Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Bird doubts Sun's chances of landing Jackson

The Connecticut Sun are making a push for former WNBA MVP Lauren Jackson. Sue Bird said she doesn’t think they have a chance.

Bird — the former UConn star and Jackson’s teammate the last seven years with the Seattle Storm — told reporters Tuesday in Storrs that she believes Phoenix and Seattle “are the frontrunners” for Jackson’s services.

An unrestricted free agent for the first time and largely considered the world’s best player, Jackson is being courted by several teams, telling The Daily Telegraph in Sydney, Australia, that Sun coach Mike Thibault is one of three coaches who have or will visit her in Russia, where she’s playing for powerhouse Spartak Moscow.

“There’s no way,” Bird said with a laugh when first asked about Connecticut’s intentions of wooing Jackson to Mohegan Sun.

“I don’t want to say yes or no either way,” she later added. “That’s Lauren’s decision. I know her pretty well. I’m not sure. I love Connecticut. I’m not sure she would like it.”

Bird was working out on the UConn campus, and added she plans to be at Saturday’s game against LSU at the XL Center.

WNBA teams were allowed to begin discussions with free agents on Dec. 15, and Jan. 5 is the first day players can sign a contract. It seems unlikely Jackson, 27, will decide on a destination by then, and she has said she’s unsure if she’ll play in the U.S. at all this summer.

After undergoing right ankle surgery following the Olympics — and missing the rest of the WNBA season — Jackson told The Daily Telegraph, “I think at the moment I have to decide on both (options) ... whether to play in the WNBA and if so, with which team.

“I have to make a decision and it’s going to be a big one,” she added, according to the newspaper’s Wednesday edition. “It could impact the rest of my career.”

Jackson told the paper that Seattle coach Brian Agler and Thibault were among those to come see her in Moscow, and that Phoenix coach Corey Gaines is coming in January. In total, Jackson said she’s spoken to “seven to eight” teams thus far.

“Look, I love Seattle and I love my coach there,” Jackson told the Telegraph. “He’s great. And so are my teammates obviously, so it’s a pretty big decision, something I’m not taking lightly at all. ... It’s not a financial decision. Not at all.”

In eight WNBA seasons, Jackson averaged 19.4 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks. In 2007, the same year she earned her second MVP honor, she was also named the league’s top defensive player. In 2004, she helped lead the Storm to the WNBA championship.

Thibault spoke in November at a media luncheon about going after the league’s top free agents.

“The top players are going to make their decisions based upon their own personal goals,” the coach said. “If their goal is winning championships, they’re going to pick a team or narrow it to a couple teams that they feel like they can compete for championships every year. I think that’s something that we have to offer to a lot of free agents. ... I think in many cases the player has to have a pretty compelling reason to leave if they already play for a winning franchise.”

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Former MVP Jackson in Sun's sights

Mike Thibault and the Connecticut Sun are pursuing former Storm forward and free agent Lauren Jackson.

Even with a frontcourt that includes Asjha Jones, Tamika Whitmore and Sandrine Gruda, the Sun could incorporate the former MVP by moving Jones to the small forward position, giving them a varied and dangerous group of forwards. Of course, the Sun aren't the only team pursuing Jackson (Seattle obviously wants to bring her back and there isn't a team that wouldn't take her) and Jackson is still unsure if she will even come back to the WNBA this season.

My bet is she does. Jackson missed the last part of the 2008 season because of injury, but unless she re-injures herself playing in Russia, I think the draw of the competition in the WNBA is too much for an elite player to pass up, especially one still in the prime of her career (Jackson is 27). But at this point, it all remains speculation.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sun release schedule

The WNBA schedule is out. With the season starting nearly three weeks later than usual, the Sun open up at home against the Washington Mystics on Saturday, June 6, before traveling to New York to play the Liberty the next day. Connecticut started the season the same way this past summer, with a back-to-back home-and-home that included New York, and 10 of the team's first 16 games will be at home in 2009. Conversely, they close the year with five of seven on the road.

"We will get tested early, and closing the season with five or ouf last seven games on the road is a real challenge," Sun GM Chris Sienko said in a press release.

Eleven of Connecticut's 17 regular-season home games this season will be played on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday, and six of those games feature an afternoon tip-off.

Among the highlights on the home schedule are games against defending Western Conference Champion San Antonio on June 21st, WNBA champion Detroit on July 11th and August 25th, Candace Parker and the Los Angeles Sparks on July 14th, Diana Taurasi and the Phoenix Mercury on July 28th and Sue Bird and the Seattle Storm on August 13th. The games against Los Angeles and Phoenix will be televised nationally by ESPN2.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Draft Lottery: Dream get first pick

The Atlanta Dream won the eighth annual WNBA Draft Lottery and earned the top pick in the 2009 WNBA Draft, the league announced today.

The Dream had a 42 percent chance to receive the first overall selection, and the lottery went exactly according to odds for the first time in WNBA history. The Washington Mystics, who just picked up Matee Ajavon in the Houston dispersal draft on Monday, will have the second pick in the draft followed by the Chicago Sky.

Atlanta and Washington also have two other first-round picks. Atlanta, which selected Camille Little first in the dispersal draft, owns the 13th pick from San Antonio thanks to the Ann Wauters-Camille Little trade, while thanks to the Trade of the Hyphenated Names (Taj McWilliams-Franklin for DeLisha Milton-Jones), Washington also has the ninth pick via the Los Angeles Sparks. It gives Atlanta even more choices to start building a franchise while Washington now has a great chance to retool its team around youth after a disappointing 2008 campaign.

Here's the full draft order, with the first five determined by the lottery:
(1) Atlanta
(2) Washington
(3) Chicago
(4) Minnesota
(5) Phoenix
(6) Indiana
(7) Sacramento
(8) New York
(9) Washington (from L.A.)
(10) Connecticut
(11) Detroit
(12) Seattle
(13) Atlanta (from San Antonio)

Monday, December 8, 2008

Dispersal Draft: Lyttle goes first, Sun pass

The Atlanta Dream added to their frontcourt Monday by taking Sancho Lyttle with the first pick of the WNBA dispersal draft of the Houston Comets. Washington, picking second, took Matee Ajavon, followed by Mistie Williams (Chicago Sky) at No. 3, Roneeka Hodges (Minnesota Lynx) at No. 4, and Sequoia Holmes (Phoenix Mercury) at No. 5.

The Sun, selecting 10th, passed on their pick, as did all of the final six teams with selections. Erica White (No. 6 to Indiana) and Renae Camino (No. 7 to Sacramento) were the final two players taken.

Atlanta needed help in the post, which Lyttle (8.2 points, 6.2 rebounds in 2008) should provide, though Ajavon was the most talented player available. Washington, which had a rotating door in its backcourt last year, gets a big boost in the former Rutgers star. Past that, the other selections should help their respective teams off the bench, at the most.

Atlanta also has the best chances of earning the No. 1 pick in the college draft when the draft lottery is held Tuesday.

"I'm very excited about it," Atlanta coach and GM Marynell Meadors said in a press release. "I think today and tomorrow can certainly be big days for the Atlanta Dream."

Here are the results in full for the dispersal draft:

1. Atlanta Dream: Sancho Lyttle (C)
2. Washington Mytics: Matee Ajavon (G)
3. Chicago Sky: Mistie Williams (F)
4. Minnesota Lynx: Roneeka Hodges (G)
5. Phoenix Mercury: Sequoia Holmes (G)
6. Indiana Fever: Erica White (G)
7. Sacramento Monarchs: Renae Camino (G)
8. New York Liberty: Pass
9. Los Angeles Sparks: Pass
10. Connecticut Sun: Pass
11. Detroit Shock: Pass
12. Seattle Storm: Pass
13. San Antonio Silver Stars: Pass

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sun likely to pass on pick in dispersal draft

The Connecticut Sun are likely to pass on their pick in today's WNBA dispersal draft of the Houston Comets, coach Mike Thibault said Sunday night.

The Sun own the 10th pick in the draft, slated to start at 1 p.m., but don't expect any players of real value to fall to them. Thibault said the team had explored trade options with teams near the top of the draft, but "there's nothing that fits on either side or that we can agree on," he added.

"We'll probably pass," Thibault said, adding the first four or five teams are likely to select players who are of real interest.

Players eligible to be drafted from Houston, which folded last week, include Matee Ajavon, Tamecka Dixon, Sancho Lyttle, Lucienne Berthieu, Renae Camino, Roneeka Hodges, Sequoia Holmes, Shannon Johnson, Polina Tzekova, Erica White and Mistie Williams.

Thibault said the team's focus this past week has been preparing for Dec. 15, the first day teams are allowed to talk to free agents. This year's class includes several big names, including Tina Thompson, Penny Taylor and former MVP, Lauren Jackson. Players are allowed to sign contracts beginning Jan. 5.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Starting a Legacy

Jamie Carey's coaching career is under way: The Sun guard's Legacy girls basketball team won its season opener. Said Carey of the 62-30 win over Bear Creek:

"I think we had 13 or 14 turnovers in the first half, you should have that for an entire game," said told the Broomfield Enterprise. "The other thing, we put them at the line too much — they had over 20 free throws in the second half."

Friday, December 5, 2008

Swanier link

The link to today's story on Ketia Swanier and her Ketia 4 Kidz foundation, which aims to raise awareness and funds for children of military personnel.

Swanier is home in Georgia to attend a ceremony tonight to retire her high school jersey in Columbus. Swanier and her father said its an event the school has been trying to put on since Swanier graduated, but UConn's schedule interfered each year. Unfortunately for Swanier, that meant she had to fly home from Poland, where she's playing overseas, only to get delayed heading into Chicago, where she spent the night on Wednesday. She sounded expectedly groggy when reached by phone Thursday. She has a busy schedule, too.

"I have another appointment in the morning, then I got down to Columbus and I’m actually going to the pep rally, which is going to be different and strange," she said. "I’m going to feel really old."

Then, there's the ceremony, as big an honor as a high school can give an alum.

"It’s a big honor, being able to have that done," Swanier said. "It really hasn’t hit home with me yet. We’ve been trying to do it for the past few years, but I’ve never had a chance to come home to do it. But they planned it for this year. It really hasn’t hit home yet."

Some things that didn't make it into today's story

(1) One of the motivating factors for Swanier to create her organization was her own experiences. While her family was stationed in Germany while she was younger, it was difficult to find the competition she needed to grow her game. She played in higher age groups, and even competed with a team made up of fellow 'Army brats' who traveled throughout Europe playing teams from other military installations, her father, Cornell, said.

When Swanier got older, she spent summers in Georgia playing her AAU ball, but making it all work with two parents in the Army never was easy.

"We tried to support and help her as much as possible," Cornell Swanier said. "And that’s what she wants to share with these other kids. You know, don’t settle for less."

(2) Swanier met with wounded soldiers and their families at the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., last month, an experience she called "very touching."

"There were soldiers my age and younger," she said. "Going to war, coming back with one leg, no legs, rehabbing, and I met some guys who still have a very positive attitude. One guy, he bikes with the bikes that have the hand pedals, and he does marathons. After seeing those guys, what can you complain about? I couldn’t imagine going to war right now, the age I am, and coming back with one leg. It changes your life."

(3) Swanier said she's mainly working on her shot in Poland, where she starts for Rybnik. Swanier, one of the Sun's two first-round picks last season, shot 27.7 percent from the field as a rookie. She plays alongside fellow American Kasha Terry and LaTangela Atkinson.

"It’s something you have to get used to," she said of playing overseas. "It’s playing basketball pretty much. It’s not as organized, but the team is real cool."

Swanier also had a little cold on Thursday.

"(The weather) is not that bad there, though honestly," she said. "It gets cold at night, but I’m fine walking. And that’s good for me because I don’t like cold weather."

(4) Swanier wore No. 21 in high school, her mother's number when she played. Ketia wears No. 11 for the Sun, as she did for UConn.

"But when she got to UConn, 21 was taken (by Nicole Wolff)," Cornell Swanier said. "So she said, ‘OK, I’ll get daddy’s number.’"

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Some draft particulars

So, here's the breakdown of Monday's dispersal draft (1 p.m., via conference call). In addition to the eight players mentioned previously as available from Houston's roster, teams can also select from those who are injured, suspended or draft list/reserved. The full list, which now balloons to 11, includes: Matee Ajavon, Lucienne Berthieu, Renae Camino, Tamecka Dixon, Roneeka Hodges, Sequoia Holmes, Shannon Johnson, Sancho Lyttle, Polina Tzekova, Erica White and Mistie Williams.

Mike Thibault was under the impression on Tuesday that there weren't enough players available for the Sun to even draft at the 10th pick. Now that there are, I still wouldn't be surprised if the Sun decline to use it, as they did in 2007 with the 13th pick in Charlotte's Dispersal Draft. (In the 2004 Dispersal Draft of the Cleveland Rockers, Connecticut traded that pick away for a second-round pick in the collegiate draft. Its trading partner: Houston.)

Then again, the Sun may also trade up, but that's still unclear at the moment.

The WNBA is also holding its draft lottery next week, scheduled for 3 p.m. on Tuesday. Teams eligible for the lottery include: Atlanta (4-30 last season), which owns a 42 percent chance of winning; Washington (10-24), which has a 26.1 percent chance; Chicago (12-22), 16.7 percent; Minnesota (16-18), 7.6 percent; and Phoenix (16-18), also 7.6 percent.

The remaining order of the first round is as such:
(6) Indiana
(7) Sacramento
(8) New York
(9) Los Angeles
(10) Connecticut
(11) Detroit
(12) Seattle
(13) San Antonio

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Comets, the dispersal draft, etc.

Here's the link to today's story on the Sun and the impact of the Comets folding. For now, the Sun hold the 10th pick in Monday's dispersal draft, but won't draft a player. (There are only eight in the available player pool.)

But Sun coach Mike Thibault is considering moving up to get one of the top picks, though it's still in the discussion stages at the moment. Outside of the free agents this situation creates -- namely Tina Thompson and Michelle Snow -- the person of most interest in the dispersal draft is guard Matee Ajavon, following by forward Sancho Lyttle. If Thibault can't move within the "top few picks," he said, it wouldn't even be worth making a trade of some sort.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Ketia4Kids on the move

Sun guard and former UConn star Ketia Swanier and her foundation, Ketia4Kidz, has recently partnered with A Journey of a Thousand Thanks, which is a walk across the country in support of the troops done by Keela Carr. Proceeds from the walk, which begins next May, will be split up between the Ketia4Kidz Foundation and the National Veterans Homeless Support Organization.

Swanier will be back in the States later this week (from Dec. 4-6) from Poland, where she is playing for Rybnik. Ketia4Kidz was created in August of this past year and is a non-profit organization geared toward giving back to children of military families, which Swanier is. Here's a little more on the foundation.

Houston disbanding, leaving WNBA with 13 teams

The WNBA has decided to shut down the Houston Comets, ending the run of a once proud franchise. A formal announcement will be made Tuesday.

WNBA president Donna Orender told the Associated Press -- and has said throughout the last two years -- that the league has never been stronger, and that Houston's failure isn't a sign of things to come for the rest of the league's 13 teams.

How does this affect the Sun and the rest of the league? There will be a dispersal draft on Monday (Dec. 8) for players signed to contracts with Houston. That doesn't include some of the team's biggest stars who are free agents, including Tina Thompson, Michelle Snow, Latasha Byears, Mwadi Mabika and Hamchetou Maiga-Ba. It also tips the balance of the league, as the East now has seven teams compared to the West's six. Two years ago, it was the exact opposite following Charlotte's shut-down and before the creation of the Atlanta Dream.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


I have a small correction from Friday's Q & A with coach Mike Thibault: The league's salary cap is expected to expand for the upcoming year to $803,000. Last year's cap stood at $772,000. When I wrote the story, I didn't double-check the new CBA numbers, and is my mistake.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Breaking News: Parker edges Whalen, named league MVP

Candace Parker was named the WNBA MVP Friday in one of the closest races in the league's history, garnering 276.79 points to beat out Lindsay Whalen, who finished second with 242.08 points and Sue Bird, who took third (218.51). Parker becomes the first rookie in league history to earn MVP and the first to earn both that and the Rookie of the Year award.

A national media panel accounted for 75 percent of the vote, while fan voting made up the other 25 percent.

"It would mean a lot to me, playing in that highest level and actually winning the MVP award," Parker told the L.A. Times.

Parker has great numbers, but I don't believe she's deserving of the award. She was one of three Olympians on a team that finished well below expectations. Truthfully, I was surprised Whalen finished so high after missing three games late in the season with an ankle injury, but I consider her a better candidate than Parker, who also had the popularity vote working for her. Earlier this week, the WNBA released that Parker's jersey is the top seller in the WNBA. A few weeks ago, I said I thought Sophia Young would win this award, but she finished a distant fourth (169.62). Diana Taurasi finished fifth and Asjha Jones finished ninth.

Jones, Whalen named to All-WNBA teams

Connecticut Sun stars Lindsay Whalen and Asjha Jones were recognized for their career years Friday. The second player in league history to average at least 10 points, five rebounds and five assists, Whalen was named the All-WNBA First Team; Jones, who tied the Sun's franchise mark for scoring average, earned a nod on the Second Team. It's the first such honor for each player.

Voting for the teams was conducted by a panel of national sportswriters and broadcasters. Players were selected by position and received five points for each First Team vote and three points for each Second Team designation.

Here are the teams in full:

First Team
F Candace Parker (LAS) 221 points
C Lisa Leslie (LAS) 192
G Lindsay Whalen (CON) 178
G Diana Taurasi (PHO) 173
F Sophia Young (SA) 171

Second Team
G Sue Bird (SEA) 166
G Becky Hammon (SA) 133
F Asjha Jones (CON) 99
F Deanna Nolan (DET) 95
C Lauren Jackson (SEA) 68

I'll have more in tomorrow's paper, but as far as an initial reaction, all the spots are deserved outside of Seattle's Lauren Jackson, who was dominant when she played but appeared in only 21 games (about 40 percent of the season) and didn't warrant a spot over someone like Tina Thompson. The voters had to go by position, but if you can argue that Deanna Nolan is a forward, I'll argue Thompson could have made it here as a center.

Also Parker got the highest number of votes to the first team by a very wide margin while Young received the fewest. Is this an indication of how the MVP voting also went? We'll see. The MVP is being announced prior to tonight's finals game. The Rookie of the Year honor, which went to Parker, is being awarded at the same site 10 minutes earlier.

Holt named to All-Rookie team

Sun forward Amber Holt was named to the 2008 WNBA All-Rookie team, it was announced Friday. Holt (five votes) tied Houston's Matee Ajavon in voting and both were awarded a spot on the team. Holt, the ninth pick in April's draft, started every regular-season game for the Sun, averaging 6.5 points. The voting panel consisted of the league's 14 coaches, who were asked to select five players regardless of position and to not vote for their own players.

All-Rookie team
F Candace Parker, L.A. (13 votes)*
G Candice Wiggins, Min (13)*
C Sylvia Fowles, Chi (12)
C Nicky Anosike, Min (11)
G Matee Ajavon, Hou (5)
F Amber Holt, Con (5)

* Unanimous selections

Parker named Rookie of the Year

As expected, Candace Parker has been named the WNBA's Rookie of the Year, it was announced Friday morning. Parker garnered all 45 votes in a national media panel after averaging 18.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and 33.6 minutes, all highs among rookies.

Q & A extra

Here's the link from Thursday's Q & A with Sun coach Mike Thibault. Here's some of what didn't get into the story ...

Bulletin: Compared to last offseason, which was extremely busy with this team, the new CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) and the U.S. national team, how do you see this offseason playing out?

Thibault: We’re still going to be, hopefully, active in the free agent market. We don’t need a wholesale makeover, but we need a couple things to be better. Some of it just may be in how our young players develop. If Sandrine (Gruda) and Amber (Holt) and Kerri (Gardin), Ketia (Swanier), can all continue to improve in the offseason, that will solve some of the issues. But I don’t think I can be comfortable in hoping for that.

Those players need to understand that there’s going to be competition for their jobs. That’s the only way we’re going to get better. And if they improve enough, they’ll still be the ones with jobs. But we didn’t the whole thing, but you have to hope you get better to give yourself a chance to do it.

Bulletin: For as good as the first-year players have played, the biggest thing for rookies who excel in their first year sometimes is that second year, when the league knows them (and their game). Is that why you’re not quick to just rely on them improving?

Thibault: I think we won’t get better if they don’t, or if somebody has to be that person. And that’s not to put pressure on them because every year I expect our veterans to get better, too. I’ve had some very pointed talks with the veterans and I have one more to do. My expectations for them are for in certain areas to get better. I’m not going to say out loud what the expectations, but when I’m done with everything before November, every player on this team will have a very clear picture from of what my expectations are if they want to be a part of this. It’s not a threat or anything. It’s just what it is.

If you’re not going forward, you’re probably in this league going backwards a little bit. Standing still is not real good.

Bulletin: What was the main theme of your exit interviews with the players?

Thibault: Most of it was positive but there were specific things for each player that I had kind of been keeping notes on throughout the season. I don’t usually give them a large thing, and I’ll tell them what I’m happy about and everything. But I usually have two or three things that I’ll say, ‘You need to get better at this, for yourself and for us.’ Like the young players, by the time you’ve played a year, people know how to play you. If you stay the same, you’re not getting better.

For some players, it’s shooting. For some players, it’s ball-handling skills. For some players, it’s their level of conditioning. It could be a number of things.

Bulletin: Where does Tamika Raymond stand? (Note: Raymond is one of the Sun's two unrestricted free agents, Svetlana Abrosimova being the other)

Thibault: She’s in a different situation. She was coming off a contract that was long term at the max dollars in this league. Her with us will be a discussion whenever we’re allowed to do contract discussions, as far as what we can do in the cap. I want her here, her teammates want her here, I think she wants to be here. It’s just going to be a negotiation. I think she understands her role here, what she brings. She has a great other job (as an assistant at Kansas), which probably helps diminish the pressure on her to view her position in this league differently. She has a really good sense of self, better than most players I’ve ever coached. She knows I want her there, as much as for the basketball as the intangibles.

Bulletin: Hearing you talk, it sounds like you want to bring this whole group back and then you bring on other people and let training camp sort it out. Is that how it kind of looks?

Thibault: Yeah, for the most part. The only other issue that could come into effect, and I don’t know if it will, we’re in a pretty good situation salary cap-wise. There’s some free agents out there in the league that we would like to be in the hunt for that could change the salary cap structure of our team. But we for sure can take on one max contract and with some tweaking, we could possible take on two. When we didn’t have Nykesha (Sales) or Margo (Dydek) come back, that freed up money for us for the future.

Bulletin: Where does Nykesha stand? She’s up on your board (of players) …

Thibault: She’s there because we own her rights.

Bulletin: How long do you own her rights for?

Thibault: (Shrugs shoulders) Forever. If she wants to play somewhere else, she has to help us organize a trade.

Bulletin: You’ve said in the past you weren't sure if she would come back here.

Thibault: I haven’t talked to her in a while, so I don’t know what she feels right now. But I know a year ago at this time, it was a real struggle for her to be herself, going through what it takes just to be healthy enough to play every day. She can make so much more money playing overseas, that from a business standpoint it makes more sense for her to put all her energy into that where she can make more money. I’m not trying to put words in her mouth, but from a business standpoint, it just makes more sense.

We’ll have a conversation at some point, but right now, I’m just trying to sort out the (players) we have. And the longer you’re out, it’s harder to come back and be in a groove.

Bulletin: You talk about a lot of things from her perspective, but what is it like from (this team’s) perspective?

Bulletin: From our perspective, we’ve invested a lot this past year in the young players who took her place. With Amber and Kerri and Svet and Barb (Turner), our team has probably moved on. Nostalgia is just what it is.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

League to announce MVP

The league will announce this year's MVP at a 5:45 p.m. new conference Friday prior to Game 2 of the WNBA finals between Detroit and San Antonio. I haven't heard definite grumblings of who'll win (Lindsay Whalen, of course, is in the running), but considering they are holding the press conference in San Antonio instead of on a conference call, I'd put money it goes to one of the San Antonio superstars, Sophia Young or Becky Hammon.

As always, I'll have an update when I know more.

A Thursday with Thibault

Greetings from Storrs actually, where I'm holed up inside Gampel Pavilion following the men's basketball team around. (Welcome to my winter beat.) But I got a chance to sit down with Sun coach Mike Thibault earlier today for an extensive chat that covered the 2008 season, what to expect out of the team in the next few months, who's coming back, who's not and a lot more on the state of the Sun.

I'm going to post parts of the transcript later tonight after sifting through loads of (digital) tape, but I figured I'd post this: I promised you a list of Sun players and where they'd be for the offseason if you're interested in following them. I actually have been e-mailed about my tardiness on this, and I apologize. Alas, here's a rough first list. Some rosters are still to be updated, and once they are, I will be able to include all teams:

(1) Svetlana Abrosimova: Russia (Ekaterinburg)
(2) Jamie Carey: None (Will coach high school basketball at Legacy High in Colorado)
(3) Kerri Gardin: Croatia
(4) Sandrine Gruda: Russia (Ekaterinburg)
(5) Amber Holt: Hungary (MKB Sopron)
(6) Asjha Jones: Russia (Ekaterinburg)
(7) Danielle Page: Bulgaria
(8) Erin Phillips: Israel (a Tel Aviv-based team)
(9) Tamika Raymond: None (Will serve as an assistant at Kansas)
(10) Ketia Swanier: None, for now (May join a traveling all-star team that does college tours, then perhaps sign overseas)
(11) Barbara Turner: Turkey
(12) Lindsay Whalen: Czech Republic (USK Prague)
(13) Tamika Whitmore: Czech Republic

(1) Evina Maltsi, who the Sun still own the rights to negotiate with: Czech Republic (USK Prague)
(2) Lauren Ervin, who the Sun drafted in April: Greece
(3) Jolene Anderson, who the Sun cut in August: France

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Anderson signs with French team

Jolene Anderson, who was cut from the Sun in late August to make room for Svetlana Abrosimova, has signed on to play in France during the winter.

Anderson had mentioned the possibility to the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune, but it's apparently become official.

Update, Oct. 3: Some more links on Anderson in France, courtesy of a reader.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Wiggins named Sixth Woman of the Year

Minnesota rookie Candice Wiggins was named the WNBA's Sixth Women of the Year Thursday, compiling 27 votes from a national media panel to become the second player in league history to earn the award. Detroit's Plenette Pierson, the inaugural winner in 2007, finished second with 10 votes and Seattle's Tanisha Wright was third with two.

Wiggins' 15.7 points per game set a league record for reserve scoring average (Chamique Holdsclaw, 15.0, 2006), and she was the only player in the WNBA this season to come off the bench and score more than 12 points per game. The milestones continue for the No. 3 overall draft pick: She owns the Lynx’s top seven performances off the bench in franchise history; she eclipsed Holdsclaw’s league record (six, 2006) for 20-point games as a reserve; and she helped the Lynx set a WNBA record for average points by reserves (33.9 ppg), surpassing the 33.4-points-per-game mark Sacramento set in 2006.

Wiggins also receives $5,000 and a Tiffany & Co. trophy.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Closing time II

The Sun conducted their end-of-season physicals Monday night and spent today and perhaps tomorrow clearing out, meaning by this time Wednesday, all of them will be gone. I can never get over how abrupt everything is by the end of the season.

Anyway, here's some of what I know: Asjha Jones is returning to play in Russia, and actually leaves by the end of the week. (No rest for the weary).

Barbara Turner is playing in Turkey, and she said the team wants her there by October.

"But I don’t know," she said. "I need some time to clear my head."

Tamika Whitmore is going to play again in Czech Republic. She's also on a multi-year deal with the Sun.

"I’ll try to get at least two weeks to rest my body up" before leaving, she said. "I’ll do what I need to do and come back here, and I don’t know, I might be so quick and nimble, I might be playing the (small forward position) next year, I don’t know."

I'll try to have a more complete list in the days to come for those interested in tracking the team during the winter months.

Closing time

I know this post is coming long after the conclusion of the Sun's 66-62, season-ending loss to New York on Monday, but I wanted to take the day to mull over the season that was for Connecticut.

I'll have a post later this week breaking down each player, similar to the capsules I put together during the Olympic break, while also touching their possible future with the organization. But for now, I'm speaking in broad strokes, both of the team's problems, it's successes and where it goes from here.

First, some facts and observations, some of which were touched upon in today's story:

(1) This is the second straight season the Sun failed to reach the Eastern Conference finals after advancing there for each of their first four seasons at Mohegan. Asked if this defeat felt different than last year, coach Mike Thibault agreed to a point.

"Some of (the parts) are (here)," Thibault said. "Last year was a different kind of an emotional feeling because I knew when we finished that season, that group wasn’t going to stay together. We knew through one way or another, through free agency issues or injuries and things, we were probably going to change our team. How dramatically, I didn’t know at that time.

"This won’t be a dramatic makeover for what we need to do," he added. "But it still hurts the same because when you are in a tie ball-game in the last couple minutes of a playoff game on our home court, you hope that you’re going to make the big play and not the other team. And we didn’t and they did. And that still hurts. I don’t care if you’re coaching 10-year-olds, senior league, it doesn’t matter. I hate to lose."

(2) The Sun shot a chilly 36 percent from the field during its series with New York, and during the final seven-game stretch of the season (in which they went 2-5), just once did they top 40 percent. Thibault said he could imagine the Sun's demise coming because of poor shooting because it's the problem that plagued them in 13 of their losses this season. For example, they were 2-9 this regular season when shooting under 40 percent. That means nearly one-third of the time the Sun shot were shooting that poorly.

A big part of that is the Sun's inexperience on the wings. In replacing Katie Douglas and Nykesha Sales, the team tried to mold shooters out of forwards, namely Amber Holt, Kerri Gardin and Barbara Turner. All three were very good for different stretches, but their success could be directly tied to the Sun's, MVP candidates Lindsay Whalen and Asjha Jones aside. I'm including these stats in tomorrow's story, but here they are again: In losses this season, Holt, Gardin and Turner combined to shoot 31 percent from the field; in wins, 45.

That totally changes the face of the game, especially when you have two versatile forwards in Jones and Tamika Whitmore who do their job very well, but aren't that consistent planted-in-the-paint post presence other teams have. Thibault pointed out Monday some of the Sun's best shooters ended up being their forwards, which the team expected but by playoff time, you need other people to complement them.

"We’re not the best outside shooting team in the league and teams have played us that way," Thibault said. "We’ve had some people carry us on their backs on a lot of nights. We’ve had some big nights from some people but to win a championship, let alone get out of the first round, you have to do it in a deciding game. I can’t pretend to have an answer tonight about it. I’d have to sit on it, think about it, and see what we need to do to get a little better at this. I thought from where we started the season, we’ve come a long way but obviously it’s not there yet."

Monday's shooting performance more than anything emphasized that problem. The Sun missed 15 straight shots at one point a game after shooting 2-for-15 in the fourth quarter of Game 2. In a game against San Antonio during the final stretch of the regular season, the Sun missed 15 straight at one point, too. Those are extreme stretches that are simply too much to overcome. Fortunately for the Sun, during that fourth-quarter black-out on Saturday, they already had a 13-point lead.

"It’s funny, everybody’s talking about the shooting, man," Turner said. "Yeah, it matters and we gotta score points, but we were still in the game (Monday). We’re going to have nights like that, but I’m proud of my team, despite of the way we shot the basketball, we did not quit. We stayed together, we still put ourselves in position to win the game. New York just made the bigger shots than us."

(3) That brings up the next topic: New York is a very good team and it's depth showed on Monday. The Sun also had depth, but that can also be what Thibault called a "curse." The Liberty, meanwhile, didn't get a great day from Loree Moore, but Leilani Mitchell gave them some significant minutes. Erlana Larkins would have made a bigger impact if she hit her free throws (1-for-6), and fellow rookie Essence Carson was the difference in the game. She essentially made Svetlana Abrosimova a foot-note (the Sun veteran didn't play in the fourth largely because Carson beat her to the basket so many times), and Carson hit some big-time shots to score 15 points.

Past all that, New York has a core in Moore, Janel McCarville, Cathrine Kraayeveld and Shameka Christon that has banded together under coach Pat Coyle and defined this team's "no-superstar" identity.

"I don’t know if we totally have our identity yet," Thibault said. "We’re getting there, but it’s not there yet. Our identity (Monday) was missing shots."

(A note: This has probably been touched upon in the New York media but not here. But a hats off goes to Coyle. Before last season, the Liberty traded MVP candidate Becky Hammon to San Antonio for two players (Jessica Davenport and Tiffany Jackson) who made their impact during the regular season but either had little to no presence in this series or didn't play at all. Whether that deal turns into a lop-sided one in years to come or not -- Davenport will decide that -- the Liberty move on without their most significant move in the last two years paying any dividends.)

(4) This is solely my opinion, but the first-round loss shouldn't reflect on the progress of this team nor the job that Thibault did. He earned Coach of the Year by growing a team with so much youth around two superstars he helped cultivate, and made it into one of the top teams in the East. As he put it, the Sun "camouflaged" one of its biggest flaws throughout the year, and who knows, things may have turned around if they advanced. Thibault thought so.

"My feeling was if we could get through the first round, we would play with much more confidence offensively in the second round," he said. "We would relax a little bit. Talking with a lot of different coaches in a lot of different sports, it’s that first playoff series that is usually the most difficult because especially with a younger team, you’re not sure where you are with maturity."

I have had this discussion with a few people, but after this loss, does the pressure begin to build for Thibault, arguably one of the most successful coaches during the regular season in league history, to win in the postseason? I'd say it's built from day one and a lot of that he put on himself. But before anybody stars referring to him as the Marv Levy of the WNBA, you have to realize this particular group wasn't expected to go anywhere. Even though Thibault and all his players will tell you the first-round loss hurts no matter what, this team exceeded expectations; It didn't fail to live up to them.

Next year, with presumably most of this team back, plus another piece or two, that won't be the case. The Sun will be picked by many to contend from the start, and a first-round exit -- and perhaps anything short of a title -- will spark up criticism. For now, this is a franchise who has made something to build from.

(5) So finally, a look ahead. Thibault said himself this team will undergo some change, though nothing as dramatic as last season.I still have to sort through who's on contract and who are free agents, but from a simple personnel standpoint, the definites, of course, include Whalen, Jones and Tamika Whitmore. But I think you can also expect Holt, Gardin, Erin Phillips and Sandrine Gruda to return. Jamie Carey had an even better year than 2007 and Thibault likes having a lot of point guards, which also makes Ketia Swanier (a first-round pick) likely to be brought back into the fold. Tamika Raymond has had a huge locker room presence and Thibault loves her on this team, and Turner, some of her struggles aside, had a career year and is a good fit within the team's chemistry. Danielle Page, I imagine, will be invited back to contend for a spot.

In all, I think Abrosimova was purely a rental and is the only one very likely not to return. As for others, they helped build this team, and the only reason I could see them back in Mohegan would be because of A) trade or B) they loose their spot in training camp to someone else. But I say all this cautiously because it is extremely, extremely early in the offseason. Things could change.

"we don’t have everything," Jones said. "We probably have the right people. But everybody has to get better. Not one person can say they’re as good as they’re going to be. Not one person. But we’re all going to take upon ourselves, be professionals and come back better players."

Asked if this team needed more pieces, Jones said, "No, we’re fine, we’re good. We’re going to be OK."

Thibault didn't say much Monday as far as concrete directions this team will go in during the offseason, but he did say, "We need somehow in here a cold-blooded, knock-it-down shooter that they (the Liberty) have right now." At the moment, I don't have a handle on the free agent marker and I can't imagine a rookie will fill that void so don't expect the draft to be the answer. But it does mean the Sun will go after at least one more big piece. If that means one of these current players will go because of it, we'll see. This offseason will not be like last year's, but there still are changes to be made.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Sun-Liberty Game 3 Thread

Final, Liberty win, 66-62: Shameka Christon hit a 3-pointer with 1:25 and former Rutgers star Essence Carson hit a big lay-up while being fouled with 23.6 seconds left and the Liberty ended the Sun's season in the first round of the playoffs. Carson finished with 15 points and Christon had 13 to out-pace Asjha Jones (18 points, 11 rebounds) and Lindsay Whalen (19 and 7).

The Sun had the lead temporarily when, with the score tied at 58-all, Whalen shook Carson on a drive to the free throw line, pulled up and hit a jumper with 1:39 to play. But after Carson's lay-up, Tamika Whitmore missed a jump shot near the top of the key and, following an Erlana Larkins foul shot, a 3-pointer near the same spot.

Her lay-up with 2.6 seconds left, cutting it to, 64-62, was rendered meaningless when Erin Thorn was fouled with 1.5 to play and hit both free throws.

End of 3rd quarter, Liberty lead, 49-45: The Sun are shooting 33.3 percent from the field (18-for-54), they managed just 12 points in that quarter ... and somehow, they trail by just four points. The Liberty could be breaking this game open, but even though they're shooting well (22-for-45), they made some inexplicable turnovers in that frame and are 2-for-6 from the free throw line. If one of these teams can get it together this frame, they can run away with it. But for right now, neither is playing well.

End of 2nd quarter, Liberty lead, 37-33: Frankly, it's amazing the Sun are only down four. They missed 16 straight shots spanning the first and second quarters, and have missed 22 of their last 27 shots.

The source of their troubles? No Sun reserve has recorded a point and as a group, they're 0-for-9. The Liberty, meanwhile, have gotten a huge lift from their bench (13 points). Leliani Mitchell has six points -- all coming in the second quarter -- and she's given the Sun fits with her quickness. The Liberty are shooting 51.6 percent from the floor, compared to (not surprisingly) the Sun's 33.3.

Asjha Jones has 12 points, but largely stayed to the outside in the second quarter, even taking a 3. She can have her day against Cathrine Kraayeveld inside, but he key is avoiding the Liberty's double teams in the post.

End of 1st quarter, Liberty lead, 19-18: For the second straight game, the Sun started out hot, hitting six of their first seven shots while racing out to a 16-9 lead. But the bench wasn't as productive. The Sun reserves finished the frame 0-for-7 from the field, and New York went on a 10-2 run to close the quarter.

The Sun are making a conscious effort to go to Asjha Jones early and often. The forward already has 10 points, many on lay-ups and jump hooks. Meanwhile, Janel McCarville has been heavily involved for the Liberty; she has eight points.

And then there was one (game) ...

Greetings from Mohegan Sun Arena. Tip-off for Game 3 of the Sun-Liberty first-round series is about 40 minutes away. Here are a few numbers and notes to chew on in the meantime:

* The Sun are 12-3 all-time at home during the playoffs. They've only been eliminated here just once (against Detroit in the 2006 Eastern Conference finals) and are 4-1 when facing elimination at home, including Saturday's 73-70 win in Game 2.

* Dating back to last year's first-round playoff series with Indiana (a span of five games), the Sun have allowed 45 3s on 104 attempts (43.2 percent). Don't be surprised if those numbers rise again tonight. New York averaged a league-high 7.62 3s per game during the regular season. If they're not hitting from long range, the Liberty are going to have to do something spectacularly different or get a big night from Janel McCarville inside.

* Svetlana Abrosimova is starting at shooting guard for the second straight game, joining Lindsay Whalen, Kerri Gardin, Asjha Jones and Tamika Whitmore in the Sun's starting lineup. For New York, it's the same group as usual: Essence Carson, Loree Moore, Shameka Christon, Cathrine Kraayeveld and McCarville. Tonight's officials are Cameron Inouye, Scott Twardoski, Lamont Simpson.

* Whitmore had a rather quiet night offensively in Game 2, scoring six points on 2-of-8 but adding a career-high three steals. But this a player who can carry the Sun's offense when she gets hot and is more likely to do it in the playoffs. She's second all-time in playoff appearances and owns the league's single-game scoring record in the playoffs (41). Just seeing Whitmore around the court the last few days, you can tell her intensity level has risen a few notches. She has the defensive responsibility of corralling Janel McCarville, so expending the extra energy doesn't always bode well on the offensive end. But keep an eye on Whit, which you can on ESPN2.

Pierson hurt

A twist in Detroit's 89-82 Game 2 loss to Indiana on Sunday: Plenette Pierson injured her shoulder and will not be available for Game 3 on Tuesday.

Also, if the Sun are to advance tonight, it appears this would be the schedule for the best-of-three Eastern Conference finals, depending on who advances out of the Shock and Fever.

If Detroit advances...
Game 1, Thursday, at CON
Game 2, Saturday, at DET (held at Eastern Michigan's Convocation Central)
Game 3 (if necessary), Sunday, at DET (held at Eastern Michigan's Convocation Central)

If Indiana advances...
Game 1, Thursday, at IND
Game 2, Saturday, at CON
Game 3 (if necessary), Sunday, at CON

Sunday, September 21, 2008

It seems Game 3s are the cool thing now

Detroit's no lock to make the Eastern Conference finals. Led by Tamika Catchings' 27 points, fourth-seeded Indiana prevailed, 89-82, in overtime Sunday to force a decisive Game 3 in its first-round series with the Shock.

Tammy Sutton-Brown added 19 points and Ebony Hoffman had 12, proving the Fever do have the frontcourt presence to match up with the always physical Shock. The winner of this series, of course, meets Connecticut or New York, who decide their series at 7 p.m. Monday at Mohegan Sun Arena.

Here are a few thoughts, notes and quotes from practice Sunday:

(1) The Sun spent an hour studying film and an hour on the court, a lot of the focus going to stopping New York's 3-point shooting that nearly sunk it in Saturday's 73-70 Game 2 win.

"We got away from what we’re supposed to do," Sun coach Mike Thibault said. "We allowed their 3-point shooters space to shoot. Loree Moore, OK, she makes hers (Moore is a 29 percent 3-point shooter). But (Cathrine) Kraayeveld and (Shameka) Christon, you gotta chase them to where they are. You have to get them off the 3-point line and if you let them get some confidence, they’re going to keep shooting. We had shut Kraayeveld out up until that point and then she makes three (in the fourth quarter) because we go asleep."

Tamika Whitmore called the Sun's mistakes "correctable" and a lot of it probably just comes down to focus: Recognizing where the Liberty's shooters are, closing out and force other people besides Janel McCarville to beat you from places besides the 3-point arc. McCarville, by the way, practiced Sunday, and her knee is not an issue after collapsing to the court for several moments Saturday. Jamie Carey (turf toe) practiced for the Sun, and is available. Thibault said she could have played Saturday, but he chose to go to Erin Phillips more because of the match-up with the bigger Moore.

(2) As for New York's mindset after Saturday's near comeback, New York coach Pat Coyle said she isn't worried about her team's psyche.

"Are they disappointed? Sure they’re disappointed, but that’s not going to stop us from making the adjustments and doing the things that we need to do," she said. "It’s unfortunate that you look at the last quarter and the last three minutes of the game. And to me, it’s about the entire game. The two turnovers we had in the first half can make a difference. It’s unfortunate that you look at the last two or three minutes. But that game wasn’t won or lost in the last two minutes."

Coyle, for the most part, is right. Similar to Connecticut's Game 1 loss in New York on Thursday, if New York had started better or closed the gap slightly in the third quarter, it wouldn't have had to be near perfect from 3 just to be in the game. Unfortunately for them, they weren't, missing three attempts in the final minute.

"I credit Connecticut," Coyle said. "They did a good job. They had their backs up against the wall, they had some desperation. But it was more of us than them. I thought they had a good plan, but it was more of the things that we did and didn’t do."

New York caused Connecticut some problems early Saturday when it isolated McCarville or used mis-matches to their advantage to free her in the post. If McCarville can establish herself — though she hasn't had a break-out game against them yet this year — that can force Connecticut to collapse more, thus opening up more 3-point opportunities. It's a simple formula that's worked for them throughout the year. Thibault called the playoffs "a chess match" and that is just one manuever the Liberty can use.

(3) How Saturday's game played out, though, really leaves this each team without momentum. New York finished strong but lost while Connecticut faded but won. Considering how short these series are anyway, they rarely have a definitive flow, meaning anything can happen Monday night.

"I think you’re just playing one game to move on," Thibault said. "And both teams will be equally motivated, they’ll play equally hard. It’s who executes the game plan better. That’s what it comes down to. What team can focus and stay in the moment for 40 minutes. If you get a lead, you can’t relax. If you get behind, you can’t go crazy. You just have to play. Both sides have to feel that way."

If they advance, this would mark Connecticut's fifth appearance in the conference finals in six years. They've won it twice, in 2004 and 2005. If they don't advance, it'd be the second straight time they've failed to do so.

"It feels a lot like past playoff series," Thibault said. "Somebody gets on a roll and then the other team counters. It’s whoever does it a little bit better."

The Great Escape

There's surviving, and then there's getting hit by a bus and living to tell about it. That's the Sun, who gave coach Mike Thibault every reason to scowl following their 73-70 Game 2 victory Saturday -- and every reason to smile. Despite allowing New York to trim a 13-point lead to one with six 3-pointers, the Sun outlasted the Liberty to force a decisive Game 3 in their Eastern Conference first-round series.

To even begin to predict what will happen in that game (7 p.m., ESPN2) is downright impossible. Already in this series, the Sun have trailed the entire night and scored just 11 points in the first quarter, and then came back two nights later to lead for 39:02, hit their first six shots and then miss 13 of their last 15.


"I can't answer that," coach Mike Thibault said. "If I could answer that, then I would sell that and make a lot more money. I could give up coaching and sell it to everybody else in the world."

Some notes and thoughts from Saturday night's thriller:

(1) I made mention in game story of Svetlana Abrosimova's impact. The Russian import made her first start with the Sun and scored 12 points, including seven in the first quarter to spark the team's fast start. But Amber Holt, despite not starting for the first time in her short career, was solid as a reserve, adding seven points and five rebounds. The rookie and Asjha Jones were the only Sun players to play the entire fourth quarter, and though Holt shot 1-for-8, she made an definitive impact.

"I just felt with two rookies (Holt and Kerri Gardin) on the floor at the start of the game who have been streaky about their shooting, putting Svet on the floor with more experience and being a 3-point shooter would put more pressure on (New York)," Thibault said in explaining the switch. "I thought she did a good job getting us started. I probably should have run a few more plays for her in the fourth quarter. In hindsight, we'll look at the tape and figure it out. I thought we could have gotten her more involved in the offense and we kind of got away from her in the second half. That's probably on me.

"But I thought (the move) would give us a different look, and that Amber would relax a little bit and play better off the bench, which she did."

Abrosimova said that after the Sun started so poorly Thursday in New York, she "took that personally."

"I felt the last game we lost because we didn't start the game well," she said. Her fastbreak lay-up 26 seconds into the game tied it at 2-2 and the Sun were off and running from there.

As for Holt, she felt the switch was a positive one.

"I think it's good, now that I see it," she said. "It's better for me to come off the bench because it gives me more motivation to help my team. And evidently, we had some success off of it. I'm starting to see what needs to be done when it's not done."

Asked of the difference she saw in the Sun from Game 1 to Game 2, New York coach Pat Coyle pointed to hustle plays.

"I just thought they got every loose ball," she said. "And I thought they did a much better job on the glass than we did (37-29). They shot the ball from the free throw line much better than we did (20-of-26, compared to New York's 3-of-5) Twenty-one more free throws, there you go, you lose by three. I can't say that because I don't make enough money to get fined in this league."

(A note: New York has been one of the league's worst teams as far as getting to the free throw line this season. Yes, the officials missed foul calls on both ends, but the Liberty also set themselves up to take just five free throws. They shot 29 3s, nearly half of their total 63 attempts. You're not getting to the free throw line if you do that.)

(2) So what really happened in the last 10 minutes? The Sun, prone to cold streaks, hit one at the wrong time, and when New York started hitting 3 after 3, Connecticut tensed up even more on its own end. By the end of the game, it seemed like no outside Asjha Jones or Tamika Whitmore wanted to take a shot, and even the ones they got seemed rushed. There was one series in which the Sun got three offensive rebounds, but missed three lay-ups. Thibault said he thought the Sun got fouled on at least one, but regardless, that means they missed two open ones.

As for the defense, Cathrine Kraayeveld, who accounted for three of those six fourth-quarter 3s, got hot and largely had nothing but open looks to work with. Jones, Kraayeveld's defender, was guarding against the drive, and never quite committed to playing out on her until she had already hit a couple. Also, the Sun as a team seemed to ease off in the fourth, and was far less aggressive in the passing lanes and on the guards.

"The things I was doing in the first three quarters, I don't think I did in the fourth quarter on defense," Jones said. "Kraayeveld didn't make any 3s the first three quarters, and then she gets three or four. That's how they make their living. They're the best 3-point shooting team in the (East) and you give one of their supreme shooters open looks, you're in for a long night."

Kraayeveld said she didn't think the Sun did "anything special" to keep her from scoring earlier in the game. "I just think we needed to continue to make the extra pass and just continue to run through our stuff," she said. "We know how they are going to defend us, so it's just a matter of not trying to force anything."

Whitmore said the Sun may have tried to help on defense too often, which led to New York getting so many open looks.

"We were stuck on switching and with the post rolling the guard down, we were kind of trying to help and then they have such good 3-point shooters, you really can't help," she said. "We probably just went to help a little soon instead of waiting for them to put the ball on the floor."

(3) New York's Janel McCarville (11 points, five rebounds, six turnovers) never really found a comfort zone after she knocked knees with Abrosimova in the first quarter. But she returned in the second and played 26 minutes. As of right now, it doesn't appear to be anything serious.

"She's fine," Coyle said following the game.

As for other injury news, Jamie Carey dressed but didn't play Saturday. She's still sore from the turf toe, and at this point, it remains unclear if she'll play Monday.

I'm off to practice soon. Check back later this afternoon for more on Monday's game.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Sun-Liberty Game Thread

End of 4th quarter, Sun win 73-70: Wow, was I wrong about the Liberty. But the Sun aren't done. Connecticut withstood six fourth-quarter 3s by the Liberty and survived to force a decisive game 3, set for Monday night here at Mohegan Sun Arena.

New York hit six 3s within 6 and a half minutes, including three in less than two minutes, to whittle the Sun's lead, which had grown to 13 points, down to one with 1:20 to play. But the Liberty missed two 3s thereafter and Tamika Whitmore hit 2-of-4 free throws in the final 30 seconds to escape.

End of third quarter, Sun lead, 62-49: The Sun built a 15-point lead at one time, riding a variety of scorers. Asjha Jones, Svetlana Abrosimova, Tamika Whitmore, Kerri Gardin, Lindsay Whalen and Amber Holt all scored in the period, with Holt coming on strong late with a 3-pointer and four straight free throws.

The Liberty seem to be fading, a problem they've had in the third quarter at times this season, but stay tuned.

End of 2nd quarter, Sun lead, 40-32: Things cooled down a bit offensively for both teams, but it's the Liberty who are visibly frustrated. Shameka Christon, upset over a questionable charging foul called on her, was assessed a technical foul three minutes into the quarter for arguing with the official. Less than six minutes later, McCarville was hit with a T after she made a comment to a ref after her own offensive foul call. The Sun, though, missed both free throws awarded to them.

As for the rest of the quarter, Asjha Jones found a rhythm midway through, scoring six straight points to push her total to 10. Abrosimova, inserted into the starting lineup, is having a great game on both ends and has seven points; and Lindsay Whalen has her usual line (nine points, four rebounds, two assists).

Erin Thorn leads New York with eight points. She was at the center of the Liberty's only legitimate run of the game: a 7-0 spurt midway through the second quarter that had cut the Sun's lead to 32-27.

End of 1st quarter, Sun lead, 25-15: Now that's how you start a playoff game. The Sun played like the exact opposite of themselves Thursday. They hit their first six shots, played aggressive defense and ended the quarter in a flurry, too. Barbara Turner's 3 at the buzzer hit high off the rim and dropped in, giving the Sun a 10-point lead. A big difference has been the Sun's aggressive nature toward the rim. They put the Liberty in the bonus and have made 7-of-8 free throws.

The Liberty, though, have to be keeping an eye on Janel McCarville. The New York center appeared to knock knees with Svetlana Abrosimova (seven points) on a turnover and stayed down on the floor for several moments before they stopped the game. The Liberty trainer was checking her right knee as McCarville was an apparent pain before walking off the court on her own. She is in to start the second quarter, though.

Game 2 pre-game notes

Tip-off is moments away for Game 2 of the Sun and Liberty's first-round series, so here is a speed round edition of notes:

(1) The starting lineups were just released and the Sun made an interesting change: Svetlana Abrosimova is starting in place of rookie Amber Holt, who was the only Sun player to start every game during the regular season. Players and coaches will make a point to say it matters more who finishes a game, but this appears to be the Sun's way of creating more of an offensive spark from the get-go.

Holt is a talented scorer, but she has struggled in recent weeks. Since scoring in double figures in three straight games from Aug. 29 to Sept. 5, she's averaged just three points per game, including her two-point performance Thursday in New York.

Everything else remains the same. The Sun are also starting Lindsay Whalen, Kerri Gardin, Asjha Jones and Tamika Whitmore. For New York, Essence Carson, Loree Moore, Shameka Christon, Cathrine Kraayeveld and Janel McCarville make up its top five.

(2) Keys for the Sun include: Better passing out of double teams in the post, getting better shots and opportunities by incorporating more movement into their offense, and limiting New York from getting a rhythm from behind the 3-point line. The Sun regressed into a lot of one-on-one play on Thursday because New York switched off screens more often, but expect them to make some adjustments.

Jones will also have to find a rhythm. She said it was difficult Thursday with New York collapsing on her more often than in previous games; she shot 4-for-13 from the floor.

"They always double team but they really came after me on every possession," she said. "I think before it was just going in the post. But now it's coming anywhere I touch the ball. So that's a little different."

That's it for now. Check back during the game for updates.

Thibault: 'I’m having the time of my life'

As much as Mike Thibault is in the spotlight, the Connecticut Sun coach doesn't like it if his staff or team isn't with him. He couldn't really avoid it Saturday while accepting the 2008 WNBA COach of the Year award at a pre-game press conference, but he did his best.

"Let’s talk a little about you," WNBA president Donna Orender said after a few minutes of speaking of the team in general. "Can we do that?"

"Briefly," Thibault said, smiling.

After Orender called the Sun "a flagship franchise for the WNBA," Thibault pointed out the impact his assistants Bernadette Mattox and Scott Hawk and the rest of his staff have had on the team, as well as the organization's ownership for allowing him to guide the franchise as he sees fit. With his wife, Nanci, seated a few rows in front of him, he also thanked her and their children, Eric and Carly, for understanding how all-engrossing his career can be and allowing "me to do my life’s passion and (allowing) me to be who I am."

He also suggested an amendment to the award's presentation.

"It should say coaches of the year and it should say staff of the year and it should say franchise of the year for allowing us to do what we do," Thibault said from the podium, Orender to his left. "I’m not big on individual awards, from MVPs to comebacks to all of those things. I believe in team first and foremost and what we’ve been able to do here more than anything else is embody what a team should be."

Thibault, rarely the one for hyperbole, also did little to hide his appreciation for the position he's in.

"In the previous couple years before I came here, I got involved in watching my daughter’s AAU program and helping coach that and following the women’s college game more and seeing that there was a great future ahead in the WNBA," he said. "I had friends in the league that encouraged me to do it. They said I would have a great time, and it would be rewarding. And they were all right. This has been a great opportunity that I treasure, and I’m having the time of my life doing it."

Thibault, no doubt, is under a bit more pressure than usual considering on the day he's being honored as the league's best, his team sits one game from elimination. His press conference touched upon several different areas, including his expectations since the first day he came here (think: championship) and on how this group reinvigorated the franchise.

But past that, he was asked if he could separate appreciating this team's success and what he still wants to accomplish.

"In an ideal world, that would be nice to do because no matter what happens, we have had a great year," he said. "But I am pretty competitive and I get up every day thinking of ways to win a championship. And we talk in terms to our team about the things you have to do throughout a season to be a championship-caliber team.

"It’s hard to separate that because ultimately your fans and a lot of people judge you on whether you’ve won a championship. And I have a lot of respect for teams that have never won a championship but had great teams. But ultimately, you would like to be the last one standing at the end of the year, and that’s the goal every day when I get up."

I know this is turning into a transcription of the press conference, but Thibault had a lot of good things to say.

An interesting topic of discussion was how most players who know Thibault, whether they've played under him or not, rave about him and the work he does. Asked of what it is about him and this team that draws such high regard from those around the league, Thibault deflected the praise, but added his straight-forward approach is probably the biggest reason.

"What you see is what you get every day (with me)," he said. "I am who I am, I tell them what they need to hear, not necessarily what they want to hear. And I have a coaching staff and a group around us that those players know me every day and they come to work and know somebody has their best interests at heart.

"That’s a nice compliment that those players said that," he later added, "but I think that’s a compliment to our whole staff and organization that that’s how we’re perceived."

It's official: Thibault is top coach

As reported Friday, Mike Thibault has been named the 2008 WNBA Coach of the Year. Thibault received 24 votes to out-pace Dan Hughes (second, with nine) and Brian Agler (third, with five). Thibault also earned the award in 2006, and is the third coach to receive the honor multiple times. Hughes, last year's recipient, was also honored in 2001 after coaching the Cleveland Rockers, and current LSU coach Van Chancellor won the first three awards as the coach of the Houston Comets (1997-'99).

Some other Thibault facts: His .623 career winning percentage is fourth best all-time and last season he was the third-fastest coach to reach 100 regular-season wins. This season, the Sun ranked third in the league in scoring and tied for first in point-differential, all while starting at least two rookies in 25 games and three rookies once.

A press conference is scheduled for 5:15 p.m. here at Mohegan Sun Arena. Check back later for more reaction as well as a look-ahead to tonight's Game 2 match-up between the No. 2 and the third-seeded New York Liberty (7 p.m., NBA TV).

Friday, September 19, 2008

Hoffman, Leslie take home yearly league honors

And the awards continue to come in. Ebony Hoffman was named the WNBA's Most Improved Player Friday and Lisa Leslie was named Defensive Player of the Year.

Hoffman received 31 votes from a national panel of sportswriters and broadcasters. Chicago Sky guard Jia Perkins finished second with five votes and New York Liberty forward Shameka Christon placed third with two votes. Barbara Turner received one vote. My prediction of Le'Coe Willingham as runner-up was unfounded apparently.

In her fifth season in the league, Hoffman set career highs in points (10.4 ppg), rebounds (7.8 rpg), assists (1.8 apg), steals (1.4 spg), field goal percentage (46.5) and three-point percentage (45.6). Her scoring average was four points greater than her previous high in 2006 (6.4 ppg) while she collected nearly three rebounds per game more than she did two seasons ago (5.7 rpg). Her 2008 statistics placed her fifth in the league in rebounding and second among league leaders in three-point field goal percentage.

When asked earlier this week if she thought Hoffman was the hands-down favorite for this award, Indiana coach Lin Dunn said, "I don't see who else would in that category."

"I think it's about opportunity," Dunn continued. "With Whit's (Tamika Whitmore's) departure to Connecticut, she (Hoffman) has gotten the opportunity to start. And I think she felt an enormous amount of confidence from us. We felt she could do it, we know she could play the four-spot like we wanted her to with a back-to-the-basket-type game, as well as a face-up game where she can shoot 3s or drive. How we wanted to use her complemented the skills she already had. The other thing is she is in better shape."

Leslie, meanwhile, beat out a long list of candidates with a convincing 20 votes. Thirteen other players received votes, including Connecticut's Asjha Jones, who got two, and Detroit's Katie Smith, who was second with five. It's Leslie second DPOY honor.

She led the WNBA in both total blocks (97) and blocks per game (2.94) She totaled 22 more blocks than teammate Candace Parker (75), who placed second among league leaders, and nearly tied her career high of 98 set in 2004. Leslie rejected five or more shots in seven games this season, including a season-high eight blocks against Sacramento on Aug. 28 and against Minnesota two games later on Sept. 1.

Last season, the Sparks ranked 11th in the WNBA in team defense allowing 79.6 points per game while posting a league-worst -5.1 point differential. With Leslie back in the lineup, Los Angeles jumped to sixth in team defense and shaved more than five points off the per game average, finishing at 74.2 points against per game.

Each player receives a Tiffany trophy and $5,000.

Breaking News: Thibault to be named Coach of the Year

Mike Thibault is expected to be named the WNBA's Coach of the Year Saturday prior to the start of Game 2 of the Sun's first-round series with the New York Liberty at Mohegan Sun Arena. It's the second time Thibault has earned the award, the first coming two years ago after leading the Sun to their second straight 26-8 regular season.

The Sun entered this year's postseason at 21-13 and as the No. 2 seed in the East after at least two national media outlets predicted they would finish sixth in the Eastern Conference, ahead of only the expansion Atlanta Dream.

Since Thibault took over the Sun prior to the 2003 season, no WNBA franchise has won more regular season games (106). Detroit has won the same amount.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Liberty take Game 1

The Sun couldn't erase a horrid first quarter with a late comeback and the Liberty took Game 1 of their first-round playoff series, 72-63,Thursday at Madison Square Garden. Some key stats from the loss, Connecticut's fourth in five games, including the regular season: Just two Sun players scored in double figures (Tamika Whitmore, 16; Asjha Jones, 11); the Liberty out-rebounded Connecticut, 35-29; and the Sun shot 37.5 percent, getting a combined eight points from Lindsay Whalen (six points, six assists) and Amber Holt.

No New York

For those of you who planned on checking into this blog during the game, I will not be in New York tonight. My newspaper made the decision not to send me, and I will be working on the desk back in Norwich. I'll have an update after the game and a follow-up post tomorrow, but for those of you who are going, as always, feel free to publish your comments upon returning tonight. Tip-off is 7 p.m. The game is on NBA TV and MSG, for those of you who get either channel.

Losing an inspiration

For the first time on this blog, I'm writing about something that has nothing to do with the Sun or the WNBA, but has meaning to me that extends far past that. I just returned from Natick, Mass., where I attended the funeral mass of Jack Falla, a long-time professor at Boston University, a former hockey writer for Sports Illustrated and an author of several books, including Open Ice, which was recently released. Prof. Falla, as I've always called him, died of a heart attack early Sunday morning.

He was the one person I'll always remember from my days at the College of Communication at BU. He taught with the same passion he covered sports, and was one of the finest professors that school had and ever will have. He always scheduled his popular sports journalism class for 8:30 a.m., his way of driving out the students who were just looking for a good time (which the class was) and pulling in the ones who could really benefit from everything he could teach them.

The things those outside his classroom will remember him for are many: He was a definitive voice in hockey and remained so through his works up until his death. He was a devoted father, a loving husband and a dear friend to anyone who knew him. To me, no person has had more of an influence on my career and how I approach each day of what I do. One of three references I've used since my junior year in college, he always told me in e-mails, "If I get the call, I'll go into Scott Boras mode for you." And I never doubted that he did.

I've posted a few links from columns and stories written about him in recent days, but as a man who mastered mixing life, sports and the English language — usually all in the same sentence — he left people with many sayings, including this my good friend and BU classmate Mike Lipka used in his final column at our school newspaper: Keep your head up. Keep your stick on the ice. And just try to get the ball past the next first down marker.

You'll be missed, Jack.

Links from: the Boston Herald, Boston Globe, Fluto Shinzawa's blog. Update: ESPN.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Whalen named a Peak Performer

There really was no guess work on these awards, but they're honors nonetheless ...

Sun point guard Lindsay Whalen was one of three players named as a WNBA Peak Performer for the 2008 season. Whalen led the league in assists and joins Phoenix's Diana Taurasi (points leader) and Los Angeles' Candace Parker (rebounds) as this year's honorees. Each player will receive a Tiffany trophy in honor of their accomplishments.

Whalen, who set Connecticut’s all-time franchise assist record in 2008, now has 808 for her career, including 166 this season. She finished the year with 19 games in which she totaled five or more assists, and set a season high with nine on July 1, the night she broke the Sun's all-time mark.

Taurasi turned in the second-best scoring season in WNBA histroy, ranking behind the records she set in 2006 (25.3 ppg and 860 total points). She scored 30 or more 10 times this season, including a season-high 37 at Seattle on June 11, and tallied more than 20 points in 26 of 34 games. On July 8 against Houston, she became the fastest player to reach the 3,000-point plateau in league history, besting 2007 Peak Performer and defending league MVP Lauren Jackson’s previous record by 11 games. Taurasi already ranks in the top 20 for all-time total points in a WNBA career (3,398) and in the top three for all-time scoring average (20.3 ppg).

Parker was the only player to average more than nine rebounds per game this year. She tallied 10 or more rebounds on 17 occasions this season, including three of her first four games as a professional. Parker also tied her career-high of 16 rebounds three times in 2008, originally set on May 29 at Indiana. In that game, she tallied five or more in five statistical categories (16 points, 16 rebounds, six blocks, five assists and five steals) to accomplish the league’s first "5 x 5." Parker also led the league in double-doubles with 17.

The Playoffs Preview, in brief (sort of)

Here are capsules previewing all of the first-round playoff series in the East and West. I might have a little something extra to post Friday when the Fever and Shock officially kick off, but hopefully, this helps give you some insight to each series. (Also, forgive some overlap in the New York-Connecticut box from previous posts. These capsules may or may not run in full in print.)

Eastern Conference Playoff Capsules

No. 1 Detroit Shock (22-12) vs. No. 4 Indiana Fever (17-17)
Season series
: 3-0, Detroit
Game 1: 7 p.m. Friday, Conseco Fieldhouse (Indianapolis), NBA TV
Detroit’s outlook: The Shock enter the playoffs with five straight wins, two of the league’s most-proven stars and a deep bench to hold it all together. And yet, they’re flying as far under the league’s radar as they have in quite a while.

“Yes and no,” coach Bill Laimbeer said. “The ‘no’ part is because we are the Detroit Shock and we are arguably the villains or whatever moniker you want to put on us. … But I would say we’re under the radar only because we’ve changed our ball club with lots of rookies, we’ve had significant injuries and we lost a couple games we shouldn’t have lost. Other than that, we might have the overall best record.”

Not having Cheryl Ford (torn ACL) for the postseason hurts, but Taj McWilliams-Franklin (10.7 points, 6.7 rebounds in seven games) has been solid if not spectacular in her place.

She’s helped Detroit keep its place as the league’s best rebounding team, and between Katie Smith and Deanna Nolan (a combined 30.5 points per game), the defending Eastern Conference champions are still the favorite to repeat that feat.

Indiana’s outlook: All season, the Fever have underachieved. Inconsistency and injuries have plagued them, and they haven’t lived up to their own defensive standards, even if they lead the East in fewest points allowed.

But outside the lingering knee pain of Katie Douglas, who will play, Indiana is as healthy as it’s been and the time on the court showed in the season’s final weeks. It won four of seven and topped 74 points six times, its best offensive stretch of the year.

“Before the Olympic break, I don’t know if we had five practices all together,” coach Lin Dunn said. “The thing we’re looking forward to is playing Detroit at full strength. We think we match up well with them, we have a lot of respect for them, but we think we can cause them some problems.”

Having an in-shape Tamika Catchings (13.3 points, 6.3 rebounds) helps, and Ebony Hoffman (10.4, 7.8) is a leading candidate for the league’s Most Improved Player award. The question is if Tammy Sutton-Brown is ineffective or gets into foul trouble, does Indiana have enough post play?

“This will be a defensive series. It’s, ‘How do you score?’ Laimbeer said. “That’s how I look at it.”

No. 2 Connecticut Sun (21-13) vs. No. 3 New York Liberty (19-15)
Season series
: 2-1, Connecticut
Game 1: 7 p.m. today, Madison Square Garden (New York), NBA TV/MSG
Connecticut’s outlook: Despite three losses in their final four games, the Sun hardly feel they’re entering the playoffs in a poor spot. League assists leader Lindsay Whalen has rested most of the last week to allow her sprained right ankle to heal and Asjha Jones (17 points per game) has been perhaps the East’s most consistent forward this season.

They feel they hold a trump card, though, in Tamika Whitmore who can surpass San Antonio’s Vickie Johnson for the WNBA record for career playoff appearances given a long run. Also, her career best scoring marks have all come in the playoffs.

A key will be breaking both New York’s full-court pressure and adjusting to their constant double-teams in the post. Avoiding a shooting cold snap is also paramount.

New York’s outlook: The league’s youngest team, New York is also experienced. It played its way into last year’s playoffs before nearly knocking off Detroit, and returned virtually its entire team, while adding a stand-out rookie in Essence Carson.

There are many things it does well: shoot 3s (first in the East), force steals (second) and spread the responsibility past go-to players Shameka Christon (15.7 points) and Janel McCarville (13.7). The coaching staff is keeping an eye on McCarville’s balky back while hoping to return top reserve Tiffany Jackson, who may not play because of a stress fracture.

But as one of the few teams that can match the Sun’s depth not that they’ve added Erin Phillips and Svetlana Abrosimova, New York has split many opinions on who will emerge from this series.

Western Conference Playoff Capsules

No. 1 San Antonio Silver Stars (24-10) vs. No. 4 Sacramento Monarchs (18-16)
Season series
: 2-1, San Antonio
Game 1: 9 p.m. today, ARCO Arena (Sacramento, Calif.), ESPN2
San Antonio’s outlook: A general consensus around the WNBA has San Antonio pegged as far and away the league’s best team. That’s probably right. Sophia Young (17.5 points, 5.6 rebounds) may just be this year’s MVP, and if she’s not, Becky Hammon and her 17.6 points and 4.9 assists per game have a shot.

But besides those players’ improved play, a huge difference in this year’s San Antonio team is Ann Wauters. The Belgian center has given the Silver Stars a dangerous post presence and a defensive authority in the paint, a huge asset it lacked a year ago when it reached the Western Conference finals.

Sacramento has a strong frontcourt, too, with Rebekkah Brunson, Nicole Powell and an improved Adrian Williams-Strong, but San Antonio made be too good, here. It ranks second in the league in fewest points allowed and no team has shot better than it this season.

“They’ve got too balanced an offense on the perimeter,” ESPN analyst Carolyn Peck said of San Antonio.

Sacramento’s outlook: The Monarchs have played the underdog role all year, so why can’t it succeed here again? Despite some youth, they have veterans in Kara Lawson, Brunson and Ticha Penicheiro who have played major roles in six straight playoff appearances, and before the Olympic break, they were the West’s hottest team with seven wins in eight games.

Lawson, the league’s Defending Sixth Player of the Year, transitioned wonderfully to the starting lineup, where she averaged 12.2 points. Nicole Powell (a career-high 78 3s) has remained one of the top 3-point shooting forwards in the league.

The problem is this Sacramento team has hardly been the defensive squad of past years. Of all this year’s playoff teams, it’s allowed the most points and ranked dead-last in the league, tied with the expansion Atlanta Dream in opponents’ field goal percentage (45 percent).

It held San Antonio to fewer than 70 points twice this season, but their last meeting on Saturday was not pretty: The Silver Stars shot 59 percent from the field, even without their starting backcourt.

No. 2 Seattle Storm (22-11) vs. No. 3 Los Angeles Sparks (20-14)
Season series
: 2-1, Los Angeles
Game 1: 10:30 p.m. Friday, Staples Center (Los Angeles), NBA TV
Seattle’s outlook: This is a matchup of talented teams with major issues, perhaps first and foremost the Storm’s health.

Sue Bird has played at an MVP-level since the Olympic break, averaging 19 points per game before playing a scoreless three minutes in the regular-season finale. But Sheryl Swoopes (concussion) and Swin Cash (back pain) haven’t played since Sept. 6, and while Swoopes may return, Cash remains questionable. Lauren Jackson is back with the team following ankle surgery, but the defending league MVP won’t be available for at least a few weeks.

The Storm enter the playoffs as the league’s top defensive team and with the WNBA’s best home record (16-1), but how those absences affect their ability to control Los Angeles and its three-headed Olympian remains to be seen.

Camille Little (9.7 points) and Tanisha Wright (7.9) will have to come up big.

Los Angeles’ outlook: No one doubts the Sparks’ ability to win this series with imminent Rookie of the Year Candace Parker, Lisa Leslie and DeLisha Milton-Jones. Together, they average 47.5 points and 25 rebounds a game and represent one of the best frontcourts to ever play in the WNBA.

But L.A. has never gotten the consistent play it hoped for out of its backcourt, and that’s why many consider its No. 3 seed a huge disappointment. Marie Ferdinand-Harris is shooting 37 percent from the field, Temeka Johnson has had a difficult season both on and off the court, and rookie Shannon Bobbitt — all 5-foot-2 of her — hasn’t proven she can be the leader at point guard.

But the Sparks’ greatest strengths come in areas where Seattle has been weakened, as Yolanda Griffith can’t handle Parker and Leslie by herself. Los Angeles also owns the second best road record in the league, though 8-9 is hardly something to cheer about.

Whalen weighs in

Lindsay Whalen wrote on's player blog that her ankle feels "pretty good" and to not put too much stock in the Sun's three-game losing streak during September.

Is it weird that I'm blogging about a blog post? Has the Internet overlapped on itself?

McCarville: Whalen's the MVP

A meeting of the New York Liberty and Connecticut Sun also means the reunion of Janel McCarville and Lindsay Whalen, two of Minnesota's most famous basketball alumni and leaders of that 2004 Final Four team. They were and remain great friends, and worked off each other beautifully while teammates. Part of it is because they're both so versatile, another because they're both, as New York's Shameka Christon put it, "crafty."

"She’s a great post-passer with all the cutting around the basketball," Whalen said of McCarville. "She was great at it. We played off each other really well."

They also still cheer for each other. Whalen has McCarville's vote for MVP.

"With the team they (the Sun) have had and the experience they had coming in, losing the people they did, I would not put it past her (to win MVP)," McCarville said. "She definitely has my vote. And I’ll be as happy as all can be if she ends up getting it. She definitely deserves it."

Of course, unless McCarville ditches her Liberty jersey for a Newsday press pass, she won't be voting for MVP. She's not alone though.

Said New York coach Pat Coyle: "Whalen easily could be the MVP in this league. She would probably get my vote because she’s had an unbelievable year."

New York, New York

First, here's a quick reference on the third-seeded New York Liberty (19-15), the Sun's first-round opponent in the WNBA playoffs:

(1) The youngest team in the league, they boast five first- or second-year players. Their most experienced player is Erin Thorn, a player in her fifth year who has gone from starter last season to little-used reserve this summer. After her, just one player (Shameka Christon) has more than four years of WNBA service.

(2) They're the best 3-point shooting team in the East (36.1 percent).

(3) They're 1-2 against the Sun this season, winning, 77-71, at Mohegan Sun Arena on July 15 behind 18 points from Tiffany Jackson and a 15-for-15 showing from the free throw line. (That, by the way, was the only home game I didn't attend this season. It was the day after I underwent an appendectomy.) The teams' two other matchups came within the first four games of the season.

(4) They lost three of four to close the season after entering the Olympic break as the hottest team in the league (six wins in seven games).

(5) They rank near the bottom of the league in both rebounding and free throw attempts, two areas Sun coach Mike Thibault targets as difference-makers in the playoffs. "They become magnified," he said. "They should be key all the time, but for whatever reason, they seem to be huge indicators in how you play in a playoff game." That said, turnovers also tend to play a huge role in the postseason. New York is largely middle of the road, both in how many they commit and force.

If you need to know anything about the series, that's a good start. But if you ever read this blog before, you know I don't like keeping my posts short. Whether people like that or not, I don't know. All I do know is I have a lot to discuss here. So here go the bullet points again ...

(1) Much like the Sun, the Liberty enter the playoffs with injury questions. The league's reigning Most Improved Player of the Year, Janel McCarville missed three of the last four games with back spasms. She practiced Tuesday -- the team's first session since the end of the regular season -- and even did an individual workout Monday on the team's off day.

"If she wasn’t 100 percent, she wouldn’t be on the floor, especially with your muscles in the back," New York coach Pat Coyle said.

McCarville said her back is "feeling pretty good" and she doesn't see it as an issue for the playoffs.

"I should be good to go," she said by phone Tuesday. "I’m not quite there (at 100 percent) but by Thursday, I should be good to go."

Tiffany Jackson, the team's top reserve and a player Coyle considers a Sixth Man of the Year candidate, remains day to day with a stress fracture. The team's leading scorer, Shameka Christon has been back for several games, but the strained hamstring that sidelined her for three contests, like most hamstring injuries, could crop back up.

"Well, I’m really trying not to think about it," she said. "All I can do really is just ice and stretch. That’s pretty much about it. I know me and I know my game. I’m a rhythm player, so I’m going to have to play through whatever to maintain any kind of rhythm."

Concerns aside, the Liberty are practicing close to full strength for the first time in weeks, which has naturally restored some confidence heading into Thursday.

"Before the break, we were the hottest team in the WNBA," Christon said. "Then we had the break, which was definitely needed, and to come back after the break, it was a little sluggish with the injuries and everything. So to actually come back and to have everybody back and a full intense practice, it’s definitely a good thing for us because we want to get back to the New York Liberty we were before the Olympic hiatus."

(2) Also like the Sun (this is a pattern), the Liberty sport one of the deepest benches in the league. Twelve players average at least 10 minutes (I include Ashley Battle, who plays 9.9) and outside of Christon (15.7 points per game) and McCarville (13.7), no one is in double figures but seven players average within five points of each other.

"If you think you just have to shut down Shameka Christon or McCarville or (Catherine) Kraayeveld, if you focus just on two or three people, you’re going to let other people come off the bench and hurt you," Thibault said.

The Liberty were one of the most balanced teams a year ago, but the improved scoring of Christon (which I will get to in a little bit) and the addition of talented rookies like Essence Carson and Erlana Larkins have added more punch to that depth. The recent injuries have also put some players in more high-pressure situations, to which they responded. With McCarville out, Jessica Davenport scored in double figures three times, Larkins twice.

It's made those players even more confident and seemingly more dangerous, similar to Jamie Carey and Erin Phillips when Whalen missed three games.

"We’re comfortable with putting any one of our players in at any time and going with them," McCarville said. "That’s a big thing for us, and that’s part of the reason why we’ve been so successful."

(3) Christon had evolved into a very solid player in her first four years in the league, including last season when she averaged 11.2 points and 4.0 rebounds. But she, like McCarville, went to another level this season, even more so than McCarville from an offensive standpoint.

She's shooting nearly 40 percent and hit a career-high 71 3s, improving her scoring average by more than four points (a pretty significant jump when you're playing 40-minute games). More importantly, she's become a go-to player for the Liberty, something they sorely lacked amidst all that balance last year. She's taking nearly three shots more per game (9.9 to 12.4) and has played more confidently because of it.

"After last season, I spoke with the coaches and we both had decided then, ‘This is my role for next season,’" Christon said. "I had a pretty good offseason playing in Spain, and then to came back, I really have to give all the credit to my teammates and my coaches. They’ve all been very supportive. You’re not going to have a great game every single game. It’s not going to happen. And even when I don’t have my great games, they still trust me, they still go to me. And I think for me, that goes a long way."

While Christon deflects the praise, Coyle gives it right back to her forward.

"We’ve tried to move her around more," the coach said. "We tried to get her more touches, understanding what her skill set is. She’s done a good job of reading and reacting to different things. I think a lot of credit goes to her because she works on her game. She’s just not a 3-pointer shooter. She’s not just a slasher. She has a pretty good in-between game, a good post-up game. We’re trying to utilize all of those skills this year."

Thibault compared Christon's mindset to that of Asjha Jones, in the sense that she understands that she needs to be a scorer for her team to succeed. And like Jones, she had "a willingness to take on that responsibility," Thibault said.

(4) As for X's and O's and match-ups, I'll leave it to the players to give their takes.

McCarville: "Whalen’s a great player, she can create a lot of things for herself and create a lot for her teammates. I saw that first-hand when we were in college. I know exactly what she can bring every day and she’s definitely a key for them. And with Whit (Tamika Whitmore) and Asjha, they can hurt you from inside-out as well. They’re a tough team, and they know how to attack us, too."

Christon: "For Connecticut, they’re well-coached, they’re disciplined. But I think the main key for them is Lindsay Whalen. She’s deceptively quick and she’s crafty, so you have to be careful. She does a great job of getting her team into things, setting them up as well as getting her points. It’s nothing for her to go down in transition and use one of her teammates that are running back in transition and use them as a screen without them even knowing and she’ll score a lay-up.

"But Loree (Moore) is definitely a good match-up against her. She’s a quick guard, she’s tough. And she’s our engine. And then we have Janel McCarville, who’s the most selfless player on this team."

Jones: "I think that third game, the last game we played (during the regular season), is how the series is going to go. It was back-and-forth, back-and-forth, and they do things that disrupt your team with their press and the trapping in the post. How well we handle those things I think is going to be the tell-tale of how the series goes for us."

That's all for now. Check back tomorrow for previews on all the playoff series in both the East and West. I'll include a small thing on Connecticut-New York just to mop up any points I missed or drive home the more important ones, but considering all I've posted (and will write for the paper) about that series, Indiana-Detroit will have more of an in-depth feel here. It will be less so for the West, but it'll include predictions none the less.