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.

No comments: