Don't stop believing in Sun yet
The fate of the Connecticut Sun, the WNBA's best team during the regular season, now rests on the definition of balance.
Katie Douglas, one of the frontrunners for league MVP, is doubtful for the remainder of the playoffs with a hairline fracture in her right foot. So the Sun will either survive by dispersing Douglas' time amongst all-star caliber teammates who each picked their times to shine for the league's most balanced team, or sink as they rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.
On Thursday in Auburn Hills, Mich., the Sun will begin to determine their fate without Douglas. They'll play the host Detroit Shock in Game 1 of the best-of-three Eastern Conference finals' series.
With less than a minute to play in Sunday's first-round clincher against Washington and host Connecticut looking to protect a dwindling lead, Douglas stole the ball and went in for a layup, drawing some contact but no foul. After coming down, she immediately felt something was wrong with her foot. After a timeout following the play, Douglas returned to the court but almost immediately went to the side and signaled that she couldn't continue.
"I just felt sharp pain; it just felt like I was immobile out there. I knew I needed to take myself out of the game," she said.
Monday's CT scan and MRI revealed the hairline fracture, confirming what so many felt was coming after seeing the usually stoic Douglas fight off emotion while talking about the timing of the injury. Douglas, a six-year veteran, was enjoying a breakout season.
Douglas led the Sun in scoring this season, posting the highest single-season average of any Connecticut player during the last three seasons, the last two of which ended with trips to the WNBA Finals. While it will have an effect everything the Sun do on offense, Douglas' absence likely will be most noticeable on the perimeter. Shooting 42 percent on high volume from behind the arc, Douglas was able to create space inside for Taj McWilliams-Franklin, Asjha Jones and Margo Dydek and bail out offensive possessions gone awry.
Both Lindsay Whalen, who shot well from outside in Game 1 against Washington but hit just eight 3-pointers in the regular season, and rookie Erin Phillips, who hit clutch 3-pointers in both wins against the Mystics, will have to try and fill the void.
When it comes to overall offensive presence, the burden for replacing Douglas falls most heavily on Nykesha Sales. The team's leading scorer last season, Sales is shooting just 1-for-17 thus far in the playoffs after missing a significant portion of the regular season with hip and Achilles injuries. On the plus side, the unflappable veteran is unlikely to suffer any anxiety attacks about an expanded offensive burden, but the athletic and aggressive Shock are arguably the last team a player hoping to break a shooting slump wants to face.
But for all the scrambling to replace Douglas' contributions on offense, the biggest challenge will be replacing her defense. The runner-up in voting for Defensive Player of the Year, Douglas allowed coach Mike Thibault to play the opposing team's best perimeter/wing player one-on-one without siphoning defenders away from other targets. Not only will Douglas' absence make things easier for Deanna Nolan, the trickle-down effect could reduce the effectiveness of Connecticut's post defense and put Dydek in harm's way of picking up cheap fouls on help defense.
And for all the detached analysis of who takes which shots and who plays who on defense, the final piece of the puzzle confronting Thibault is the mental side of things. The Sun advanced to the WNBA Finals last year with Whalen at less than 100 percent and posted a tremendous record this season with Sales out of the lineup for 12 games, but a 500-pound straw goes a long way toward breaking any camel's back.
It's not time to write a basketball obituary for the Sun. Sales and McWilliams-Franklin were MVP candidates in their own right the last two seasons, and the starting lineup will still feature four All-Stars and either Phillips or Asjha Jones. Also, Thibault has been the league's best coach far longer than his first Coach of the Year award might indicate.
In sweeping Detroit in the first round last year, the Sun won by an average of 11.5 points and Douglas wasn't the leading or second-leading scorer in either game. The Shock are unquestionably better now than they were in that series, and the Sun are unquestionably weaker without Douglas. But it's still going to be a series.
Losing Douglas dims the Sun, but they won't make it easy for the Shock to extinguish them.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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