As playoffs open, here come the Sun
UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- As children we learn that if at first you don't succeed, just try, try again.
Of course, purposeful perseverance is easy to applaud when it involves learning to ride a bike or hit a free throw. As adults, dogged determination in the face of constant setbacks eventually becomes less a charming story and more a potential punch line. As nice as it would be to live by the words of Grantland Rice, it appears it really does matter to us if you win or lose, no matter how you play in all but the final game. Just ask the Buffalo Bills.
Fresh off a regular season in which they systematically overwhelmed would-be challengers and claimed the league's best record for the second year in a row, the Connecticut Sun are atop of the basketball world in many ways. But after back-to-back losses in the WNBA Finals, against Seattle in 2004 and Sacramento in 2005, the Sun also are perched precariously on the precipice of a shift in perception.
Fair or not, a team which has done amazing things on the court over the course of the last two regular seasons enters the postseason facing an audience that boasts a thick coat of skepticism under a thin veneer of respect.
So forgive the Sun if they get a little defensive when beginning this year's playoff run on Friday in Washington. Because when it comes right down to it, getting defensive might be the team's best way to silence doubters.
As the All-Star Game approached in July, the then semi-distant final week of the regular season in the Eastern Conference resembled a drama festival worthy of a reparatory theater. Loaded with games between top contenders Connecticut, Detroit and Indiana, the final week seemed certain to be a showdown for homecourt advantage. And it was far from clear that the Sun were the favorites to win that race.
After losing at home to Detroit on the final day of June (clinching the season series for the Shock), the Sun were 11-5. A week later, they played their final game before the break without Nykesha Sales, the first of 12 games in a row that the team's leading scorer last season, and a player who had never missed a game in her career, would sit out.
So how is it that having been dealt hole cards that would have even seasoned poker pros wary of bluffing, the Sun followed up that loss to Detroit with a 15-1 run that buried their Eastern Conference challengers and turned the final week of the regular season into nothing more than a battle for homecourt advantage in the first round between the Shock and Fever?
In an answer that would make Occam proud, they simply played better basketball than anyone else.
The Sun might not be the league's most potent offense (although a case could be made). They might not be the stingiest defense (although, again, a case could be made). But what the team's record and the statistics behind it prove is that, as was the case last season, no team is better at playing both ends of the court than the Sun under perennially underrated coach Mike Thibault.
That's the case even if the defensive excellence is sometimes overshadowed by the offensive output.
Coach Mike Thibault's Sun best 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.
In a blog last week on WNBA.com, the team's leading scorer, Katie Douglas, said Connecticut's recent 12-game 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 taking on a larger presence while Nykesha Sales was sidelined with an injury.
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"We have an inside-outside ability on both ends of the floor, if that makes any sense," summed up assistant coach Scott Hawk. "We have some players who are defensively versatile -- people talk a lot about offensive versatility, people that can step out and shoot or post up, but on the other end of the floor, we've got people that can step up and guard people on the floor and guard post-up players."
Added Thibault: "I think on the defensive end, you have two players in Taj [McWilliams-Franklin] and Katie Douglas who are among the 10 best defensive players in the league. That's a good start, because you've got one perimeter one and one post one, and you can go sick them on anybody."
Entering the final game of the regular season against Detroit, three teams allowed fewer points per game than the Sun: Indiana, Detroit and Sacramento. But only the Shock held opponents to a worse shooting percentage. The Fever and Monarchs, who play at a slower pace than the Sun on offense, weren't even all that close in field-goal defense.
It's the same story on offense, where again, three teams shoot the ball at a better percentage than the Sun: Washington, Seattle and Phoenix. But not one of those teams is within two percentage points of Connecticut's 39.8 percent field-goal defense.
When it comes to field-goal differential, the difference between what a team shoots and what it allows opponents to shoot, nobody is in Connecticut's league. Just like last year.
Coming out of the All-Star Game, the Sun ranked just fourth in field-goal differential behind Los Angeles, Houston and Seattle. But by improving on both ends of the court -- raising their own field-goal percentage from 43.6 percent to 44.5 percent and lowering their field-goal defense from 40.4 to 39.8 -- the Sun regained the form that saw them lead the league in field-goal differential last season.
"On the offensive end, it's because we have a bunch of people who can make open shots and are willing to pass," Thibault said. "We don't have a ton of great one-on-one players, but they know how to get each other open or make the extra pass, one more dribble and pass to swing the ball."
But it's on defense where that five-as-one theory really plays out. Steals and blocks are the flashy stats associated with defense, like errors and assists in baseball, but they don't paint a complete picture. While 7-foot-2 center Margo Dydek ensures the Sun get plenty of blocks, they rank a modest eighth in steals and 10th in total turnovers forced.
"We don't sell out for turnovers," Hawk said. "And teams that do, teams that want to create high numbers of turnovers, have very good reasons for doing that. Obviously, we try to get some, we try to force some, we try to create situations where we get some, but that's not the basis of what we do."
For Connecticut, defense is about making it difficult for opponents to do anything with the ball, no matter how long they have it, and making sure one possession equals one shot.
"We make people shoot over us," Hawk continued, alluding to the length the Sun have at almost every position. "One, you don't get yourself so extended off the defensive boards. It keeps your defensive rebounding percentage fairly high. You can say we're not going to create a lot of turnovers. Well, then the other team is going to get more shots. You say you're going to create a lot of turnovers, you're going to get fewer shots, but they're going to be higher-percentage shots and you're going to get some offensive rebounds.
"The long length across the court, we can stay in pretty good rebounding position. And most nights, that's a pretty good deal for us."
The Sun ranked second in the league in rebounds per game, and while that's a number that is slightly inflated by the large number of shots they typically take and allow, they also rank third in defensive rebounding percentage.
It's truly a total team effort, and Thibault is quick to credit the constant work of strength and conditioning coach Lisa Ciaravella as an overlooked factor in keeping the team in the kind of shape to play both ends of the court with such intensity.
All of this is not to say the Sun enter the playoffs without issues. With nothing on the line in the final two games, the Sun took advantage of an opportunity to rest Douglas (sore calf) twice and point guard Lindsay Whalen once. But that also means Douglas, Whalen and Sales -- who returned for the final four games and played well -- won't have started in a game together since July 6 against Charlotte.
On the positive side, all those missed games not only provided some rest for the team's stars but gave rookie Erin Phillips, as well as second-year guard Jamie Carey, a chance to earn regular minutes. Although at times drawing Thibault's ire for playing with overly reckless abandon, Phillips scored in double figures three times while Sales was out and is shooting 38 percent from behind the arc and averaging 2.9 assists since July 15.
Not having a proven option behind Whalen in last year's postseason, even before she was forced to shut it down for good in the WNBA Finals, made her ankle injury that much more debilitating for the team.
"We have three point guards -- Megan Mahoney can guard the point guard -- so we actually have four people that can guard point guards, which is a tremendous advantage," Hawk said of this year's roster. "Obviously things start out front, and the ability to do that gives us some options.
"So maybe we're a little more versatile, a little deeper then we were a year ago defensively overall, that'd probably be the biggest improvement."
Injuries and turnovers -- and much of the credit for the latter must go to the opponent -- derailed the Sun against the Monarchs in last year's WNBA Finals. But with the league's most balanced attack again firing on all cylinders (no matter the result of the team's final two meaningless regular-season games) and a deeper bench providing consistent defense, the Sun are built for the five-game format of the final round.
Charm or curse? For the future of the Sun, a third consecutive run at a championship will prove to be one or the other.Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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