THE PLAYOFF DISH
By Graham Hays, ESPN.com
Katie Douglas helped bring the Sun back from the brink of elimination Saturday. (Jessica Hill /AP Photo)
UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Perhaps the only miracle associated with Katie Douglas' WNBA career remains the jersey she wore in Orlando, but her return to the court just a week after suffering a hairline fracture in her right foot seems like the kind of thing that might necessitate the official scorer handing out an assist to the higher power of Douglas' choice.
There was no bloody sock and no analysis of complicated new medical procedures -- Douglas left it to the imagination of reporters to assess the full extent of the injections and general medical fiddling that she hinted had been necessary to get her on the court for Game 2. But judging from the roar that greeted her when starting lineups were announced, that isn't likely to stop Douglas from earning folklore status among Connecticut fans.
"We decided [she would play] about 45 minutes before game time," coach Mike Thibault said after Saturday's 77-68 Game 2 victory over Detroit. "She came in and worked out this morning for a while, went to the doctor, received treatment and went back into her normal shooting routine. She told me at the end she felt good enough to try it."
That was a complete reversal on how the day had started for Douglas.
"I woke up this morning frustrated and disappointed," she said of how the foot felt originally.
As for the game itself, Douglas fit somewhere between Curt Schilling and Willis Reed on the scale of productivity, obviously unable to match her normal production but far from a mere inspirational gesture. She played 29 minutes, more than anyone but Nykesha Sales and Taj McWilliams-Franklin for the Sun, scoring six points and adding four rebounds and three assists. More than anything, she seemed to have a calming effect on Connecticut's offense.
"I have a lot more confidence, and not so much in the sense that she's going to be able to play at the level she's played at all year," Thibault said of Douglas' impact. "But she spaces the floor, because you saw the one or two times they released on her, she made open shots. … I think the thing is that it makes our bench deeper. It's one more good player we'll have on the court."
After the game, surrounded by media and sounding worn out beyond what her minutes would suggest after days of constant treatment and assessment, Douglas said the process of determining her availability would start all over on Sunday morning. She made it clear that doctors had told her she isn't risking further damage to the foot by playing. And no doubt aided greatly by the result on the scoreboard, she attempted to keep a sense of humor about things.
"It feels pretty good, because it's just dangling," Douglas joked, sitting with her injured right foot off the ground. "When it dangles, it doesn't hurt."
With the season dangling in the balance for both Detroit and Connecticut on Sunday in Game 3 (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET), having Douglas available for at least the same role she played on Saturday might be crucial for the Sun's physical sets and mental outlook. But whatever happens won't take away from what she accomplished in the simple act of returning to help her teammates in this game.
This was an absolutely embarrassing performance for the Los Angeles Sparks, and it really started with Lisa Leslie's play. I have tremendous admiration for her, but after posting the best regular season of her career, this was the worst series and playoff performance I've seen out of the 10-year veteran.
Leslie's greatest strength is how dominant she can be on the low block. But Sacramento and Seattle forced her off the block and made her a face-up player. That took away her rebounding position, her attack position, her ability to draw fouls and get the putbacks -- all the things that have helped make Leslie the best post in the world.
But these last three games, she seemed to completely lose her confidence. She finished 7-for-28 against Sacramento, and even worse, combined for four points on 1-for-7 shooting her last three fourth-quarter performances. For the postseason, Leslie shot just 31 percent from the field after 51 percent accuracy in the regular season.
The most notable stat, though, is one that's not officially counted. I've never seen Leslie get so many shots blocked. On Saturday, Rebekkah Brunson swatted one away in the fourth quarter, and Lauren Jackson blocked two Leslie shots in the final period of Game 3 against Seattle. Leslie was uncharacteristically forcing shots. She was never really a factor at either end of the floor Saturday, even though the Monarchs didn't do anything special defensively. They didn't double-team her; their help-side defense was enough to stifle her.
Sacramento's defense was solid, though, and never allowed L.A. to establish its inside game. The Monarchs also did a good job of making Mwadi Mabika -- who has dominated this series this season -- put the ball on the floor and shoot.
But the bottom line is that L.A. did not hit its shots, shooting 37 percent. The Sparks' bench, which ranked second this season, wasn't productive enough, either, finishing with seven points while Sacramento's bench had 20 first-half points.
The Sparks also failed to move the ball around and too often kept it on one side of the floor without any ball reversal or at least an attempt to open up some offensive opportunities. They settled for too many one-pass possessions, and then when they missed, no one is there to rebound (Sacramento won the battle of the glass, 40-25).
At the other end, there wasn't any weak-side help, and that's surprising because Sparks coach Joe Bryant takes a lot of pride in his defense. L.A. just fell apart.
-- ESPN analyst Nancy Lieberman
Connecticut finally rebounded with the Shock. Yes, the Sun also finally shot well (42.4 percent after missing a combined 103 shots in their last two games), but the boards play really was the key in the Sun's first win over Detroit in five tries this season. The box score says the Shock won the battle, 34-29, but keep in mind Detroit padded its final stat line with five rebounds in the game's final 25 seconds.
When the game was in the balance, Connecticut got on the glass, limiting the Shock's transition baskets and second-chance points and forcing Detroit to be a half-court team. Even though Shock guard Deanna Nolan was remarkable with 27 points, she wasn't hitting wide-open slashing shots. She was just hot, knocking down jumpers. And two days after Cheryl Ford grabbed a playoff-record 23 rebounds, the Detroit forward finished with eight Saturday, including only two on the offensive end, and even then, neither of them came until the final 2 minutes, 8 seconds of the game.
Katie Douglas finished with only six points, but she motivated her team just by stepping on the court. She didn't do anything spectacular -- though she did hit a big 3-pointer in the third quarter -- but her presence helped spread the defense and she did make some nice passes.
But she was tremendously courageous. And in just being able to play Saturday, she said to her teammates, "I'm willing to play on a fracture even though I probably shouldn't. What are you willing to do?" That set the tone from the start.
So did Margo Dydek. The Sun's 7-foot-2 center finished with a career playoff-high 17 points and did a nice job of staying near the basket whereas she usually she drifts out, looking to shoot foul-line jumpers. She also came out aggressively, which was obvious when Dydek scored a one-handed scoop shot off the dribble against Ford in the first half.
Still, Erin Phillips deserves a nod, too. When Sun coach Mike Thibault inexplicably sat Lindsay Whalen in the fourth quarter -- granted, she had four fouls, but sitting her until just 50 seconds remained in the game was surprising -- Phillips came up big, making no crucial mistakes. Connecticut's backup rookie point guard hit some big 3s (2-for-2) and played good hustle defense, which was critical with defensive specialist Douglas hobbled.
And though it doesn't matter since the Sun ended up winning, Thibault's decision to sit Dydek for all but the final 50 seconds also was puzzling. When someone's as hot as she was -- 6-for-9 from the field -- you play her.
During a phone conversation with Detroit coach Bill Laimbeer before the game, he said, "We know we're going to win and Connecticut knows we're going to win." Instead, the Sun pulled it all together and won with a hugely balanced effort. They shot better, weathered the Shock when Connecticut went scoreless for 4 minutes, 40 seconds at the end of the third quarter and start of the fourth, and played good, solid defense.
-- ESPN's Nancy Lieberman
It's an oddity of the WNBA postseason schedule, and one of the league's biggest flaws, that the Sun spent their first home game of the conference finals fighting off elimination. And with Katie Douglas' status once again up in the air after she played 29 minutes in Game 2, it's not even clear if the Sun really benefit from the short turnaround that gives the Shock little time to lick their own wounds.
"Momentum is such a tenuous thing in a three-game series," Sun coach Mike Thibault said after the game. "I don't know that I necessarily believe in it because they were supposed to have it tonight."
More than momentum or the home crowd, three things should play key roles in Sunday's game:
1. Connecticut's ability to defend Deanna Nolan
And "defend" might be too strong a word. At this point, the Sun might be willing to settle for "see" Nolan. The lightning-quick guard torched the Sun in Game 2, getting open look after open look off the dribble. Largely stuck with the nearly impossible task of guarding Nolan one-on-one, Erin Phillips continues playing her tail off in chasing her around and through screens, but the rookie doesn't have Katie Douglas' savvy to avoid taking the longest route to where Nolan is headed. At least not yet.
2. The ability of both teams to deal with the officials
Anyone who has watched the playoffs knows that the officiating has left something to be desired. Saturday, it was Bill Laimbeer's turn to take a subtle shot (at least by his standards) at an opponent other than the Sun.
"We got a little frustrated, especially in the second quarter when they marched to the free-throw line, which was the only way they could score to stay in the game," he said. "That was frustrating for the players, for the coaching staff -- to see the game being taken out of our hands."
Both teams have suffered at times in the playoffs when questionable calls destroyed rhythm, knocked out key players and produced large numbers of free throws. And with two teams that aren't afraid of getting physical playing a winner-take-all game, odds are the whistles will be blowing again on Sunday night. Maintaining composure and doing whatever possible to adjust to the whims of the men and women with the whistles will be crucial.
3. Nykesha Sales
Connecticut won with balance on Saturday, but it never hurts to have a player capable of carrying things for large periods of time in a deciding game. After suffering through a horrific shooting funk in the first three games of the postseason, Sales (above, right) looked considerably better in Game 2. Most notably, she looked like someone slowly regaining faith in her shot after taking just six attempts in Game 1. Whether it was rising up for a 3-pointer while guarded on the wing or driving past Nolan for a runner in the lane, Sales showed flashes of her top form. Anyone who remembers her duel with Betty Lennox in Game 2 of the 2004 WNBA Finals knows what a hot Sales could mean for the Sun's offensive production.
-- ESPN.com's Graham Hays
20 They led the league in bench production in the regular season, so it was no surprise to see the Monarchs' reserves combine for 20 points -- just one fewer than the Sparks' total -- in the first half Saturday as Sacramento built a 45-21 lead at the break.
But star Yolanda Griffith said it was a necessity.
"We reevaluated our first game, and our bench production was not good," she said during a brief halftime interview. "We've counted on our bench play all season. Tonight, they're coming through for us."
Sacramento's subs scored just three points in Game 1, which the Monarchs rallied to win 64-61.