Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Phillips, Jackson ... and some non-Australians, too

A lot of news and notes coming out of Mohegan Sun Arena and the WNBA on Tuesday. Let's get to it:

(1) Erin Phillips arrived in Connecticut Tuesday morning to practice with the Sun, but not after a horrid travel day. She departed Beijing at 8 p.m. on Monday after forgetting her travel itinerary at the Olympic village and nearly missing her flight because of traffic and proceeded to have lay-overs in Hong Kong, L.A. and Denver before arriving in Hartford between 5 and 6 a.m. on Tuesday East Coast time, a span of nearly 22 hours. She also became motion sick on the flight from Hong Kong to L.A.

"The turbulence was bad and I was right in the back," Phillip said.

Sun coach Mike Thibault estimated the 5-foot-7 Australian got about three hours of sleep before she participated in a full practice at Mohegan. Even after all that, Phillip was still visibly excited to be back with the Sun. She is available and expected to play Thursday when the team's season re-launches at Indiana.

"The thing is I want to play," she said. "It’s been two years since I’ve played with this team and I can’t believe I’m here. We finally touched down this morning and I couldn’t believe it. It was crazy. I think what I’m nervous about is I haven’t played a proper game of basketball in such a long time. I’ve trained for so long and you train to play. I’m sitting there and watching the absolute best basketball in the world, (and after that), you definitely want to play."

Phillips won a silver medal in Beijing with the Australian national team but was a little used reserve (she estimated she played about three minutes a game) and she didn't even make it into the gold medal contest. This, after skipping the first portion of the WNBA season to train with the national team. Still, she said she wouldn't trade the Olympic experience for anything, as, at 23, she figures to be a huge part of the team for 2012 in London.

"I knew right from the start I wasn’t going to be playing a lot," she said. "I didn’t know it was going to be three minutes or whatever. I was behind two amazing point guards in Kristi Harrower and Tully Bevilaqua so it’s hard to complain. I would love to play rather than watch but at the same time I got to learn a huge amount from those two as well. And I did as much as I could from the bench to help the team. I did not feel like I was less part of the team because I didn’t play 40 minutes. I had a fantastic time."

Phillips went on to call the whole scene of being inside the Olympic village "surreal."

"You walk in there and you walk past Rafael Nadal, (Roger) Federer and the American men’s basketball Dream Team are in there having lunch. And there’s the fastest man in the world on your left and the person who can jump the highest on your right. It was like our own little world in there, it’s so hard to describe. And everybody was on their own little mission."

As for the impact Phillips can make on the Sun: Thibault kept his expectations tempered, saying it remains to be seen, but Phillips is a physical guard who can play both positions in the backcourt (and will, similar to in 2006), is, according to the coach, an above average defender and "her offense has improved greatly since she was her before."

"Great effort will help her with some of it because defensively, you can pick it up right away," Thibault said. "Offensively, that’s going to take some time, but I’m probably going to play her at the two (guard position) some, to let her play with Lindsay (Whalen) like we did that year Nykesha (Sales) was out (in 2006 for the final 13 games). That’s probably more likely to happen then I let her just jump in and be the back-up point guard. I’m not necessarily aiming for that right now."

Said Phillips: "One of the things is Mike’s given me a lot of confidence. I enjoy playing here so much under him. I’m excited to getting back to where I sort of left out two years ago."

If I had to take a guess, Phillips will likely see 12 to 15 minutes Thursday against the Fever, just as she works herself into the offense. That whole game may be a re-feeling out period for everyone on the Sun anyway. Phillips said she's already tried to do her part to help the team that night.

"I tried to get Tully (who plays for Indiana) as drunk as I could on the last night (in Beijing)," Phillips said, laughing. "I did really well. I was trying to get her on the dance floor all night, trying to get people dancing with her. ‘Just dance with her all night, make her so tired so by Thursday, she won’t know how to walk.’"

Phillips was toting around her silver medal at the arena Tuesday, which not surprisingly attracted a crowd of anyone and everyone who wanted to see and feel an actual medal. It's pretty impressive but not as heavy as you would think. For the time being, Phillips will likely keep it in a safety deposit box for protection.

And for those wondering, Thibault didn't receive a gold medal from Beijing. Medals are for players only.

Now for some notes around the league:

(2) The Seattle Storm are 17-9 and sit just a half-game back of first in the crowded Western conference standings. But their outlook (at least from the outside) is rather bleak with the news that Lauren Jackson will miss four to six weeks, and likely the season, after choosing to undergo ankle surgery, and Swin Cash revealing she took a cortisone shot to relieve back trouble over the break.

Jackson has played through ankle troubles all season before re-aggravating it during a pre-Olympic tournament and playing through it to help her country to the silver medal. She's set to have surgery Thursday, and Seattle coach Brian Agler said "I think it will be real difficult for her to get back on the floor for us, even with we were close enough to get in the playoffs."

"We understand that Lauren has a tremendous desire to win a gold medal and fought through it (at the Olympics)," Agler said on the WNBA's re-launch conference call Tuesday. "She made the decision to have her surgery, which will take place on Thursday, and we support her decision. We want the best for her. And (as far as) how or if she would play for us again, I think it would be a stretch for her to get back. But she assured me that she’s a quick healer and she’s responded well to surgery in the past."

Jackson was a top candidate to repeat as WNBA MVP. He team-leading 20.2 points and 7.0 rebounds per game will be hard to replace, as will be Cash's 11.3 and 5.7, respectively, if she misses a significant amount of time down the stretch.

"I know with Lauren Jackson having surgery, a lot of people question if we can even make the playoffs," Storm guard Sue Bird said. "But we still feel very confident (being) only half a game back out of first in the West. We’re just going to try to finish up strong."

Seattle currently leads L.A. and Sacramento (both 15-12) by a 2 1/2 games for the final playoff spot in the conference.

(3) Every team stayed busy over the break with their own individual workouts, but no team made as big a move as Detroit, which acquired former Sun forward Taj McWilliams-Franklin from Washington on Aug. 12 in exchange for rookie forward Tasha Humphrey, guard Eshaya Murphy and a second-round pick in the 2009 draft.

The move was a direct response to losing Cheryl Ford for the season to a torn ACL, and gives the Shock a much-needed veteran presence, as well as an added scoring boost in the frontcourt. In 26 games with Washington this season, she averaged 13.3 points and 7.3 rebounds.

Detroit also signed her to a one-year contract extension.

"We were young," Detroit coach Bill Laimbeer said. "We had three rookies who were going to be counted on. We thought that was too many. So we brought in Taj. She’s an experienced player and she actually makes our team better with her calmness and with her pointers to our players. They respect her and in our practices, our level of intensity and our level of concentration has improved dramatically (since she arrived)."

McWilliams-Franklin said she could sense a trade was coming from Washington through her discussions with the management there, but she said she was surprised she landed in Detroit, a team the Mystics (just two games out of playoff spot) play twice to finish the regular season.

"I think if anywhere I would go somewhere where they wouldn’t be play the team again, especially in the East," she said. "But I’m happy I landed in Detroit. I think Coach Laimbeer has been trying to get me since pretty much the first year I played in Connecticut. Just I was off limits so the fact that he got me here, I think he’s happy about that. He talks to me every day about me being here so I’m real excited."

This is the third time in less than two years McWilliams-Franklin has been traded, starting first when the Sun dealt her to the Los Angeles Sparks, who in turn sent her to Washington prior to this season for DeLisha Milton-Jones. But this is the first time she's been traded during the season (those moves are rare anyway in the WNBA), and she's treating the adjustment period the same way she would coming back from overseas play.

"It’s a lot of emotions getting traded," she said. "I just shut it all down and restarted. I’m on a new team, I threw out all the old stuff, all the defense, offenses and just filled my brain with the new Detroit Shock stuff. I’ve only been here like 10 days but it took me a good three days to shut it all down and restart.

"I won’t every say I’m the normal Detroit Shock type of player because I’m still learning what that as," she continued. "But I can only be me on the court and that’s why Coach Laimbeer brought me here to do what Taj McWilliams-Franklin does best and that’s to help them win more games."

Tamika Whitmore, who was also on Tuesday's conference call, congratulated McWilliams-Franklin on the deal, and called it an "opportunity" for the veteran forward and a "good move" for the Shock.

"Playing against Taj all these years, she’s always telling me what I could have done, like, you stepped in when you actually could have stepped back and went baseline," Whitmore said. "She’s always been that teacher on the court. I think with her acquisition with Detroit, I think it will really help a lot of the young players that they have there."

Laimbeer also said he's reworked Detroit's offensive sets, calling the previous system "stale" after a few years' use. He wouldn't reveal specifics, but told Thibault he'll have all the tape he'll need after a few games when the Sun coach jokingly asked, "Can you send me a copy of (of your new plays) so I have them?"

(4) Here's the second story that will run in Wednesday's paper on the returning Olympians' adjustment back to the WNBA.

An added note from Candace Parker, who slept the entire plane ride back from Beijing and has trouble adjusting her sleeping patterns since: "We know it’s very crucial with the West being so tight. You can’t take games getting used to the time. You have to jump right back into it. I think that I will be ready come Thursday."

(5) Bird came away very impressed by Beijing, and said she thoroughly enjoyed her second Olympic stint, from the atmosphere to taking the United States fourth straight gold.

"For me personally, this Olympics was much difference because my role was much different," she said. "My first Olympics was more so a learning practice and hopefully being able to take the torch ... and be ready for this Olympics. But I hate to talk up China because it makes it sound like Greece (in 2004) was bad and Greece wasn't bad; it was amazing as well.

"But China, everything from the people, the venues, the way things were run there, it really was first class. The city of Beijing, they were ready. They were ready. The cab situation is a different story," she jokingly added. "They weren't ready with cabs but other than that, you really can't complain."

What made the experience even better was how quickly the team came together. It was a point Thibault touched upon, as every player embraced her role, regardless of what it was, and defense and rebounding became paramount in the Americans' roll to the podium.

"It really was just a fun trip," Bird said. "And it was sort of the year to beat the U.S. That's what everybody was saying. So for us to go out and take care of business and then to win gold and the fashion that we did, you couldn't ask for a better Olympics."

Asked if this Olympics was more rewarding because she played a bigger part in winning it, the UConn alum said, "No, not at all. It doesn't matter how many minutes you play or how much you win by. What matters is if you have a gold medal around your neck at the end. I felt the same way this time when the national anthem was playing as I did in Greece."

That's all for now. I'll have more tomorrow on the Sun's first game back against Indiana, the first of three in four days. Connecticut plays at Atlanta on Friday before returning home to host the Storm on Sunday.

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