Wednesday, September 17, 2008

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.

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