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.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sun in the sun

Greetings from Colchester (my home). I would much rather be where the Sun are at the moment.

Connecticut practiced for the second straight day today in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where they've been since Sunday on their quasi-annual pre-playoffs retreat. (By the coaches' count, this is the third or fourth time they've been down there, as they didn't have the time before last year's postseason.) Their days have included two-hour practices that coach Mike Thibault described as "full-out" and have included scrimmaging teams of men in preparation for Thursday's playoff opener against New York at Madison Square Garden (7 p.m., NBA TV/MSG).

But trekking all the way to Myrtle Beach wasn't just about practice. The team uses the get-away as a time to bond. They had Sunday off and Monday to themselves outside of practice, where several players either went to the beach, relaxed or got dinner in small groups; a team dinner was planned for tonight. They'll also participate in a team bowling tournament and are conducting a Secret Santa gift give-away.

And they're playing their cards close to their chest.

"Oh, I’m not saying who I have," Thibault said by phone.

"We come down here every year," Asjha Jones said. "But this is the first time for this group, so that’s kind of interesting. Only three of us know our way around, so we’re kind of like tour guides. ... When you play on a team, you always get the surface stuff, but you don’t always get the deep stuff. So this is kind of our opportunity to do that while we’re away."

As for real basketball news, here's some key points:

(1) Lindsay Whalen (sprained right ankle) and Jamie Carey (turf toe) practiced Tuesday, their first full session this week. Carey re-aggravated her injury, however, and will be re-evaluated leading up to Thursday's game. The team practices again Wednesday before flying that night to New York, where they'll have a shootaround Thursday morning.

As for Whalen, who's a definite for Thursday, here's how she described her last few days: "I went through some stuff today, which is good. I’m not able to do everything, but I was able to go and play and run through some plays, did some shooting. We had Sunday off so I didn’t do anything besides my biking and my cardio. (Monday), I shot and did some stuff. It’s been good, it’s been fun. We’ve had nice weather."

Asked of how frustrating the injury is, considering it's the second post-season in four years in which an ankle injury has limited her, she said, "Yeah, I think it’s a little frustrating. But I’m worried about getting better and doing what I have to do help us win. It’s tough, but that’s the way it goes. Things happen. You step on someone’s foot, and you can’t really prepare for that. It’s kind of something that happened and we do the best we can. Right now, I’m just excited to play on Thursday. I’m fortunate enough to have had time to let it heal enough where I can play and just be as effective as I’ve been."

Thibault said the swelling has gone done considerable after Whalen was given six days to rest, but the team will go day by day as far as involving her in practices between games. It's very unlikely Whalen will miss any game time going forward, barring further injury, but if the ankle needs time, it's conceivable she'll sit out certain practices.

Jones has also returned to practice after sitting out Saturday's regular-season finale, but that was mainly to avoid the possibility of injury and to give the forward some rest.

"For me, I’m never taking time off again," Jones said, laughing. "I feel worse after time off. I don’t know how much of a break I’m going to be taking in the future. It just takes a little bit to get your legs back. But for me, it was probably more mental because at the end of the season last year I got injured. So for me, I wanted to make sure nothing was going to happen to me at the end of the season."

(2) I talk about this in length in tomorrow's story that's running in the print edition, but aside from the Sun's five rookies, they have little concern over a perceived lack of playoff experience. Every other player has logged some WNBA postseason time, ranging from the many (Tamika Whitmore is second all time with 40 playoff games while Whalen and Jones have been to two WNBA finals) to the few (Barbara Turner and Erin Phillips each have one postseason appearance to their credit).

Then there's Thibault. Since 1978, when he came on as a scout for the Los Angeles Lakers, he's spent a professional basketball season out of the playoffs only three times: the 1982-83, 83-84 seasons as an assistant and director of scouting for the rebuilding Chicago Bulls, and 2001-02 when he was an assistant under George Karl with the Milwaukee Bucks. He remedied the first "drought" by helping find Michael Jordan. The Bucks, meanwhile, went to the playoffs the next season, and then Thibault signed on with Sun, who he's led to six straight playoff appearances starting in 2003. Only Detroit and Sacramento have done the same.

"I always expect to be in the playoffs," Thibault said. "Every year, I don’t know what I would feel like if we weren’t. It’s a little bit of an unknown. We’ve gone from being underrated to now (being) considered … I don’t know what we’re considered. Better maybe. I don’t know if we’re a favorite in all this. I doubt that. I think there are still doubters out there because of our youth. But our players are confident."

The veterans haven't given any grandiose speeches to the rookies, either. Whitmore spoke briefly following Monday's practice about focusing in and not letting distractions get to you, but besides that, the team has gone about its business, trusting the rookies will do the jobs they've done all season.

"There’s only so much you can say," Jones said. "I think we’re more of a team of going out and not about talking. Now it’s about in practice, how hard we go, and executing every possession. We’re doing that as a team right now."

(3) I touched upon this in past blog posts, but Jones, who tied the franchise record for scoring average this season with 17 points per game, was asked if she feels she's get the acknowledgment from her peers and the league that she's become an elite player in the WNBA. It's been a point of contention for Thibault, who routinely has said she and Whalen don't always get that respect from officials.

Jones, though, looks at it from a different angle.

"I think for the people who count, I think so," she said, though that's not to say she thinks officials don't count. "I think it’s showed in games. In the games in past seasons, I could go out there and hit wide open shots here or there. Another player on my team could penetrate and I could be there for wide open shots. But now, I have to work for everything I get. There are no gimmes. And I think right there is a tell-tale that people around the league know that I’m a very good player, and I think with the people count, I think so. They know I’m a good player and they have to focus on me in every game."

(4) Tomorrow, I'll post preview capsules for both the Eastern and Western conference match-ups, but the league held a conference call today with ESPN analysts Carolyn Peck and Nancy Lieberman. They both picked San Antonio and Detroit to go to the finals, and admonished Los Angeles for not finding a suitable point guard (which was the main reason they underachieved and will enter the playoffs as the No. 3 seed).

But outside that Seattle-L.A. series, they both referred to the Sun-Liberty match-up as perhaps the most intriguing, with Peck calling it "very interesting" and Lieberman referring to as a "pick-it" matchup.

"Both those teams have the capability of scoring points against Detroit's defense," Peck said. (That's assuming Detroit advances past Indiana, which everyone and their dog is assuming.) "I think the finals of the East will go a full three games and Detroit will be in there. Whether that will be Connecticut or New York, I can't call that one."

Lieberman said she thinks "it's Detroit's to lose." (A disclaimer here: Lieberman played a game with the Shock this season.) As for the Liberty and Sun, she said it's "New York's 3-point shooting against Whalen and Asjha Jones. Can Connecticut's young people step up in pressure situations? We're going to find out with you, by the way. We don't know. But New York has been down this road before, they're tough."

I'll be writing well into the early morning, so check back here later tonight for a more in-depth look at New York, its matchup with Connecticut and key points to watch along with a few more notes surrounding the series. Or you can go to bed and check in the morning. Whatever strikes you.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Western Conference playoff schedule released

Here's the schedule for first round of the Western Conferenc playoffs. Like the East, the series will play on staggered days.

(1) San Antonio vs. (4) Sacramento
Game 1: Thursday San Antonio at Sacramento 6 p.m., ET (ESPN2)
Game 2: Saturday Sacramento at San Antonio 8 p.m., ET (NBA TV)
Game 3*: Monday, Sept. 22 Sacramento at San Antonio TBD

(2) Seattle vs. (3) Los Angeles
Game 1: Friday Seattle at Los Angeles 7:30 p.m., ET (NBA TV)
Game 2: Sunday Los Angeles at Seattle 2:00 p.m., ET (ESPN2)
Game 3*: Tuesday, Sept. 23 Los Angeles at Seattle 6 p.m., ET (ESPN2)

* If necessary

Sutton-Brown, Wauters honored

Indiana's Tammy Sutton-Brown and San Antonio's Ann Wauters on Monday were named Eastern and Western Conference Player of the Week, respectively. Here's the link.

MVP ... and more

I touched upon the MVP race in today's story, mostly focusing on the prospects of Lindsay Whalen and Asjha Jones' winnings against the four other perceived candidates (Sophia Young, Becky Hammon, Sue Bird and Candace Parker). But I saved my opinions and projections for here.

Though, before I get to that, there is more to the story today than I couldn't squeeze into the 30-plus inches that ran in the newspaper. This year's MVP race really is unlike one this league has ever seen. Between the number of candidates and who they actually are, it's a sign of growth in the league that the award has moved from who can score the most points to who truly is the most valuable to a team's success. (And how far it's moved that way will ultimately be decided by who wins.)

"You talk about impact players in a different kind of way," Sun coach Mike Thibault said. "None of (the candidates) are going to lead the league in scoring (outside Parker), but their teams absolutely need them for what they're going to do."

Perhaps most interestingly, three point guards (Whalen, Bird and Hammon) are in the mix, an unprecedented development that Thibault said, "says something about the evolution of the league."

"It's more of a recognition of the impact point guards have on the league in general and their teams," he continued. (For the record, Thibault has always put a heavy premium on point guards, and knew he had a great one in Whalen the first time he saw her. But more on that later.)

"All the point guards we're talking about in this discussion all have different strengths and skills, too," Thibault continued. "Lindsay's the best rebounder and the most physical. Sue's maybe the best passer in transition. Becky may be the best 3-point shooter. They're all different. But all three of them have worked to become great players."

Whalen and Jones' inclusion, meanwhile, shows a sign of respect for two players who have largely flown under the league's radar. Thibault has said on more than one occasion they don't get the respect from officials that other stars in the league do, but after the season they've had, the league would be hard-pressed not to award them in some way (i.e. All-WNBA status).

The pair, though long difference-makers for the Sun, has also grown a lot this year, from the beginning of the season when they were designated as the franchise players to now, where without a doubt, they've earned that title and more. And the Sun coaching staff has seen this for a while. Thibault perhaps scouted no player prior to the 2004 season more than Whalen, who the first time he saw her practice, knew she could be an impact player. He also had to sweat out the NCAA tournament when Whalen carried Minnesota to an unexpected Final Four run, all but sky-rocketing her up draft boards and, perhaps, out of the Sun's reach. That's what prompted the Sun to trade up, ultimately dealing away a current All-Star in Pee Wee Johnson for a future one. (A note: The Sun were faced with a similar position last year when they loved Armintie Price but watched her play her way up the draft board and out of their reach in the NCAA tournament. The Sun settled for Kamesha Hairston, which turned into a miss on their part.)

Jones, meanwhile, played two decent years in Washington before the Sun traded for her prior to that 2004 season. Thibault talked extensively with UConn coach Geno Auriemma, among others, before making the deal to get a better feel for Jones' potential.

"And he (Auriemma) said she could be the best of this group ever," Thibault said, referring to UConn's senior class that year, that without a doubt, is the best to ever come through that program and perhaps college basketball. "And he's been right about that. She's been everything that I hoped for."

Think about it: The players to come out of UConn in 2002 were all great and all went within the top six picks (Bird at No. 1, Swin Cash at No. 2, Jones at No. 4 and Tamika (Williams) Raymond at No. 6). Raymond has remained a great leader and an invaluable part of this Sun team, but scoring and rebounding-wise, Jones has developed into the more dangerous player. Before her knee injury four years back, Cash was one of the league's best forwards, but injuries and their wear-and-tear have reduced her from great to good. Bird remains one of the league's elite point guards and has a better chance of winning the MVP than Jones, but number-for-number, Jones is the bigger producer. It simply took Jones longer to develop than the other three.

As for the MVP race, Thibault is admittedly biased and choosing a team MVP is all but impossible (I'm guessing they'll go with co-MVPs). But Whalen does stand out for him on the league's landscape.

"I just think that the one thing for Lindsay that stands out more than other players in the league is you have a point guard who is averaging close to six rebounds a game and is leading the league in assists," he said. "I just think that's huge. It might not be Magic Johnson in L.A., but in a 40-minute game as opposed to 48, those are big numbers. I think that's a plus."

As for my picks, the season is not officially over yet (Sacramento and Houston finish things tonight at Texas State University, thanks to Hurricane Ike). But I'm going to jump the gun a little bit and lay out who I feel will take home the season's major awards. They won't officially be announced until during the playoffs, but these are honors based solely on regular-season play, and if given more time, I've always felt professional leagues should hand these out before the postseason if they truly don't take into account playoff performances. Usually they don't, but it's hard to give an award to somebody when their team has already been knocked out of the playoffs, sometimes by the next closest candidate. (I think back to last year even, when, as a Sox fan, I believe Josh Beckett should have won the Cy Young over C.C. Sabathia based on the regular season. Beckett than proved most Sox fans right, providing the big blow in eliminating Sabathia, who won the award, and Cleveland.)

Nevertheless, I'm going to save MVP for last because it may be the most complicated and hotly debated of any of the awards. Without further ado ...

Rookie of the Year: Candace Parker, LAS
Other candidates: Candice Wiggins, MIN; Sylvia Fowles, CHI.
Explanation: There really is no discussion here. Parker may have dissenters when it comes to her winning MVP, but between her numbers (18.5 points, a league-leading 9.5 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 52.3 shooting percentage) and the fact that she's lived up to all her hype, she's had this year's top rookie season and perhaps the best of all time.

All-Rookie team:
G Matee Ajavon, HOU
G Wiggins
C Fowles
F Parker
F Nicky Anosike, MIN
Explanation: Wiggins and Parker are locks. Fowles missed essentially half a season with a knee injury, but her performances in the games she did play in proved she's the impact player Chicago needed. Ajavon has been a spark-plug for Houston all year and one of the league's best reserves, period. Anosike is rostered as a center, but I give her the nod at forward over teammate Charde Houston because she has been more consistent and a better rebounder.

Coach of the Year
: Mike Thibault, CON
Other candidates: Dan Hughes, SASS; Bill Laimbeer, DET
Explanation: Considering all the changes the Sun underwent and the extremely low expectations everyone set out for them, I think there's no question Thibault is Coach of the Year. The Sun led the East for large portions of the year, and even though they fell into second in the end, it's the body of work that counts more than the finish in this case. Hughes, of course, gets a nod for coaching the best team in the league, though he returned a lot from last year's team (which he wont last year's award for) and added Ann Wauters. Laimbeer deserves a lot of credit for Detroit once again rising to the top of the East despite some youth, and continuing to forge on even after the brawl with L.A. and losing Cheryl Ford. He, like Thibault, gets big points for all the personnel moves he made as much as his on-the-court work.

Sportsmanship Award: Kara Lawson, SAC
Explanation: This award always seems to be a crap-shoot (which is why I am not even putting other candidates). But it also depends on team success, and Lawson helped the overachieving Monarchs reach the playoffs while being a class act once again. She also gets points for her devotion to the Olympic team, which picked her largely because of her commitment there and prospered because of it.

Sixth Player of the Year: Candice Wiggins, MIN
Other candidates: Plenette Pierson, DET; Barbara Turner, CON
Explanation: Wiggins made just one start this year, and was clearly the best scoring reserve in the league at 15.7 points per game. She also added 3.2 rebounds and 3.0 assists a game, both respectable totals, but unfortunately will likely undergo knee surgery in the offseason. Pierson (11.9 points per game) was again a difference-maker for Detroit, as was Turner (8.0 ppg, a team-best 44 3-pointers), especially from the outside.

Most Improved Player: Ebony Hoffman, IND
Other candidates: Le'Coe Willingham, PHO; Barbara Turner, CON; Shameka Christon, NYL; Jia Perkins, CHI; Ivory Latta, ATL
Explanation: Outside of the MVP race, this award may have included the most candidates. Turner transformed herself into a deep threat and one of the league's best reserves, while Christon and Perkins both elevated themselves into two of the league's top scorers after several years of steady improvement. Latta, meanwhile, finally got the opportunity for significant minutes and proved a legitimate scorer (11.4 points per game) in her second year, albeit on the worst team in the league.

But I really felt this award came down between Hoffman and Willingham. Indiana needed Hoffman to be a major contributor with the departure of Tamika Whitmore and the absence of Tamika Catchings early on, and she responded. She more than doubled her scoring average from last year (10.4 from 4.2) and nearly did the same in rebounding (7.8 from 4.0). As importantly, two years after being a full-time starter, she's never played more minutes or shot better.

Willingham, meanwhile, took a contract and the opportunity to start with Phoenix and ran with it. She never averaged more than 3.0 points or 2.8 rebounds in her first four years as a reserve with the Sun and never in the same season. But this summer, she averaged career-highs of 10.1 points and 5.9 rebounds, started 27 games and was sixth in the league in shooting (57 percent). I give Hoffman the nod over her, though, because of team success and Hoffman's hand in lifting Indiana into the postseason.

Defensive Player of the Year: Lisa Leslie, LAS
Other candidates: Candace Parker, LAS; Janel McCarville, SAC
Explanation: Leslie has been the league's biggest defensive force in the paint this year, averaging a WNBA-best 2.94 blocks per game and doing so while remaining one of the league's top scoring threats as well. It's gone largely unheralded, but her ability to come back this year after giving birth to a child and remain one of the elite players in the league is amazing. This is an easy choice. Parker, because of her numbers, gets a nod, while McCarville has been able to guard a number of frontcourt players with different abilities and has good numbers to show for it.

All-Defensive Teams:
First Team:
F McCarville
F Parker
C Leslie
G Jia Perkins, CHI
G Tully Bevilaqua, IND

Second Team:
F Tamika Catchings, IND
F Sophia Young, SASS
C Lauren Jackson, SEA
G Deanna Nolan, DET
G Ticha Penicheiro, SAC

All-WNBA First Team:
F Seimone Augustus, MIN
F Sophia Young, SASS
C Candace Parker, LAS
G Diana Taurasi, PHO
G Lindsay Whalen, CON

All-WNBA Second Team:
F Asjha Jones, CON
F Tina Thompson, HOU
C Lisa Leslie, LAS
G Sue Bird, SEA
G Becky Hammon, SASS

Explanation: These are slightly unorthodox teams I have here, as Parker isn't a normal center (but can be), nor is Bird a two-guard (though I think she can qualify here). But this, as always, was very difficult to choose. Taurasi hasn't been in the MVP discussion because of Phoenix's poor record, but when you lead the league in scoring and do as much as she does, you're a first-teamer. Perhaps this shows my opinion of where Whalen stands in the MVP race with Bird and Hammon, as well.

I didn't include Jackson, though she had the numbers and played great this season, because she missed too much time. Between her surgery and taking time to practice with the Australian Olympic team, she played in just 21 games this season. That's too few to make it over players like Jones or Thompson, who can make this team every year.

Other notable absences include any Detroit Shock players. That team has flown so far under the radar, I don't think people even realize how solid Deanna Nolan and Katie Smith have been again this year. But Detroit is so deep, they don't have the numbers to warrant spots.

MVP: Sophia Young, SASS
Other candidates, in descending order: Lindsay Whalen, CON; Sue Bird, SEA; Becky Hammon, SASS; Candace Parker, LAS; Lisa Leslie, LAS; Asjha Jones, LAS; Diana Taurasi, CON
Explanation: Part of this is who I think should be MVP and who I think will be voted in. Sometimes they can be too separate things, but I feel Young is the pick here because she has been so consistent, she has the numbers (17.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 47.8 percent shooting) and San Antonio finished the season strong compared to other candidates' teams, namely Whalen and Connecticut.

If Whalen hadn't gotten injured, she, in my mind, would have to be MVP. She was the most important player on her team (even though it won games with her out) and she has had an all-around season unlike any other player. Plus, I feel, hands down, she is the most talented guard in the league, just with what she's able to do on the court and the control she has over games. But Young is arguably the best player on the best team and her versatility makes San Antonio so difficult to play against. Young, more than anything, may be the "safe pick" for this award, and in a year where there's no clear favorite, a lot of people will most likely learn her way.

As always, I welcome any comments, criticisms and suggestions, especially if you feel strongly one or another about any of these picks.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Sun-Mystics Game Thread

Final, Sun win, 87-81: Barbara Turner (13 fourth-quarter points) and Tamika Whitmore (13-second half points) simply willed the Sun past the feisty Mystics. Erin Phillips, who didn't play in the fourth quarter, finished with 18 points and a career-high eight rebounds. The victory ends the Sun's three-game losing streak. Washington, meanwhile, finishes its disappointing season with its eighth straight defeat.

End of 3rd quarter, Mystics lead, 58-56: The Sun fell behind by as many as 11 before tying it up on a 14-3 run midway through the quarter. Erin Phillips (18 points) is one point away from tying her career high and has looked great running the team. Unfortunately, the Sun have missed a few open 3s and jumpers, robbing her of a handful more of assists.

End of 2nd quarter, Mystics lead, 41-35: Things have calmed down a bit, especially on the offensive end for the Sun, who managed just 12 points that quarter. But there were some notable developments: Danielle Page, who had seen all of six minutes this year, started the frame and hit back-to-back jumpers midway through the quarter. Ketia Swanier also saw time but drew the ire of coach Mike Thibault when, on a fastbreak, she tried a behind-the-back pass that was easily intercepted by Washington's Coco Miller.

Erin Phillips, who was being stretched out on the sideline by Sun trainer Jeremy Norman, leads the Sun with 12 points, all coming in the first quarter. Monique Currie has 11 to lead Washington, which also got 10 from rookie Crystal Langhorne. A lot of fouls in this game, by the way; each team has had 12 charged against it and two Sun players (Page and Tamika Whitmore) already have three. Washington's Tasha Humphrey and Nakia Sanford each have three as well. The Sun, by the way, are shooting 36.1 percent.

End of 1st quarter, Sun lead 23-20: Don't tell these teams this game doesn't matter. So far, the contest has had a surprisingly frenetic and physical feel. Both teams were in the bonus and it really feels like a a playoff atmosphere. Also, the Sun are riding some unexpectedly hot hands. Erin Phillips has already set a season high with 12 points, as has Tamika Raymond (with nine), and the two make up 21 of their team's 23 points. Svetlana Abrosimova has the other basket.