Tuesday, September 23, 2008

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.

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