- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- On those nights it's not in use by the Connecticut Sun, Mohegan Sun Arena is a stop for musical acts that, frankly, often saw their best days long before the WNBA came on the scene.
Eddie Money, Journey (with special guest Loverboy, no less), Meat Loaf, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, all will pass through this corner of Connecticut in the next few weeks alone. They are safe bookings, familiar names that will draw crowds who don't really care if they are any good now, happy to pay for the memories of when they were.
But on nights when they lay down the basketball court and leave the lights on, Tina Charles offers reminders of what it's like to see a star ascending, a performer growing into the role each time she takes the stage. And her performance in the opening game of the Eastern Conference finals between the Connecticut Sun and the Indiana Fever deserved an encore, never more than when she let loose with a solo in the third quarter.
Matched against two of the league's most experienced postseason players in Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas, Charles totaled 18 points and 15 rebounds in a 76-64 win. Average numbers for the league MVP in a game in which getting them required anything but average effort. On a night when Catchings never found her footing, thereby negating Douglas' stellar shooting, Charles hardly put a foot wrong in stepping up when needed.
She was the one who played with patience, waited for the game to come to her -- or at least close enough to snatch off the glass.
"It's just about reading the defense," Charles said. "They were double-teaming me; I'm not going to force shots. We have great shooters on this team. And in the second half, I just wanted to set the tone, so just getting on the [offensive] boards as much as I could."
With a little less than four minutes remaining in the third quarter, Catchings had just five points, Charles just six points and the game, not surprisingly, hung entirely in the balance, the Sun having slowly turned an early deficit of as many as eight points into a fraught four-point lead. Then Charles scored eight points in the final 3½ minutes of the quarter, four more early in the fourth quarter, and in the blink of an eye, the outcome was settled -- notwithstanding the Douglas barrage in the final 10 minutes that kept matters from getting out of hand and brought back memories of similar performances when she wore a Sun uniform.
"Two years ago or one year ago, she's probably frustrated by that point because she's not getting the ball or she's not getting a chance to make an impact," teammate Kara Lawson said of Charles. "Now she realizes there's many parts of the offensive end of the floor where she can make an impact."
Charles played nearly 18 minutes in the first half, more than any player save Catchings, took six shots and hit just two of them. She had to play the decoy as teammates whittled away the Fever's lead despite 37 percent shooting. The Fever, who held Charles to just six points in a game earlier this season, were not going to let her beat them. Then she did anyway, taking what the Fever couldn't deny her. Of her 15 rebounds, seven came on the offensive end.
"They've been consistent all year long; it's a hard double-team, sometimes a triple-team, right on her catch," Lawson said. "They're not going to let her just catch it and go to her hook shot or back somebody down. She stayed patient, she didn't force it. Then when we drove, she attacked the offensive glass. You can't double team an offensive board, right? So she figured that out in that third quarter.
"I thought our guards figured that out, too. Because at the beginning of the third quarter, we were driving and trying to pass it to her. And it's like, no, get it up on the glass. If you miss it, that's almost like a pass to Tina because when she attacks the glass like that, you can't block her out."
The way Charles took over the game for just long enough to tilt it decisively in her team's favor stood in stark contrast to the prolonged struggles that Catchings endured. The Fever's Olympian hit the first shot she took, a 3-pointer that opened the scoring in the first quarter, and then went nearly the rest of the game before hitting a second. On a night when nothing would fall, the 86 percent free throw shooter even missed 2 of 4 from the line.
Catchings is one of the greatest players in the history of the game because she plays closer to out of control than perhaps any other great player in the conversation, a ceaseless, frantic energy that wears out opponents. But it seemed at times against the Sun that she slipped over that line to out of control, forcing shots and making it easier for the defense, primarily Asjha Jones, to deal with her. Easier, mind you, not easy.
"It's hard," the Sun's Kalana Greene said of the team's plan against Catchings. "I give credit to our defense, but I don't think she had the best night she's ever had. We know that, and knowing that, you know how quickly she can get fired up. With her, it's just a team defense thing. It's a lot on the posts, but it's a lot on us to help out as a team."
It was not solely a game of one-on-one between Charles and Catchings, of course. Douglas was magnificent against her old team, but so, too, was Tan White in a less predictable performance. White scored a season-high 13 points, including three 3-pointers. Allison Hightower added nine points for the Sun, mostly on jump shots, and Lawson was her usual self, scoring 16 points. Their ability to hit shots meant the game was already in reach when Charles went off.
"I think Indiana predicates their defense a lot of times on leaving somebody open to try to take away somebody else," Sun coach Mike Thibault said. "And tonight, for a long stretch that was Tan, and she made them pay. I'm sure she enjoys going back against her old team, but she's been very locked in, in what we're doing for the last couple of weeks. It takes a lot of pressure off our post players when you have people like that knocking down big shots."
And yet there was no single performance as meaningful as that of Charles, not in the long minutes in which she bided her time and not in that burst in the third quarter when she seized control.
"When you're around somebody all the time, you can't really see the changes in them," said Greene, Charles' teammate for most of the past seven years. "But I think with her, just knowing the team is on her back and knowing that she's a huge part of this team, seeing her confidence and her being OK with taking a lot of the burden on her shoulders. Seeing her comfortable like that, I think it just comes with experience. She gets double-teamed, triple-teamed, you see her a lot now. Early in her career, in college, she would get flustered with a double or triple team. Now it's like she takes her time."
Time she has. Her act is just getting started.
A brief glimpse of Tina Charles' MVP form was more than enough for the Sun to break open a tight game and beat Indiana in Game 1 of the East finals.