Often inconsistent Dydek stands tall in Sun win
UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- At 7 feet, 2 inches, Margo Dydek always stands out. She appeared on "The Tonight Show" soon after being the No. 1 pick in the 1998 WNBA draft, an honor few of the league's stars have received at any point in their careers, and probably draws as many double-takes from fans as Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings and Lisa Leslie put together.
In a league full of 6-foot-2 post players -- Dydek is a foot taller than the next-tallest player on Connecticut's roster -- she is simply impossible to miss. And perhaps that has made Dydek's occasionally roller-coaster production that much more noticeable throughout her career.
"At 7-foot-2 and highly skilled, Margo Dydek should be, and hasn't always been, a force on both sides of the basketball," ESPN analyst Doris Burke said after calling Saturday's game.
Until Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, opposing teams had rarely needed to give Dydek a second glance in the postseason during her two years with the Connecticut Sun. But with Dydek standing tall in a pivotal playoff game, even one in which she played less than one minute in the final quarter, the Sun lived to fight another day.
To be clear, Dydek scoring 17 points wasn't the sole reason the Sun pulled out a 77-68 win to force Sunday's deciding game.
Neither was Lindsay Whalen driving into traffic and somehow fitting the ball between Detroit's big bodies for a pass that Taj McWilliams-Franklin converted into a layup and a five-point lead with 30.9 seconds remaining.
And it wasn't Katie Douglas, playing 29 inspired minutes with a hairline fracture in her right foot and hitting an important 3-pointer in the third quarter, or Nykesha Sales breaking out of a horrendous shooting slump long enough to get the Sun off to a strong start, or even rookie Erin Phillips hitting the second-half clutch 3-pointer that is quickly becoming as much her signature as her Australian accent.
The Sun won Saturday's game because all of those things happened. They won by being the most balanced team on the court and spreading the offense around, something that was true throughout the regular season but noticeably questionable throughout much of their first three playoff games (including two wins against Washington).
"I'm just proud of how we bounced back and finally made some shots and relaxed a little bit," coach Mike Thibault said after the win.
What made Dydek's contribution special was that it was arguably the first time since she arrived in Connecticut that she was truly a leading part of that balance in a playoff game.
During last year's run to the WNBA Finals, she averaged just 4.5 points in eight games, reaching double figures only once and scoring a total of 11 points in four games against the Monarchs in the WNBA Finals. She did lead the team in blocks with 13, but she was an inconsistent factor at best, playing almost half the minutes of the other four starters and nearly five minutes a game less than reserve Asjha Jones.
An All-Star this season for the Sun, Dydek had already started improving on those numbers but had yet to match her best regular-season performances. She scored 12 points in the first game against Washington on 6-of-8 shooting and added 11 rebounds despite struggling with her shooting in the second game. But after a brief glimpse of that form in the opening minutes of the opening game against Detroit, Dydek faded while Cheryl Ford made the post her own private domain.
But with Game 2 still hanging in the balance as the Sun looked to protect a nascent lead in the third quarter, Dydek took over. She scored nine points in the quarter, hitting three field goals and three free throws for the final nine of her 17 points in the game. Whether catching a lob from Douglas and keeping the ball high for a quick layup or driving to the basket for a nice off-the-dribble bucket, Dydek had everything working.
"She was doing some Manu Ginobili -- that's what I like to call her when she starts putting the ball on the floor," Douglas said after the game.
More than just the points, Dydek playing such an assertive role on offense put Detroit's highly touted frontline on its heels. Like Rik Smits, the former Indiana Pacers center, Dydek has the ability to use her size in a unique way, shooting unobstructed mid-range jumpers over defenders and luring them away from their comfort zone and rebounding position in the post.
"Detroit's best attribute, other than great guard play, is that imposing frontline," Burke said. "They dominate, they've been the most dominant rebounding team since Bill Laimbeer got here. So the fact that maybe you draw one of those post players away from the rim, and that allows you a little bit more freedom to work one-on-one trying for rebounding positioning? I think that's huge value, huge."
For Dydek, thrust into the position of franchise savior in Utah based on her draft position, finding her comfort zone as just another option on the Sun has produced arguably the best basketball of her career during the last two regular seasons.
"I think what you're seeing from Margo is a comfort in where she fits in the dynamic of the team that has never happened before in her career," Burke said. "Mike is one of the best coaches at defining roles and then holding you to a level of expectation and expecting you to meet that. I think Margo feels she's part of a family. People want to pigeonhole her; because she's 7-foot-2, everybody thinks she should be back to the basket, blocking shots. That, to me, is not great use of all the skills she brings. Give credit to the staff; they recognize what she's capable of doing and they play to her strengths."
And the result, at least on Saturday, was one more Sun player ready to put up a fight in an elimination game. Dydek finally looked comfortable in a playoff game.
"Any time you have a 7-foot-2 player demanding the ball, I don't have a problem," Douglas said of Dydek's aggressive showing against the Shock.
If the Sun are to reach the WNBA Finals for the third year in a row, they'll need Dydek to step up again on Sunday (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET), not to carry the team but to carry her share of the load. And while it has been a long journey from Poland to this point, Dydek might be ready to keep standing tall.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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