the way we were able to communicate, recover and get back."
Defense and rebounding aren't typical themes in these games, just as they weren't attributes commonly associated with Douglas when she led Purdue to the Final Four in 2001 (defeating Jackie Stiles and Southwest Missouri State in the semifinals before eventually falling to Notre Dame in the title game). A pure scorer throughout her college career, Douglas reinvented herself after being drafted by the Orlando Miracle and eventually moving on to Connecticut when the franchise relocated in 2003.
"She gets to Connecticut, and she's a defender, which she wasn't much of in college," ESPN analyst Doris Burke said after Wednesday's game. "She learns angles, she understands positions, she's deceptively quick, and she gets a jump shot. She starts making open shots, so she carves out a little niche. Each and every year she adds a wrinkle, she gets more confidence."
Douglas was named to the WNBA All-Defensive Team after last season, but the old scorer in her never completely faded away. She's on pace to shatter her previous single-season best for points per game this season, all while continuing to check the opposition's best player every night.
"I think Katie just came in a lot more focused this year, also," Taj McWilliams-Franklin said after the game. "You know, you can only sit back so long and wait on your turn, wait on your turn, wait on your turn. At some point you have to go out and take it. And I think with our season, she's been going out and being more aggressive and more focused."
Even on the Sun, Douglas suffers from the shadow cast by her talented teammates. Despite being arguably the team's best player during the first half -- she leads the team in points, 3-pointers and steals -- she watched as fans voted Whalen, Dydek and Nykesha Sales into the starting lineup. But on Wednesday night, she stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
Having overcome much on the court and much more off the court -- she lost both parents to cancer before graduating from Purdue -- the All-Star Game hardware is unlikely to register as a life-changing event for Douglas.
Even on the court, her focus is more on winning three games in the WNBA Finals than one exhibition game in July. As Thibault said, "I think she'll tell you, just like anybody else, she'll trade it for September."
But by simply continuing to play her game in a setting where everyone couldn't help but notice, Douglas altered the landscape of stars in the WNBA.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.