Monday, September 1, 2008

Sun's lead grows, thanks to surging Sky

With Chicago's 82-81 win over Detroit Sunday, the Sun are firmly in the driver's seat of the Eastern Conference playoff race. They lead the second-place Shock by two games (if you're reading this on Sunday night, the link might not be updated as of yet) with five games to play. Mathematically, New York (3.0 games back with seven to play) and Indiana (5.5 back with six to play) aren't out of the race for the top seed in the East, either.

But I'll say this: The Sun look like a championship team. With the additions of Svetlana Abrosimova and Erin Phillips, they've become one of the deepest teams in the league, and the break has seemingly done wonders for some of the Sun's younger players, most notably Amber Holt (11-for-17, 10.7 points per game since the break) and Kerri Gardin (10-for-12, 10 points per game).

I'll have more on both rookies in my follow-up on Tuesday, but they're noticeably more confident and aggressive since we last saw them in July. (Before Sunday's 0-for-5 performance, Sandrine Gruda had also come back from break strong.)

"Kerri has shot the ball better since we came back from the break," said Sun coach Mike Thibault, whose team has won a season-high six straight games. "Amber has been more aggressive on both ends of the floor. They’re not acting like rookies anymore. They’re acting like veteran players, and they’ve played three days in a row like that. I’m thrilled."

Said Gardin: "I had time to think and just get a feel for everything we’re doing here, getting up extra shots and just working hard, doing that every day. I think that’s given me a lot of confidence."

If both can continue to play at this level, the Sun can confidently roll out lineups of Lindsay Whalen, Holt, Gardin, Asjha Jones and Tamika Whitmore and then, off the bench, Jamie Carey or Erin Phillips, Barbara Turner, Svetlana Abrosimova, Tamika Raymond and Gruda. That's pretty impressive.

"And if somebody else is struggling, Svet (or) Barb come in and do their thing," Thibault said. "We had a couple people struggle (Sunday) but by the time we get to the playoffs, I think they’ll have a rhythm for each other. We have a week to practice until Friday. I think that will help. But the depth is a huge key for us."

As for some reaction from Sunday:

(1) As far as clutch performances go, Carey's ranks right up there from Sunday. With Whalen sidelined, the 5-foot-6 scored 12 points in 32 minutes, hitting the game-winning jumper with two minutes to play and then the game-sealing free throws with two seconds remaining. For good measure, she stole Seattle's ensuing inbounds pass to end the game.

Carey is having her best season as a pro, but this performance was even more impressive considering Carey hadn't played more than 25 minutes just once this year and scored in double figures three times. Yet, the Sun didn't skip a beat even with the leading candidate for league MVP on the bench.

"I think I’ve grown a lot (this season), just in feeling confidence in myself and knowing that others have confidence in me to take shots, whether it’s a 3 or a 2," Carey said. "He (Thibault) has told me all year that if I’m behind the 3-point line and open, to take it no matter where we are in the offense. To have that kind of confidence in your coaches really is nice."

Jones, who led the Sun with 20 points (her 25th game in double figures this season), called Carey "scrappy" but said one of her best traits is her basketball IQ. (For the record, Carey, who attended Stanford and Texas, is pretty smart off the court, too.)

"She’s highly intelligent," Jones said. "She’s that pure point guard that you need on the floor. She runs the team, she knows what we need, she knows what our advantages are in every set, what we’re looking for. She goes out there and just tries to really get us moving and make us go, not necessarily looking for her own offense but she makes the team better getting the ball where it needs to be."

The game-winning jumper was actually a play specifically designed for Carey, the same player who had to be prodded earlier this season to shoot when she's open. She did Sunday.

"Jamie stepped up big time," Thibault said.

(2) As far as debuts go, Svetlana Abrosimova’s was exactly what the Connecticut Sun wanted.

Donning No. 25, Abrosimova was solid in her first action with the first-place Sun Sunday, notching four points and three rebounds in 14 minutes to help lead them past the Seattle Storm, 80-76.

The former Husky received several boisterous cheers from the crowd throughout the game, and received the same praise back in the team locker room.

“It was great,” Thibault said. “I thought when she first came into the game, she gave us a big lift. She got stuck in a group that was struggling a little bit against (Seattle’s) zone the second time she was in, but I think our team will have a lot of faith in her. Her experience will really help us and I think it will really help our young players, just going against her everyday, too.”

Abrosimova entered the game having practiced with the Sun just once on Saturday — during a walk-through, no less — but checked in with 2 minutes, 20 seconds to play in the first quarter and hit her first jumper roughly two minutes later. Sought after by Thibault since April, she signed a contract on Wednesday.

“(I’m) just trying to be comfortable with the whole offensive system,” the 6-foot-2 forward said. “We have three or four days of practices (before Friday’s game against Chicago), so it should be good for me.”

(3) Even though Seattle was missing Lauren Jackson, Sunday's win doesn't get an asterisk. Sue Bird (24 points) and Swin Cash (16) played extremely well and Seattle, first place in the West before the game, has been the league's best defensive team this year, as far as points allowed.

"I think it’s just a matter of confidence for us," Jones said. "When we got out to big leads in the other games, it’s easy to play once we get our lead, but (Sunday) we had to fight the entire game. We didn’t fold at any point. It just showed the level of maturity of our team. We have a lot of young players and a lot of new players, and to hold them off and come up with the win really helped us."

A key, Jones said, has been the coaching staff's move to take the focus off of the Sun's opponents and put more on the Sun themselves.

"It’s not like we’re meaning any disrespect to anybody, but worrying about another team does isn’t necessarily going to win us a championship," Whitmore said. "We have to do what we have to do on the court all the time, and almost have to be perfect to win it. We still need to tighten up a few things here or there. But we have to be a little selfish and worry about the Connecticut Sun and not everybody else.

"Coach came back, he’s got that playoff switch on full throttle," she added. "He’s been on our butts since he came back and we’re responding to it."

(4) Friday's matchup with Chicago, which has won its first three games out of the break, is suddenly shaping up to be a pretty pivotal game in the playoff race. Sylvia Fowles has played a big part in that.

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